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Suspense Meaning in Literature: Illustrated by Examples

Are you ready for an English lesson about a word that will change how you look at life? A literary device that helps illuminate what makes literature, TV, and movies exciting (and sometimes scary)? A term that — are you getting curious or nervous already? If so, my mission was accomplished in illustrating the word SUSPENSE, meaning that what I just did in this introductory paragraph was a taste of its power!

Let’s learn more the definition and examples of suspense, what makes a text or video suspenseful, and why it’s so important. In my 18 years of teaching English, this term is one of the most important I’ve seen.

A Word to Help the Suspense Definition

To understand the meaning of the word suspense, let’s back up and define the related verb: “to suspend.” If something is suspended, it’s hanging in the air, OR it is paused in the middle of doing something. Keep reading, because this context will become important.

As an example of the first type of suspension (hanging), if I suspend a hedgehog from the ceiling, I am hanging the animal from a strap on the ceiling fan, so he’s just dangling there. A “suspension bridge” is a bridge formed by hanging cables and beams of metal.

In an example of the second type of suspension (forcibly pausing), when I’m suspended from school, I’m stopped from attending school, as a method of punishment. In another use of the word, a “suspension of disbelief,” means pausing your usual pattern of what you usually believe to be true, in order to be immersed in a story — often one that’s a bit ridiculous.

In summary, the word “to suspend” means to hang, or to pause. Got it? Good, because we’ll use that related word to understand the definition of “suspense.”

One way to remember the suspense meaning.
One way to remember what suspense means.

Suspense Meaning

At last it’s time to dive into the meaning of the noun “suspense!” The definition of the word “suspense” is a feeling of nervous excitement about something that will happen soon, but is not revealed immediately. You’re being forced to wait for an unsure thing — in tingling, unsure, uneasy anticipation.

When you’re feeling suspense, your heart may be racing, your breathing comes more quickly, and you may become impatient, but also a little scared about what’s around the corner — literally or figuratively. You may inadvertently lean forward, trying to get the answer sooner about what’s coming next.

Suspense vs. “To Suspend”

How is the definition of “suspense” related to the verb “to suspend?” Remember that suspension is all about leaving HANGING or forcibly PAUSING — and if you think about it, so is suspense! When something is suspenseful, you are “left hanging,” figuratively, meaning you are dangling without an answer to what will happen next.

You are also being forcibly paused in the liminal space of anticipation. You’re suspended, dangling, in a feeling of suspense, not allowed to move forward to any answers yet. Argh!

Synonyms for Suspense and Suspenseful

Looking for another word for suspense? Some noun “suspense” synonyms include: anticipation, apprehension, tension, and expectancy. Synonyms for the adjective “suspenseful” include: cliff-hanging, exciting, tense, thrilling, or anxiety-inducing.

Seeking synonyms for the way suspense makes people feel? Experiencing something suspenseful may make you jittery, on edge, jumpy, tension-filled, breathless, worried, uneasy, or nervous.

How a suspenseful mood feels.
How a suspenseful mood feels.

Examples of Suspenseful Moments

What are examples of suspense in literature, movies, TV, and life? Here are some illustrations of suspenseful moments. Notice how each of them forces the reader or viewer to WAIT in an excited state of uncertain anticipation, before learning what happens.

1) Scary suspense: There’s a monster on the loose, but no one knows where it is. The hero sees a door start to creak open. Could it be the monster? Or just his friend coming to say hello??? We are all in suspense as the door veeeeery slowly swings forward.

2) Romantic suspense: There’s a man who loves a woman and wants to propose to her, but she’s just decided to sell all her belongings and move across the world for a new job. Will the man be able to get to her in time and convince her to stay with him, or will the two of them spend the rest of their lives apart, wondering what might have been?

3) Thrilling suspense: A vandal has been destroying all of the major works of art in museums around the world. Will the detective be able to track them down and stop them before all the art is gone? And is it possible that the vandal is actually secretly one of the other detectives, in disguise?! Eek!

Why is Suspense Important?

So, why do we even care about suspense? Frankly, without it, everything — literature, TV, movies, and even life — would be extremely boring. Why is that? Because if you know exactly what’s going to happen next, what’s the point in even continuing? Suspense keeps us interested and excited, since we humans are wired to pay close attention to uncertain things looming in the the future.

Because suspense is so important in making things interesting, every story or show you encounter will have some sort of suspense, even if it’s not labeled specifically in the “Suspense” genre. For example, in a buddy comedy, the two friends might have an argument, and the suspense — uncertain moment the audience is forced to wait through — becomes whether or not they’ll become friends again. (Side note: See my article on the misspelling, “freind,” if interested!)

Suspense Books and Movies

What about the genre called “Suspense?” These books or movies have extremely suspenseful moments and a tense mood, throughout, and are very popular for those who enjoy that heart-pumping, nervous feeling that forces you to turn the page or keep watching to find out the answer.

The Suspense genre is also often labeled “Thrillers” because the excitement of suspense is so thrilling. Personally, there’s only so much of a Suspense movie I can stand before I run, screaming, into the next room!

A suspense example, illustrated.
A suspense example, illustrated.

Suspense and Other Literary Devices

The literary device, suspense, is used by writers to make their books more interesting by compelling the reader to keep reading in order to figure out what happens next. Suspense doesn’t just happen on its own in literature or movies, however. Rather, it’s used best when combined with other literary devices. Let’s examine a few.

Suspense and Conflict

Conflict is defined as the “problem” in a work of literature or film (or life), and the purpose of that work is to solve that problem. There are several types of conflict, but they’re all tightly connected to suspense, because suspense builds when the reader isn’t sure how the conflict will be resolved. For example, if the conflict is that a giant octopus is trampling cities, the suspense becomes whether the hero will be able to vanquish the marauding octopus, and how.

Suspense and Foreshadowing

Foreshadowing is defined as hints of what will come next, and it’s a key piece in building suspense. For example, if there is a robber on the loose in a story, foreshadowing helps add suspense by giving hints of who might be robbed next, or what the robber’s identity might be. A good writer will sometimes add some false foreshadowing (“red herrings”) which make the reader even more nervous, once revealed to be wrong, since now there’s even more suspense or uncertain anticipation about what the real answer might be.

Suspense and Dramatic Irony

Dramatic irony is when the audience knows something the characters do not — and it can be extremely suspenseful as the people watching or reading scream: “Watch out! You aren’t realizing the truth!” while the protagonist blindly walks into a dangerous situation.

Suspense and Juxtaposition

You can’t have a book or movie that is 100% suspense, because the viewer would get absolutely exhausted, since suspense is so exciting that it depletes you. For this reason, even extremely suspenseful works of literature and film have moments that are calm and NOT fully of scary or tense anticipation. Why? This juxtaposition — contrast — between suspenseful moments and relaxed ones is necessary to keep the reader or viewer’s energy up… but also make the suspenseful moments stand out more in their thrills.

VIDEO: What is Suspense?

Click to see a summary lesson about suspense, plus time-lapse video of my drawing process.

The Meaning of Suspense, in Sum

So… don’t leave me in suspense — how was this lesson for you? Do you feel like you understand the meaning and examples of suspenseful moments, and why they’re so important to keeping literature, movies, shows, and life exciting? Do you have favorite Suspense books or movies? Do share in the comments section, below!

Want more about English Language Arts? Check out, “Is Is a Verb?”