Writing Mistakes – Part II: Lack of Suspense

Welcome back to the writing mistakes series!

As you may remember, last week we were talking about a short story I had written. I was excited about it until I started to read it out loud. I then discovered a few obvious problems.

In this series, I am analyzing the story’s mistakes to demonstrate the importance of certain writing strategies, and hopefully to help others analyze their own work.

In the first post, we looked at a brief outline of the story and how it got off track by having multiple central questions. You can read that post here: Writing Mistakes- Part 1: Multiple Central Questions.

This week we are going to look at the second major problem: Lack of Suspense.

Lack of suspense:

When a story unfolds too linearly you’ve deflated all the tension from your story.

The Macro:

At the most basic level, most stories look something like this.

  • Character X has a problem
  • She tries to overcome it
  • She will either ultimately succeed or fail
  • In succeeding or failing the story is over

From what we’ve talked about so far we can see that the problem forms the question, and whether she succeeds or fails is the answer.

Great, but what about all that stuff in the middle?

That middle bit about how she tries to overcome her obstacles, the way problems keep stacking up, and what she has to put on the line to surpass them, is what is going to make your story interesting or boring.

The Micro

The basic structure of a story is repeated in an individual scene. Scenes should have goals, problems, and a solutions or failure. They should feature characters trying to overcome these obstacles, and just like in the overarching story, whether the scene is interesting or not is going to come down to the execution of that middle bit.

Whether we are talking about the overall story or a particular scene, if the reader knows immediately what will happen, they are most likely to be bored.

Story Example

In my short story I deflated the tension with on-the-nose dialogue, too few obstacles for the character to overcome, and telegraphed by indirectly stating what was going to happen before it happened. Every time a problem arose, it seemed too easy to find the solution, or it was obvious to the reader what would happen before they finished reading the scene.

Here is an example from the story. In this scene Bear and Hubble are looking for a new place to store cheese because Gween keeps locking himself inside the fridge:

“What we need is another place to store the cheese.”

Hubble stopped. He had never been to these particular bushes and he smelled something cool and just a bit musty behind him.

“Like where?” he asked digging a bit to get behind the shrubs.

“Some place cold enough it won’t go bad, but not so cold it will freeze the bird solid. It can’t be the house either. I don’t want drippy stinky cheese all over everything. But if it’s too far, who knows what might happen.” The bear sighed. “It’s going to be impossible. How are we ever going to find a place like that?”

It was a hole in the rock perhaps four feet high and almost as wide. Hubble dove behind the bush and trotted into the opening. The floor was cold and damp against his paws.

“How about here?” He called back. His voice echoed along the cavern.

“Hubble?” The bear said, and then her face appeared at the entrance, blocking out most of the light. “What is this? What are you doing in there?”

“I just found it! I think it’s a cave.”

“A cave…A cheese cave… I think that could work!”

What’s wrong

  • There are no obstacles between them thinking they need a place and finding one. He finds the cave before she is even done articulating the need.
  • Hubble’s description of the cave and Bear’s requirements match too directly so it’s like we’re getting beat over the head with why it is a good fit.
  • The dialogue is too on the nose, about the problem. This takes away the character voice and replaces it with the writer’s voice communicating facts to the reader.
  • There is a bit of artificial tension here when the bear thinks over whether the cave will actually work. We already know it will work, because it matches what she asked for exactly. It is actually worse than unsurprising; it’s frustrating, because she is being inexplicably dense.

Solution vs. the Journey

What you might notice in the example above is that it is not actually the solution that is boring. A cave is not an overly expected place to store cheese.

Where I went wrong was in the reveal. The first option they think of solves their problem and there was never any real doubt about whether or not it would work.

Adding to that, we haven’t had enough time to experience, and understand the stakes of the problem. We’ve lost any kind of attachment to the issue and the problem seems trivial because it was so easily surmounted.

So let’s look at some techniques I could have used to make this better.


Ways to add more surprise and tension

Red Herrings:

A common technique in mystery is to introduce red herrings. Red Herrings can be elements that appear to be clues but are not, or can be clues that appear to point to one thing but really indicate something entirely different. The latter is much preferable because it feels less like a trick when the real meaning is revealed.

You can broaden this definition to include things like preliminary solutions that don’t work out, misinformation, or even by having a character believe something that turns out to be false. Adding a few red herrings of the above kind can keep the reader guessing, but too many loose ends can be distracting.

In my story, no one suggests other options or potential issues with the cave. There are no false signals. It would have been better if Hubble had found someplace that met the bear’s expectations but was something ridiculous: like a wet shoe.

Try-Fail Cycles

Try-Fail Cycles describe a character’s pursuit of a goal.

A try-fail cycle goes something like this:

  • The character has a goal
  • He makes an attempt to reach it
  • He fails to achieve his goal,
  • He makes another attempt to reach it
  • He fails again
  • And on and on until he fails absolutely or ultimately succeeds

Try-fail cycles are used to keep a plot moving. These cycles put obstacles in the character’s way to challenge him, force him to grow, and keep the reader guessing. The idea is to make things worse and worse for your character, elevating the stakes until they are pushed to their limit.

