(To survey other elements and author quotes, visit the Elements of Fiction home page)

“Suspense—the only literary tool that has any effect upon tyrants and savages.” E.M. Forster

“When writing is successful, the reader senses that the climax is coming and feels a strung urge to skip to it directly, but cannot quite tear himself from the paragraph he’s on.” John Gardner

“Suspense is made up of curiosity and delay.” Philip Gerard

“When you set up a line of suspense, ask yourself: Is there any reason why anyone should be interested in this conflict? Are these values important enough to worry about?” Ayn Rand

“Two rules for suspense might be put this way: ‘Don’t answer suspenseful questions too soon’ and ‘Make sure to eventually satisfy the curiosity you’ve aroused.” Madison Smartt Bell

“An episode that will increase suspense by retarding the action must be so constructed that it will not fill the present entirely, will not put the crisis, whose resolution is being awaited, entirely out of the reader’s mind, and thereby destroy the mood of suspense; the crisis and the suspense must continue, must remain vibrant in the background.” Erich Auerbach

“In serious fiction, the highest kind of suspense involves the Sartrian anguish of choice; that is, our suspenseful concern is not just with what will happen but with the moral implications of action. Given two possible choices, each based on some approvable goal, we worry, as we read, over which choice the character will make and, given the nature of reality, what the results will be.” John Gardner

“All true suspense, we have said, is a dramatic representation of the anguish of moral choice.” John Gardner

“Suspenseful delay is enjoyable, but even when distractions enrich the meaning of the climax about to come, we are not such fools as to miss the fact that we are being led, a little like donkeys. If the reader is not to wake from the fictional dream, it can be useful to anticipate the reader’s feeling and channel it back into the story.” John Gardner

“When the central character is a victim, not someone who does but someone who’s done to, there can be no real suspense.” John Gardner

“In the final analysis, real suspense comes with moral dilemma and the courage to make and act upon choices.” John Gardner

“Suspense, rightly understood, is a serious business: one presents the moral problem—the character’s admirable or unadmirable intent and the pressures of situation working for and against him (what other characters in the fiction feel and need, what imperatives nature and custom urge)—and rather than moving at once to the effect, one tortures the reader with alternative possibilities, translating to metaphor the alternatives the writer has himself considered. Superficially, the delay makes the decision—the climactic action—more thrilling; but essentially the delay makes the decision philosophically significant.” John Gardner

“Your job is to avoid rescuing the hero as long as possible. You leave him hanging.” Sol Stein

“Suspense builds when the reader wants something to happen and it isn’t happening yet.” Sol Stein

“The writer’s duty is to set up something that cries for a resolution and then to act irresponsibly, to dance away from the reader’s problem, dealing with other things, prolonging and exacerbating the reader’s desperate need for resolution.” Sol Stein

“The emotions of the reader are affected by suspense more than by any other factor.” Sol Stein

“I cannot overemphasize the importance of architectural suspense.” Sol Stein

“Closely allied with the issue of plot, as an attribute of it, is the issue of suspense. If you cannot put down a novel, or if you sit on the edge of your theater seat, that is your emotional reaction to the fact that the story has suspense.” Ayn Rand

“In a suspenseful story, the events are constructed in such a manner that the reader has reason to wonder about the outcome.” Ayn Rand

“If you want to hold your readers, give them something to worry about.” Ayn Rand

“The element of surprise or mystery—the detective element as it is sometimes rather emptily called—is of great importance the plot. It occurs through a suspension of the time-sequence; a mystery is a pocket in time, and it occurs crudely, as in ‘Why did the queen die?’ and more subtly in half-explained gestures and words, the true meaning of which only dawns pages ahead. . . .  To appreciate a mystery, part of the mind must be left behind, brooding, while the other part goes marching on.” E.M. Forster

“Many books derive their suspense from the reader’s anticipation of convergence: the sense that all these disparate characters, scenes, and themes will come together in an interesting way later in the book. . . . we assume there must be a logical connection—they are in the same book aren’t they?” Philip Gerard

“Suspense is made up of a crucial question and the delay in answering that question.” Philip Gerard

“Suspense depends on at least a short-term memory of the events in their order.” Philip Gerard