Build Suspense to Hold Attention

Last time, I covered use of humour in storytelling.  One use is to build suspense.  Humour diverts attention from incoming disaster.  Here is part 2 of the story I started last time.  Note how I use suspense in this part of the story.

The Story of the Sparrow, Part 2

Daniel’s grandmother left him a box of belongings.  She too had second sight but he didn’t know how she used it or what became of her.  He searched her belongings to find her mirror.  A mirror with silver backing.  Folk have an interesting relationship with silver.

Daniel peered into the mirror and recoiled at the vicious, beaked, red-eyed monster.  He threw the mirror down on his bed and stepped back.  The Folk trapped in the mirror would escape!  In a flurry of feathers and fear, anger and energy, the creature struggled and propelled itself out of the mirror and towards Daniel. 

He held out his hand and shouted: halt!  The creature fell to the floor.  “Well done”, said Cat, “I’ll finish it off.”  Cat licked its lips.

“No” – Daniel stepped forward – “let me hear it out”.  “Oh, you’re never going to help this one.  It possessed you.  Proper put the wind up me.” 

The creature stirred.  Its form changed as it took in its surroundings.  Now it appeared as a young woman.  She wore a half mask, covering her eyes, common among Folk who have not shared their name.  She leapt onto the bed and cowered in the corner, never taking her eyes off Cat.

Daniel sat on the opposite end of the bed.  He spoke gently, “What do you want?”  Folk fear human contact but also crave it.  The Little Sparrow had died in the mouth of a cat.  “Please Cat, let us be.”  Daniel opened the door.  “This’ll end in tears, mark my words.  I’m here if you need help despatching it.”  A gentle foot hastened Cat’s departure.

Sparrow’s Story

Little Sparrow was calmer now.  She had been the adventurous chick in her nest and balanced on the edge before she could fly.  A young boy had seen her fall but couldn’t reach the nest.  She loved his warm hands, gentleness and smell.  And he fed her.  But the cat got in and …

In the way of Folk, some souls persist.  She persisted, hid from the boy and watched him.  He sensed she was there.  He coaxed her with morsels of bread.  She took her current form.  They happily played and talked together.  Then one day, he left.  Followed by waters that covered and trapped her.  Until this summer.  She saw her chance when Daniel appeared and hitched a lift.   

Daniel asked: “You want to find him?”, she nodded,  “It’s a long time, you know he may be dead or love another or forgotten you?  But you need to know?  Do you know his name?”

She did not.

Why is Attention Important

This is a first written draft of a story I plan to tell live.  My challenge is to grasp and hold attention.  Reading it and part 1, in the last blog post, do you want to know what happens next?  If your audience does, you have a viable story.

Aim to tell a story that captures and holds attention.  In business this has advantages.  It produces emotional buy-in.  Skilled storytellers sell through their story; by the end of the story their audience (or some of them) are ready to buy.  You might not be quite so persuasive but a good story means an audience predisposed to hear out your offer.

If the audience wants to know what happens next, they listen.  This helps you segue into teaching at the end or during the story.  You build a relationship with your audience and invite them to continue that relationship through some offer.  This need not be a sale, it could be signing up to an email list, for example. 

How to Build Suspense

Hold attention by building suspense.  Suspense in this story comes from several places.  There are two big mysteries and I’m not planning to reveal them too soon.  One is the mystery of where this story is going.  Clearly, they are going to search for the missing boy.  How will that work out?  There’s how they set about it, what they find … and that’s all to come.

The second big mystery is the nature of the protagonist.  I have dropped hints about Daniel.  Who is he and what can he do?  What about his cat?  And his grandmother is part of the mystery.  And what about Folk?  Who are they and what do they want?

Here are more techniques:


Notice how I divide this story into parts.  I don’t necessarily recommend you do this.  This story is better told in one helping.  But notice whether you want to know more when you get to the final line.  If you break a story, it is a good way to hold attention.  Is the story compelling enough to persuade someone to open your email next time?

Slow Description

Another approach to suspense is to slow things down.  The creature does not emerge from the mirror immediately.  Daniel throws the mirror on the bed and then it flies at Daniel.  These are only a few lines and the problem is quickly despatched.  You don’t know what is going to happen and so slowing down the narrative builds suspense.  Contrast with the later story of the Little Sparrow and her friend.  Here I speed up the narrative.  It’s stuff you need to know but there’s no need to linger. 

This story has a number of moments that are action packed and moving.  I make decisions about when to linger and when to get a move on.

Hold Back Information

One way to build attention is hold back information.  There are two types of information.  Information about characters or back story.  The characters in my Story of the Sparrow all have back stories.  I hint at back stories but don’t go into detail.  It’s not necessary.  Hints suggest depth for the characters.  You need to know about Daniel’s grandmother but need little detail.  Other information is held back until later in the story. 

Don’t Apologise

There is no need to explain anything, simply tell the story.  I could begin the story by saying this is a story about a Sparrow who is seeking love.  But I don’t need to say this because the story explains it. 

At the start, you know nothing about the story.  Is it comedy or tragedy?  Who should we root for?  Who are the characters?  They’re all mysterious.  Daniel is not an ordinary schoolboy.  Declaring he has second sight at the start serves to identify this as a fairy story – it’s equivalent to “Once Upon a Time”. 

He commands the Sparrow to halt.  He has a talking cat.  I don’t have to explain this.  We find out more as the story progresses but there will remain questions at the end. 

Concealed Information

Conceal information that does not seem relevant until later in the story.  So, I mention cats have second sight near the start of the story and then introduce a talking cat.  Until the talking cat appears, the remark about cats having second sight seems throw away. 

Another example is the mask the Little Sparrow wears.  Notice how this is the only feature I describe other than she takes the form of a young woman.  I don’t say much about it, other than it covers her eyes.  He saw her eyes when she attacked him, so what does the mask conceal?

What Happens?

The best way to conceal information is tell the story as it happens from the point of view of the protagonist.  We know what Daniel knows and nothing more.  We are invited to make the same decisions Daniel makes.  Should he help Little Sparrow?  What would you do if asked for help by a lovelorn sparrow? 

Notice too Cat is of a different mind to Daniel.  Cat is the voice of reason (to some degree).  Cat means I don’t need to describe the dilemma, it’s a part of the story. 

Keep the story moving forward.  Don’t pause to explain. 

The End

Do you need to tie up all loose ends?  I want this story to be mysterious and leave something to the imagination.  My promise is to resolve the story of Little Sparrow.  There will be lots of questions about Daniel and Cat.  These can be left to imagination or another time.

The end brings resolution to the story.  You don’t need to tie up all loose ends.  This raises the question: what makes for a satisfactory ending?  This story aims to build a sense of wonder.  We find ourselves in an unfamiliar world, where the rules are unclear.  The trick is to create a world that intrigues and builds a sense of wonder and that’s what we’ll look at next time. 

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About the Author

I've been a community development worker since the early 1980s in Tyneside, Teesside and South Yorkshire. I've also worked nationally for the Methodist Church for eight years supporting community projects through the church's grants programme. These days I am developing an online community development practice combining non-directive consultancy, strategic management, participatory methods and development work online and offline. If you're interested contact me for a free consultation.

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