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How can there be suspense if the reader knows the conclusion from the beginning? I am writing an apocalyptic survival story, and I chose to write it in a non-linear style. So, the reader will know who survives and who dies at the start of the story.

Usually, a lot of writers create suspense by hiding who lives and who dies until the end. And yet, we still read books and watch movies where we already know the outcome from the beginning. For example, in Apollo 13, most people know that

all of the astronauts survive

in the ending decades before the movie started production! But that did not make that movie any less fun to watch. So, how do writers pull off this feat?

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    Are you looking for just historical works, or would Annikan Skywalker becoming Darth Vader in Star Wars Episode III also count? – hszmv Feb 14 at 14:20
  • @hszmv Yes, prequels would also count. Also would cases like Deadpool2, where the movie starts with Deadpool saying that he will die. – Stuck Feb 14 at 14:31
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    It's the journey, not the destination, and it's been that way since the beginning of storytelling. – RonJohn Feb 14 at 19:27
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    Why did you choose to reveal the deaths at the beginning? That should be a conscious decision that improves your story. If you're doing it just do it, and then worrying about how to make the story work after, then you're working backwards. – Harabeck Feb 14 at 21:14
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    @Harabeck I was trying to write it in the form of a howdunit, having the narrating character solve the mystery of how the characters died. – Stuck Feb 15 at 1:43
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I think a lot of it has to do with getting in the mind of the character. Just watching a character be intensely worried about something causes the reader to feel that anxiety as well.

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    Before the movie came out, basically zero people knew what Huston was having a problem with : stirring the oxygen tanks. Culpability and ingenuity were the things to be anxious about, not who lives and who dies. – Mazura Feb 15 at 2:15
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If you know who lives and dies right away, you can create suspense by raising the stakes to something else. This is similar to MeDodo's answer. What I mean by that is, if in most cases the thing to be lost is a character's life, but now you know who lives and does not live, then you can move the stakes from life-or-death to something else - maybe physical health, or losing an opportunity, or a number of other things. Maybe their actions will impact a larger whole, regardless if they live or die themselves so they still have a high risk like that. Even if you know that a character isn't going to die, a lot of other stuff can hit them hard.

If you let your readers know the characters that will ultimately end up dead, but not when, or how they will die, then they have no idea when to expect the death to occur. If the character(s) is/are likable (or not likable, but if the readers give a crap about them), then readers will want them to be in the story for as long as they can. So you as the writer can make it seem like they will die at one point but then give them a narrow escape. Tease readers. The readers know that death is possible in any scenario, they just won't know when to prepare.

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You divide the story in small stories and create suspense for each story. For example one part of your end of the world story could be about the protagonist finding water before a big journey to a final destination where more survivors have gathered. Will he get enough water or not? Also, just because we know the ending does not mean we know all the details of how that ending happened. If you give interesting details that form a small story in the big story readers will be engaged.

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It's all about empathy and emotions.

There's a video called LOST In 3 Minutes, where a man explains in a simple and straightforward way what Lost was about. However, at the end he says:

For me Lost isn't a show that's about the story, it's about how the story is told.

Have you ever cried because of a movie? If you haven't, I would personally suggest:

  • ET (1982, Steven Spielberg);
  • The Iron Giant (1999, Brad Bird);
  • Your Name. (2016, Makoto Shinkai);

A well-crafted emotional scene will move you, even if you already know what is going to happen. Facts and feelings are two entirely different things. You remember facts, but you experience feelings. That's what makes them so powerful.

In short, when writing, consider the emotional impact of your words. By this I don't mean you should turn everything into a melodrama. I mean that your audience should engage with your characters, your world, on an emotional level too. The worst sin art can do is leave someone indifferent and unaffected.

Don't worry about having unlikable characters: Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver and Tony Montana from Scarface are far from being saints, but you can still relate to them. You can see where they come from, what choices they make, and what they become. Even if you don't agree with their actions, you can still empathize with them (understand why they're doing it), and you may even identify with them. I could relate to Travis' self-inflicted loneliness, and Tony's jealousy, for example.

That's what makes you want to come back, or stick around, even if you already know what's going to happen: wanting to know what those characters are going to feel, and how you're going to feel about them.

For example, if you have a man whose death is certain, what are his genuine feelings, leading up to it? I think it would be hard not to find the thoughts of a man who is going to die interesting. We don't know much about death, which means that as much as we are scared of it, we are also fascinated by it, and eager to know more, anything that can help us understand it.

2

How, not what

You create suspense for illustrating how the journey leads the story to the known conclusion - in this case, the conclusion can't be the climax, the other events have to take on a pivotal role.

Perhaps it's worth to look for inspiration at stories where it's not just that most of the audience would know the eventual outcome, but at the pacing for stories where the eventual outcome (or at least part of it) is explicitly shown early on. There are many stories that 'start with the end', here are some examples that came to my mind.

The story of Memento starts with one of the main characters killing another, and then proceeds to reveal earlier and earlier events. There's lots of suspense involved in the audience beginning to understand how and why they got to this critical point.

The TV Series 'Chernobyl' - while most viewers would know that Chernobyl turns out to be a disaster, the first episode starts with the death of one of the main characters (which IMHO wasn't known to most viewers), and then proceeds to show all the events that lead to it. Here IMHO the main suspense is about the fate of all the other characters involved; and also about him overcoming various obstacles where the price is not his life but other goals.

Forrest Gump starts with the protagonist telling his life story, so he obviously survived up to this point. That does not prevent suspense in, for example, his scenes during war. For one, there are all kinds of unwelcome things which could happen to him that are survivable, so there's the fear of that, and also of course there's the suspense about whether he'll achieve his goals and what will happen to the other characters.

To summarize, the key points seen in such stories seem to involve suspense about goals other than survival, and suspense about the fate of any other characters - possibly secondary, but still emotionally important.

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0

I was going to say just to tell your story and not be distracted by what the reader knows. In the moment, the perilous situation (provided the reader cares) almost always creates a feeling of suspense.

But if some characters will live and others will die, you have a more challenging task than if you know all the characters survive. If you know that, then you file that away and get absorbed in the here and now of the characters, and you still feel suspense. But if some live and some die, then you read the whole story knowing that some characters are blessed and others have targets on their backs. That creates a contrast between how you react to perils on the blessed characters and how you react to perils on the targeted ones. I think it draws more attention to the fact that you know the outcome, and changes the experience.

I wish I knew what to tell you about how to deal with that, but I do think it's something you have to consider.

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It's more of a human nature thing.

It's normal for a human to feel anxious when they see people around them also being anxious, due to psychological reasons. Likewise, due to the facial expressions, the way the different characters in the story communicate, as well as the tense music in the background while watching the movie, can cause someone to naturally feel tense and suspenseful, even though they already know the ending.

It is also due to the fact that you are actually seeing the whole scene and 'first-hand' experiencing it, lets the viewer focus on his/her feelings more, unlike a book, where you have to imagine the scenes and might not get to feel the type of intense feeling the writer is trying to convey.

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