Suspense in your writing

I’m a non-fiction writer. Yet I love to read fiction—mystery, suspense, and thriller are among my favourite genres. I’m not alone in this, judging from how many bestselling books fall into these categories. Suspense is a technique that TV and movie producers unashamedly use to keep you watching. 

Have you thought about how you can use suspense even in the shortest of non-fiction writing? For example, here is a question I answered in a recent prayer letter:

When will you next be in Australia? This is something people are asking us, but we have no answer—primarily because of the stage our boys are in. Our middle son finishes high school in June 2021 and our youngest in June 2023 (Lord willing). Our preference will be to have them in a stable schooling environment until the end of high school, so we are not planning, at this point, to have another long home assignment until mid-2023.

I could have started my answer with, “Mid 2023.” However, by saying we have no answer and then giving an explanation, I was hopefully able to keep our readers interested for a bit longer. Prayer letters don’t have to be dry and boring; we can write them in ways that make them a pleasure to read.

Sol Stein, an editor of numerous bestselling books, gives several ways that you can add suspense into your writing, whether fiction or non-fiction:

  • Withhold a piece of information early on and provide it later.
  • Set up a question or controversy and not resolve it straight away.
  • Describe an action without explaining it in the same paragraph.
  • Convert a sentence to a question to arouse curiosity, rather than satisfy it.1

Sometimes it’s good to hold back and make our readers wait a while before they find out the answers to their questions. Could you use a little bit of suspense or tension in your next prayer letter or sermon? In life, we prefer an absence of tension or conflict, but in reading or at the movies, they are enjoyable. As writers, we will do well not to bore our readers (or listeners), and using a technique like suspense can inject spice into our writing.

  1. Sol Stein, Stein on Writing (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995), 237.

Image: “Suspense” by Flickr user Hartmut

Wendy Marshall is the managing editor of Japan Harvest. She’s learnt most of what she knows about writing from her international critique group, Truth Talk. She’s Australian and works with OMF International.

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