What Comes Next? Building Suspense and Avoiding Predictability

by | January 11, 2018 | Editing Corner | 8 comments

We all love stories. It’s in our genes. Humans have been spinning tales for thousands of years. From the sagas our ancestors told as they huddled around their campfires to the ebooks flying off today’s virtual shelves, stories satisfy some deep psychological need.

Sometimes we want a familiar story, even though we’ve heard it a million times before. We anticipate and then enjoy the expected conclusion, which reassures us that all is right in the world. Often, though, we follow a story because we want to know what comes next. Suspense and uncertainty produce a particular kind of excitement., a tension that is pleasurably released when the uncertainty is resolved. Suspense is what keeps readers turning pages long after their normal bedtimes. They don’t want to stop reading until they see how it all turns out.

In genre fiction such as romance or mystery, readers know the final shape the story will assume. The lovers will overcome the obstacles that confront them in order to be together. The guilty parties will be identified, the mechanisms of the crime will be explained and usually the perpetrators will be brought to justice. Part of the reason readers enjoy these genres is that they provide the same satisfying reassurance as a well-known fairy tale or myth. A book that labels itself as romance or mystery then fails to provide the expected pattern of resolution will likely arouse readers’ ire.

This does not mean that stories in these genres should be predictable. As the story progresses, a skillful writer will make the reader question how the expected ending could possibly come about. You’ll lose your reader’s attention if he or she stops wondering what happens next.

Unfortunately, I find that a significant percentage of the romance I read is far too predictable, at least for my tastes. By the time I’ve finished the first chapter or two, I know the general path the story will take. I can’t presume to speak for other readers, but this definitely diminishes my own enjoyment.

As an author of erotic romance, I struggle to add suspense to my own stories. It’s not always a conscious process, but when I sat down to write this post, I tried to analyze the strategies that I use, or have seen others use, to avoid predictability. I identified four techniques that can be helpful in this regard.

1. Withhold critical facts

Even if you’re a pantster rather than a plotter, you’ll generally know more about your characters and their background than you tell your readers. Often there are things in a character’s history that are critical to the plot. By holding back and not disclosing these facts right away, you can heighten the level of uncertainty and make the final resolution more surprising.

I found an example in my ménage story Wild About That Thing. Ruby Jones, the heroine, owns a struggling blues club that represents her life’s dream. As the story opens, she has received a letter from the lawyers for the new owner of her rented building, indicating that her lease will not be renewed and that she must vacate the premises. Her anxiety over her impending eviction colors her reactions to the two men who become her lovers.

Quite late in the tale, I reveal the fact that one of her lovers, Remy, is in fact the building owner. This serves two purposes in the narrative, emotional and practical. First, it adds a sudden obstacle to the relationship (since Ruby is rightfully upset that he had not told her sooner) and also allows the second man in the triangle, Zeke, to come to Remy’s defense. Second, it provides a plausible solution to the problem of Ruby’s eviction.

Keeping important details secret from your readers can be an effective way to add unpredictability, but it does carry the risk of appearing contrived. The new information, when it is finally exposed, must be believable. It must not seem to “come from left field”. If you can, you should drop hints earlier in the story. When the revelation finally occurs, you want your readers to nod their heads, saying “Yes, of course, I should have known!”

2. Keep alternatives alive

Fiction, especially romantic fiction, frequently revolves around a character’s choices. Your heroine may be choosing between two potential relationships, or between a relationship and a life path that will make that relationship impossible. To avoid predictability, you need to paint the competing alternatives as equally attractive and plausible. You should also maintain the ambiguity concerning the character’s ultimate decision for as long as possible.

To implement this strategy, you can use trade-offs. No one choice is perfect. Each has advantages and disadvantages. Highlight those contrasts for your reader. Meanwhile, watch out for stereotypes. The handsome, arrogant, wealthy playboy; the smoldering, tortured bad boy biker; the sensitive, nurturing guy next door… You know what I mean. Stereotypes are a sure way to kill suspense – unless you set them up and then turn them on their heads. This is actually another technique for avoiding predictability. If, for example, the playboy is later revealed to be a submissive who wants to serve as the heroine’s 24/7 slave, you’ll definitely surprise (and possibly delight) your readers.

