What Makes a Story Suspenseful? Hint: it's not the plot

This is something I've been thinking about a lot as I work on finishing up the rough draft of Stripped. Unlike the Bodyguard series, which was straight up romantic suspense, the Blue HEAT series is a little bit different. It leans more towards contemporary romance with elements of suspense. Are there guns and bad guys? You betcha. But the hero or heroine isn't in danger from the start of the book, and I've made the decision not to include the villian's POV in these books. But just because the suspense doesn't play as big a role in story doesn't mean that it's not just as important as the other threads, such as the individual character arcs, or the development of the romance between the hero and the heroine. So how can we develop suspense successfully, even if it isn't the main driving force of the story?

Developing suspense within a story is about questions. The author poses a question and the reader has to keep turning pages to find out the answer. At its heart, suspense is the distance between what the reader wants to know and what the reader knows already. Sometimes that distance is short--a question that's asked and answered within the same scene or chapter; or the distance can be long. For example, at the outset of a murder mystery, we know someone's been murdered, and the question of who did it and why won't be answered until the very end of the book, with many smaller questions along the way.

The suspense--the question that needs an answer--is dialed up when we factor in urgency. This is how badly the reader wants to know the information they don't know.

So the question, then, is how do we create that sense of urgency for the reader?

And this where I came to a realization. I'd always assumed suspense--building it and sustaining it--was about the plot. About the external events of the story. But after really thinking about what makes a story suspenseful, I've come to the conclusion that it's actually about the characters.

Let's break it down.

What the reader wants to know has nothing to do with the plot and everything to do with your protagonist. The reader has to care about the character and be invested in him/her getting what he/she wants in order to want to know in the first place. Good suspense requires strong character development.

Hook readers with a compelling character at the outset and then parcel out information on a need-to-know basis. Don't drown your readers in backstory, or tell them everything up front. Let them discover the story along with the character, bit by bit.

So we've got a compelling character, and we're creating distance between what the reader already knows and what the reader wants to know using small questions and big questions throughout the book. So how do we add in urgency, the magic fairy dust that can take a story from so-so to page-turning?

It's all about the stakes (which, again, are about the characters, not the external plot). Stakes are like oxygen for suspense, especially when applied to compelling, three-dimensional characters. Take something that matters and threaten it--and this works in just about any type of story, not just traditional suspense. For example, you could have a hero who's a single father who'll lose custody of his child if he can't get a new job within thirty days.

What the reader knows = he's a single dad. He loves his son, but he'll lose custody of him if he can't get a new job.

What the reader wants to know = how did he come to be a single dad? who's threatening his custody and why? And most importantly, will he be able to find a new job in time to keep custody of his son?

Stakes = his son matters more to him than anything in the world, and that relationship is being threatened.

But, none of that matters if we don't care about the single dad himself. Do we like him? Are we rooting for him? Do we care about him and the threat to his happiness?

Create compelling characters that readers can't help but care about and throw stakes at them--threaten the thing that matters most to them in the world. The suspense will blossom from there.