Your character wants something. But someone else in his world, perhaps a friend or a random stranger, wants the opposite. These incompatible goals define them as the protagonist and antagonist. They both can’t succeed, so when their desires clash, behold! You have the perfect recipe for conflict.
Conflict ensues when a character is faced with an obstacle to overcome. Your antagonist’s ambitions often interfere with your protagonist’s and vice versa. This drives the main conflict more than any other goal. Therefore, it is no surprise that the secret to intensifying suspense is born when the knowledge of the villain’s mission is manipulated.
When creating suspense, the nature of the antagonist’s goal doesn’t matter as long as it is contrary to the hero’s. Tension will result when you withhold aspects of the villain’s goal from your protagonist and, in turn, the audience. The antagonist’s objective becomes a mystery, taunting readers with information just beyond their reach. Below are three methods to increase this tension.
1. Shroud the steps your antagonist will take to achieve his goal.
This tactic is the most basic form of insight the protagonist can possess and is part of most plots. When you employ this strategy, your protagonist sees the big picture. He understands what the antagonist is after, but is unsure how he’ll execute his plans. Puzzle pieces are missing.
In the book The Fellowship of the Ring, the antagonist’s goal is revealed within the first few chapters. The author establishes early on that Sauron desires the One Ring to dominate Middle Earth. However, Sauron still has tricks up his sleeve, including a band of Nazgul, an army of hybrid orcs, and several other allies the heroes didn’t expect. This mystery keeps the tension alive and the heroes guessing.
2. Conceal the significance of your antagonist’s goal.
This formula adds an extra dash of apprehension if it’s vital to your plot that readers are aware of the enemy’s goal. Your protagonist knows what the antagonist seeks, but has no idea why. The plot of this sort of story usually involves the protagonist trying to comprehend why the antagonist’s goal is important.
An example can be found in the film Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. The antagonist, Captain Barbosa, longs for a simple coin at the start of the movie. Until the First Plot Point (the event that throws the characters into the plot) the good guys and viewers have no clue why this coin is desirable, engaging them and arousing their curiosity over the incomplete picture.
3. Hide your antagonist’s goal altogether.
This is the most effective way to generate suspense and one of my favorite methods. It works similarly to #2, but instead of disguising the significance of the antagonist’s objective, you refuse to disclose it. The antagonist’s manifestations don’t make sense, leaving the protagonist almost completely in the dark. The enigma will capture readers, enticing them to turn the pages until it is solved.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier pulls off this approach marvelously. Until the Second Pinch Point (a group of scenes during the second half of the story when the protagonist is again confronted by the antagonist’s presence and/or power), Steve Rodgers is oblivious to the schemes of Hydra/S.H.I.E.L.D. He notices symptoms of the problem but can’t detect the issue. The viewers are equally clueless, imposed with the urgency tormenting the protagonist.
The three strategies mentioned above affect your story in stages, because the antagonist’s goal must be uncovered eventually. This is accomplished through information reveals that typically coincide with pivotal plot points, such as the Midpoint, the Pinch Points, or even as late as the Third Plot Point. (If you are unfamiliar with these terms, K. M. Weiland has a fantastic series that explains these points and their places in your story here.)
These information reveals can set off the reaction-to-action transition in the middle of the story as the protagonist learns facts that enable him to attack the antagonist. Perhaps the antagonist’s lair is discovered. Or, like in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the antagonist’s real identity is unveiled. Whatever information you show, let it be just enough to lead the protagonist in the right direction. The longer you mask the antagonist’s true goal while dropping occasional hints, the longer the suspense will last.
Manipulating knowledge of the antagonist’s goal often occurs in thrillers and mysteries. However, that shouldn’t stop you from incorporating the idea into your own works, whether you write anything from fantasy to historical fiction. Apply these tactics, ramp up the suspense in your own novels, and give readers a book they can’t put down!