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Suspense in Literature: Definition & Examples

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  • 0:01 Structure of a Story
  • 0:59 Suspense in Literature
  • 3:26 Suspense in Movies
  • 4:07 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Angela Janovsky

Angela has taught middle and high school English, Social Studies, and Science for seven years. She has a bachelor's degree in psychology and has earned her teaching license.

In this lesson, you will discover the importance of suspense in creating a captivating story. You will learn several techniques authors use to create suspense and review examples.

Structure of a Story

Most stories are set up in exactly the same way. The novel opens with scenes designed to describe the setting and the characters. The reader must be able to understand the characters, their personalities and their motives. Then the story moves into the rising action: the part where the plot thickens. If the author has done his job, the reader is so intrigued with what will happen to the characters, that he can in no way stop reading.

The author builds more and more suspense to keep the reader's interest. Suspense is a feeling of anxiety or anticipation. In literature, authors use that anxiety to make readers concerned about characters with whom they have formed sympathetic attachments. In this way, authors can create scenarios that force readers to continue in order to understand or see what may happen to their beloved characters.

Suspense in Literature

Suspense ensures the reader will have enough interest to continue reading throughout the piece. If the author has done his job, suspense will continue to increase up until the climax, or the final confrontation and turning point. There are many techniques authors can use to create this build up of suspense.

For example, in Edgar Rice Burroughs' novel Tarzan of the Apes, suspense is built through verbal cues. In the novel, the jungle man Tarzan falls in love with Jane. Then Jane is carried off by a brutal gorilla. Jane then asks: 'How can any vanquish such a mighty antagonist?' This question implies to the reader how strong an opponent the gorilla is and what little chance Tarzan has of defeating him. In this way, suspense for Tarzan's life is created, thus pushing the reader to read on in order to see what might happen to Tarzan and Jane.

Another way an author can create suspense is using a form of dramatic irony. Dramatic irony occurs when the audience or reader knows something that the characters do not know. A great example of dramatic irony used to create suspense occurs in Shakespeare's play Othello. In this play, the malevolent Iago is jealous of Othello and determines to destroy him by convincing him his wife has been unfaithful. The audience knows Othello's wife is completely innocent and Iago is a liar, but Othello does not. Throughout the entire play, the audience cringes with dreadful anxiety because they know Othello is being fooled. This makes it impossible to stop watching, since you are eager to see if Othello falls into Iago's trap.

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