There is a lot more detail in how to execute these properly that I don’t have time to go into here, but this article by Karen Woodward has a great explanation of the Yes-but/ no-And technique for Try-Fail Cycles on her website, that is definitely worth checking out: Parts of Story: Try-Fail Cycles: http://blog.karenwoodward.org/2014/04/parts-of-story-try-fail-cycles.html

In my scene you can see I did not incorporate a try-fail cycle. We go directly from try to succeed.


Another helpful technique is simple misdirection. If you know that a scene is going to end in a particular way, set everything up so that the reader is lead to believe it is going to go in the opposite direction. If you know they are going to fail, then really make it seem like they have a shot.

It’s amazing how effective even a few lines of misdirection can be at changing the reader’s perception of the scene. And the more you can keep them guessing the better.

You can see I did a half-hearted attempt at misdirection at the start of the scene with the bear, saying it would be impossible to find a place like she described. My mistake was that I have Hubble find a place before she says this, so we never believe that they might not succeed.

Why this can be so hard

The problem is you can’t always subvert the reader’s expectations. In many ways, you have to meet them or you will have a frustrated reader. You have to meet certain genre expectations about happily-ever-afters, or good conquering evil, or solving mysteries.

So the trick then is to find a way to give them what they want, an ending they might even expect, but a story that is somehow still surprising.

Surprising Yet Inevitable

This concept is often referred to as making something “Surprising-yet-inevitable,” which can be traced back to Aristotle’s Poetics.

“Plays which fail to exhibit the sequence of cause and effect are condemned (1) because they lack the unity which befits tragedy, 2) because they miss that supreme effect of fear or pity produced by incidents which, though unexpected, are seen to be no mere accident but the inevitable result of what has gone before.”


The idea is to come up with a resolution that makes logical sense once you reach the end of your story but is not anticipated by the reader before it happens.

Okay, that sounds pretty complicated. So how do I make something inevitable? Well usually through foreshadowing.

Telegraphing vs. Foreshadowing


In the context of writing, telegraphing means to signal to the reader what is going to happen before it happens. The problem with telegraphing is that it makes a story predictable and boring. When you telegraph you are killing the tension in your story.

Readers are smart. They do not need extra crutches stuck in by the writer to help them along in the story.

Except sometimes they do…


What is foreshadowing? Again another topic that could have its own post. Suffice it to say you are using foreshadowing any time you include items that are supposed to subconsciously clue the reader into later events, themes, or elements of a story.

I used to think of this as a very grand technique used only in literary stories, but writers use it rather prosaically as a way of laying the groundwork for what will happen.

For instance, before notable characters appear on the page, other characters will often mention them  as a way to clue you into their importance. If there is a character flaw that is the protagonist’s undoing, it must be present before the flaw undoes them. If the character uses a tool at the end of the story to defeat their problem, it must appear earlier in the story.

Without these precursors, your story veers into the unbelievable or disappointing.

So how do you find the balance?

I’m still working on it.

Obviously, when foreshadowing goes wrong all those careful hints slide into telegraphing and you’ve effectively bored your reader. Rachel Gardener has an excellent post about the difference between foreshadowing and Telegraphing on her blog that I recommend. Foreshadowing Vs Telegraphing: http://www.rachellegardner.com/foreshadowing-vs-telegraphing/ .

Take Aways

Finding the balance between a surprising and comprehensible story is something I continue to struggle with. It is far easier to say something needs to be surprising and inevitable than to actually accomplish that.

Now it’s worth noting that the story we are looking at is a first draft. I think it is natural to have some suspense issues in early drafts especially as you find your way towards your ending.

However, I think this concept is difficult enough that even with rewrites, it is something I at least need to focus more on because I quickly lose perspective.

I believe this is part of the reason many writers use beta readers. After a certain point, you go blind to the difference between what you know in your head vs. what is actually on paper. It may seem suspenseful to you, but someone reading it knew back on page one how it would end. Or maybe you think it’s obvious that the hero’s horse can fly, but through redrafting you’ve actually deleted all the signs that ever pointed in this direction, and when we get to the horse flying scene we are shocked and not in a good way.

In my last few stories I have been leaning far too hard on the telegraphing side of things, so I’m going to try to explicitly focus on the tools above to add some variety and complexity.

What do you guys think?

Does anyone else have strategies they use to add suspense or surprise? Any methods you use to tell whether your stories have become too obvious?

Thanks for stopping by!


Photo by Martino Pietropoli on Unsplash

2 thoughts on “Writing Mistakes – Part II: Lack of Suspense

  1. harrysmith4444 says:

    Making your tension and release match the reader’s expectations seems like a noble but difficult goal. These are some great techniques for that.

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