Conflict and Suspense in Writing - Raindance

Keep your readers guessing

If you’re writing a screenplay, your goal is to keep your reader wanting to know what happens next.

Your strategy is not to tell them–at least not yet. The authors who write thrillers you can’t put down are masters of this method but you can apply it to any genre.

As you write your story you can create questions by making the reader wonder:

  • Who did something (like send a threatening message).
  • Why somebody did something (like apparently betray a best friend).
  • What is the meaning of something (such as offering somebody a drink–is it drugged?).
  • When something will happen (like a bomb timed to go off).

If you answer those questions as soon as you’ve raised them the suspense goes away immediately. You can delay answering them by:

  • Switching to a different character, a different location, a different time
  • Providing clues that lead to several possible answers
  • Having your character pursue a wrong answer
  • Having something even more urgent come up

Don’t wait too long to reveal the answer, or at least part of the answer, or your readers may lose patience and stop reading. But when you do answer one question, make sure you’ve planted another one. This pattern will keep your readers turning the pages.

This is one important thing to consider when you are doing a second draft and it can help to have a trusted friend read the script and tell you where their interest lagged. That would be the point to raise another question that will revive the reader’s interest.


Escalate the Conflict!

I’m sure you’ve heard or read that the way to keep your reader interested is to escalate the conflict. If you don’t do that, there’s a good chance he or she will lose interest somewhere around the middle of your book or script. How do you do that?

Let’s assume you have established something your protagonist wants, and someone or something stopping him or her from getting it. Here are the useful questions to ask if you find the conflict is running out of steam:

  1. Who or what can be added as a source of conflict? For instance, in many thrillers the innocent person being pursued by the baddies does something that also puts the police on his or her trail (come up with something more original, though!).
  2. What hidden flaw might there be in a move or tactic that originally helped your protagonist, and now makes things go the other way? For example, the person who agreed to hide her from the bad guys turns out to be in collusion with them or fears them too much to keep the secret.
  3. What new information could come out that could help the antagonist? Does your protagonist have a secret from the past that might be damaging?
  4. What additional handicap can you lumber your protagonist with to make his or her task even harder? Perhaps the character on the run gets injured along the way, which will slow him or her down.
  5. What natural force might complicate things for both the protagonist and the person or people trying to stop him? This could be a huge storm, an electrical blackout, etc. It can be enjoyable to see both of them struggle against the same thing.

These questions should lead you to plenty of conflict that will keep the reader turning the pages of your script.

Week 3 of Jurgen Wolff’s Script Coach workshop shows you have to go beyond formulas and templates to craft powerful, exciting, and outstanding plots. You can sign up here.



Jurgen Wolff is a writer, teacher, and creativity consultant. In the United States, he wrote for sitcoms including Benson and Family Ties. He wrote the feature film, The Real Howard Spitz, starring Kelsey Grammer and directed by Vadim Jean. He was a script doctor on the hit film, Mannequin and others starring Michael Caine, Walter Matthau, and Eddie Murphy. For Germany, he co-created the comedy series, Lukas, which ran for 65 episodes, and an original comedy series called Krista. He also wrote nine episodes of the series, Relic Hunter. He wrote two TV movies for the Olsen Twins, and several the German TV movies including, On Top of the Volcano, starring Maria Schrader and Sebastian Koch (2007). His play, Killing Mother, was produced at the Gorky Theatre in Berlin, and he’s also had plays produced in New York, Los Angeles, and London.

As a writing and creativity teacher, his courses include Beyond Brainstorming, Create Your Future, The Creative Breakthrough Workshop and the ground-breaking Script Coach Series developed exclusively for Raindance. He has presented his courses at the University of Southern California, the University of Barcelona, the Skyros Institute, many films schools, and groups and organisations including The Academy for Chief Executives, Egmont, Grundy-UFA, and Columbia-Tri-Star. For eight years he was a visiting lecturer for the Pilots Program in Sitges.

His books include Your Writing Coach and Your Creative Writing Masterclass (Nicholas Brealey Publishing), Creativity Now (Pearson), Do Something Different (Virgin Business Books), Successful Scriptwriting (Writers Digest Press), Top Secrets: Screenwriting (Lone Eagle Press), and Successful Sitcom Writing (St. Martin’s Press).

He has written for many publications including the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, Broadcast Magazine, and he is the editor of Brainstorm, the creativity ebulletin.