This strategy can apply to alternative explanations or scenarios, as well as decision alternatives. In my erotic suspense novel Exposure, Stella realizes that any of several people might be responsible for the mayor’s murder and the threats she receives: the mayor’s widow; his opponent in the upcoming election; the sinister mob boss; even the cop who’s Stella’s high school friend and current lover. I try to provide evidence supporting each of these hypotheses. I want to keep the reader guessing.

3. Allow your characters to change

A story is a journey taken by your characters. Events occur and the characters change in response. You can use these changes to make your story less predictable. As the tale unfolds and your characters develop, they will behave and react in ways your reader may not expect. In fact, their surprising behavior will reveal the nature of their inner changes.

The movie “Long Kiss Goodgnight” (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0116908/) provides a great example. Geena Davis stars as a suburban wife and mother who gradually recovers from amnesia to realize that she’s a former spy. Over the course of the film, polite, conventional, squeaky-clean Samantha morphs into wise-ass, slutty, violent Charly, the top secret agent now running for her life. The shift is gradual. Since you never know (until you see it) how far Charly has reverted to her old self, you never know exactly what she’s likely to do.

Most romance character shifts are less extreme. Just remember that static characters are easy to predict. Also, some change trajectories have become clichés. The uptight, authoritarian female executive who gradually realizes that she craves submission; the woman wounded by past relationships who must learn to trust a new love; the emancipated, free-wheeling chick looking for no-strings sex who discovers instead a deep need for commitment; these patterns have been been employed so often that they’ll kill any suspense – unless of course, you use misdirection, shattering the cliché to send the character off on a new and surprising path of development

4. Take advantage of strong emotion

Characters don’t just change over the course of the story, but moment to moment as well. Even the most stable individuals are not 100% consistent in how they behave, especially under the influence of strong emotion. Anger, grief, guilt, terror and shame can all induce people to behave in atypical ways that would be hard to predict based on their normal personalities. Since such emotions often occur at critical points in your plot, you can use them to introduce the unexpected into your tales.

For example, Kate O’Neil, the heroine of my novel Raw Silk, is a self-confident, independent professional woman. Her first full-blown experience as a submissive stuns and scares her. She actually skips out of work, jumps on a plane, and escapes to the safest place she can think of (in this case, Singapore). This is highly unusual for someone as responsible and career-oriented Kate. Even I was surprised when she did it! The episode contributes to the plot by providing her with an opportunity to reflect on her reactions – as well as a chance for readers to catch their breath.

I’ve been using erotic romance for my examples so far, but non-romantic erotica also has its predictable patterns. Ultimately, readers expect the characters to have some sort of sexual interaction—and more likely sooner rather than later! Readers are in it for the climax, sure, but the experience will be more pleasurable if there are some twists and turns along the way. That’s why I personally find a lot of “stroke fiction” uninteresting and unsatisfying. If there’s no suspense at all, just fucking, the story falls flat. (Your mileage may vary, of course.)

Authors of genre fiction walk a tightrope. On the one hand, we must give our readers the pattern of resolution they expect – a happy ending, in the case of romance, an orgasm (or more than one!) in erotica.

On the other, we want to keep our readers turning the pages, wondering what is going to happen next. We must be faithful to the conventions of our genre while still ringing enough changes to be fresh and exciting. It’s a tall order. I hope that the suggestions I’ve made in this post get you thinking about how you can maintain this balance in your own work.


