Plotting: Architectural Suspense

We’ve all read a novel where at some point you put it down and forgot it ever existed. It failed to grip you, to compel you to go on. Often the culprit is a lack of suspense—the glue that binds the reader’s hands to the covers. The words of Gene Wilder in the clip above (quoting Oscar Wilde) sum up the effect suspense has on readers: “The suspense is terrible. I hope it will last.” 

A simple and effective tool exists for generating suspense. It goes by the name ‘architectural suspense’

Architectural suspense


 “The writer’s duty is to set up something that cries for a resolution and then to act irresponsibly, to dance away from the reader’s problem, dealing with other things, prolonging and exacerbating the reader’s desperate need for a resolution.”

Sol Stein, On Writing

To create a fantastic situation in which your reader skims lines with wide eyes with a tight grasp on the covers is a wonderful skill. Why ruin it by bringing those feelings to an end?

[Potential spoiler]

jon snow.jpg

I’ll never forget reading the last page of this chapter in A Dance With Dragons. Still waiting to find out what happens next …

In reality, we seek to avoid anxieties, yet in fiction, we seek them out. There’s a degree of excitement involved in watching someone deal with a tricky situation. It grips us. We want to see if they can get out of it. There are other reasons too. Perhaps it makes us feel better about ourselves, that if someone you can relate to, even in a fictional book, is going through a stressful time, it almost feels like you’re not alone.

With books, we enjoy the control of an on/off switch. As soon as we close the book those feelings stop. It’s a little harder to escape the anxieties that plague our lives.

So what is architectural suspense? In short, it’s using your plot and story structure to create suspense. In doing so, you can avoid the sagging middle parts of stories readers detest and instead keep them tearing through pages.

When it comes to plotting, one technique you can use is to create lines of suspense which run separately from each other. At least two is recommended. As you progress through the tale you weave them together. One way of looking at it is to create mini cycles of suspense. Let’s look at an example:


Chapter one of James Barclay’s novel, Noonshade, ends with a siege at breaking point. We’re left with the thoughts of a character named Barras, who suggests he has a few tricks up his sleeve to turn the tide. Of course, Barclay is too smart to tell us what they are there and then. Instead, he draws it out.

I almost ripped the page when I turned it to find chapter two following the tale of different characters hundreds of miles away. Annoying, but it made me want to read on. Chapter two ends with another cliffhanger. Then comes chapter three and back to Barras, all the while I’m wanting to know what happens to those in chapter two. And so the cycle of suspense is born.

Another master of this method is George R.R. Martin. I call him a master not just for the quality of his use of plotting, character, and structure, but also for the scale of the story he’s weaving. If you’re not familiar with his story structure, each chapter follows the perspective of a different character, and there are many. Some characters feature more than others—Daenarys, Jon, Tyrion, Arya, Jaime, to name but a few. Without wishing to stir controversy, these are the more significant and intriguing characters. Countless times I found myself motoring through the chapters of other ‘lesser’ characters just to get to the next one about Tyrion.


Wouldn’t some kind of template for this method be useful? Indeed it would, and editor of some of the greatest contemporary books, Sol Stein, has provided it:

“Chapter 1: The chapter ends with a turn of events that leaves the reader in suspense. The reader wants to stay with the characters and action of that chapter.

Chapter 2: The reader finds himself in another place and/or with a different character. The reader still wants to know what happens in Chapter 1. Chapter 2 ends with a turn of events that leaves the reader in suspense. The reader wants to know how Chapter 2 turns out.

Chapter 3: the reader finds himself in a continuation of the suspenseful events in Chapter 1. He is still in suspense about Chapter 2. By the end of Chapter 3, a new line of suspense has been created,

If you keep doing this with successive chapters, the reader will be continuously in suspense and there will be no sag in the middle of the book or anywhere else.”

A common complaint by readers is exactly what Stein says in his final sentence—the sagging middle—and as he suggests, the architectural suspense approach may help avoid it.

I think the key rule we can take from the technique is this:

Chapter endings must arouse the reader’s curiosity to discover what happens next.

Most, if not all of us know this. Now you know another way how.

Stein also recommends carrying out a few ruthless actions to heighten the suspense of your story. The first is to pick your weakest scene and cut it. From his editor’s perspective, he’s of the view that doing so will strengthen the story.

He also recommends cutting out or minimising the narrative summaries which happen between scenes—the boring stuff we don’t really care that much about, like travelling hundreds of miles, crossing meadows of golden wheat and fields of swaying emerald grass, through the whispering woods and over rolling hills (see what I mean?). Given the rise in complaints by readers of writers focusing too much on exposition, writers such as Patrick Rothfuss are experimenting with telling their stories in different ways, with the focus shifting to scenes alone. Food for thought.

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