Lisabet Sarai

Sex and writing. I think I've always been fascinated by both. Freud was right. I definitely remember feelings that I now recognize as sexual, long before I reached puberty. I was horny before I knew what that meant. My teens and twenties I spent in a hormone-induced haze, perpetually "in love" with someone (sometimes more than one someone). I still recall the moment of enlightenment, in high school, when I realized that I could say "yes" to sexual exploration, even though society told me to say no. Despite being a shy egghead with world-class myopia who thought she was fat, I had managed to accumulate a pretty wide range of sexual experience by the time I got married. And I'm happy to report that, thanks to my husband's open mind and naughty imagination, my sexual adventures didn't end at that point! Meanwhile, I was born writing. Okay, that's a bit of an exaggeration, though according to family apocrypha, I was talking at six months. Certainly, I started writing as soon as I learned how to form the letters. I penned my first poem when I was seven. While I was in elementary school I wrote more poetry, stories, at least two plays (one about the Beatles and one about the Goldwater-Johnson presidential contest, believe it or not), and a survival manual for Martians (really). I continued to write my way through high school, college, and grad school, mostly angst-ridden poems about love and desire, although I also remember working on a ghost story/romance novel (wish I could find that now). I've written song lyrics, meeting minutes, marketing copy, software manuals, research reports, a cookbook, a self-help book, and a five hundred page dissertation. For years, I wrote erotic stories and kinky fantasies for myself and for lovers' entertainment. I never considered trying to publish my work until I picked up a copy of Portia da Costa's Black Lace classic Gemini Heat while sojourning in Istanbul. My first reaction was "Wow!". It was possibly the most arousing thing I'd ever read, intelligent, articulate, diverse and wonderfully transgressive. My second reaction was, "I'll bet I could write a book like that." I wrote the first three chapters of Raw Silk and submitted a proposal to Black Lace, almost on a lark. I was astonished when they accepted it. The book was published in April 1999, and all at once, I was an official erotic author. A lot has changed since my Black Lace days. But I still get a thrill from writing erotica. It's a never-ending challenge, trying to capture the emotional complexities of a sexual encounter. I'm far less interested in what happens to my characters' bodies than in what goes on in their heads.


  1. Belinda LaPage

    Yes, remembering to keep multiple possibilities alive is a crucial one. I need to keep reminding myself–I’m so goal-oriented and I just love getting to the sticky bit.

  2. Lisabet Sarai

    Hi, Belinda,

    The “multiple possibilities” can be hard to pull off when you have a pretty clear idea yourself about how things are going to go. Also this doesn’t necessarily work in every story. Still, my first novel is essentially “three lovers… which will she choose?”

  3. Ian smith

    A very helpful post, Lisabet, with a lot of things writers might well find useful to bear in mind. I can certainly remember enjoying stories which followed one of all your four general “themes”. And I can also remember reading some stories where I could predict the ending disappointingly soon after staring them. Thanks for sharing these ideas.

    • Lisabet Sarai

      Thanks for your comment, Ian.

      Actually, the goal is to keep the reader from noticing when you’re using these techniques. The “withholding facts” method is hard to pull off gracefully.

  4. Rose B. Thorny

    Excellent post, Lisabet. Thanks for all the insights and tips.

    I find that I crave much more unpredictability in my reading material than I do in real life. Perhaps because my responses when I’m reading are not critical to what comes next, whereas in real life, the unpredictable, when it does occur, often throws a monkey wrench into what could be called order and transforms it into chaos. The unpredictable often requires immediate action and disallows time to weigh all the options. My responses in real life are critical to what actually happens next. I can’t just close the book and say, “I need a break; I’ll finish it later.” The unpredictable in stories doesn’t require *me* to do anything at all; someone else gets to have the responsibility of making on-the-spot decisions laid on them.

    Perhaps that is why I find the non-predictable stores (suspense, thriller, horror, and what sci-fi I do read) so appealing to read. On the other hand, being comfortable with predictability makes it more challenging to write the unpredictable. Even “pantsers,” like yours truly, don’t *not* plot; it’s just that a lot of the plotting goes on inside the mind and can be pretty fluid. However, of the things I find challenging, when I am creating a story, focusing on staying unpredictable is probably in the top three of my list of “must dos.”

    The bottom line, of course, still is that it’s “just” a story, so real lives don’t depend on it (except the lives of fictional characters) and won’t be affected one way or another by the consequences of the unpredictable events. Whether I’m the reader or the writer, I get to walk away and say “screw it,” no matter how serious the even. Writing allows me to create as much unpredictability as I wish, without any chaotic consequences in my real life.

    Rose 😉

    • Lisabet Sarai

      Oh, I agree. In fact this may be why unpredictability is pleasurable– because we know we don’t have to “deal” with the consequences, but can just go along for the wild ride.

  5. Sam Thorne

    I used to have a great deal of fun writing characters who are on the shady side, and making the reader wonder how they were going to redeem themselves, and at what point this was going to happen. Feedback suggests that I largely pull it off successfully (which is a relief!) but there are many amusing and difficult ways to keep people guessing.

    It’s a great article and opens up the imagination for ways to keep the reader happily bewildered as to where things might go.

    • Lisabet Sarai

      Thanks, Tig. I’d like to read some of your shady characters…. I don’t recall any of them offhand!

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