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Tension vs. Suspense: What's the Difference?

Edited by Janet White || By Harlon Moss || Updated on November 6, 2023
Tension is a state of mental or emotional strain, while suspense is a feeling of excited or anxious uncertainty about what may happen.

Key Differences

Tension and suspense are emotional states that are closely related but differ in their focus and build-up. Tension is the emotional strain that comes when conflicting forces are at play, it is felt as a stress response to a current situation. Suspense, however, is the anticipation and anxiety about future events, it’s a state of uncertainty that keeps an audience guessing about what will happen next.
Tension can arise in any situation where there is a conflict, challenge, or threat, and it can be felt immediately. It is a more immediate emotion that can be resolved quickly once the stressful event is over. Suspense, on the other hand, involves a prolonged feeling of waiting for a resolution; it stretches over time and keeps the person engaged with what could potentially unfold, rather than what is currently happening.
In storytelling, tension is often created through character dynamics, tight situations, or high stakes, and it can fluctuate throughout the narrative. Suspense is built over time, often through the withholding of information or the careful pacing of a story, leading to a climax. The tension is what characters feel, while suspense is what the audience experiences.
For example, in a thriller movie, tension might be present in a scene where two characters are in a heated argument, the air charged with their conflict. Suspense, however, would be the audience not knowing how this argument might affect the plot later on, creating a sense of anticipation about the possible outcomes.
Both tension and suspense are crucial elements in narrative forms and in creating an engaging experience, whether in literature, film, or real-life situations. Tension is about the present moment of stress or conflict, whereas suspense is about the uncertainty and anticipation of future events.

Comparison Chart


Emotional or mental strain from conflict or stress.
Uncertainty or anticipation about future events.


Immediate and present.
Prolonged and future-oriented.


Resolved quickly after the stressor ends.
Resolved with the unfolding of events.


Created through conflict and stakes.
Built by withholding information or pacing.

Audience Experience

Felt by characters.
Experienced by the audience.

Tension and Suspense Definitions


The state of being stretched tight.
The rope was pulled with such tension it looked like it might snap.


A quality in a work of fiction that arouses excited expectation or uncertainty.
The novel’s suspense kept readers hooked until the very last page.


Mental or emotional strain.
You could feel the tension in the room during the negotiations.


Prolonged indecision or doubt that leads to anxiety.
The suspense of waiting for college acceptance letters was stressful for the students.


A balance maintained in an artistic work between opposing forces or elements.
The tension between the dramatic and comedic elements made the play captivating.


A state of mental uncertainty, anxiety, or excitement in awaiting an outcome.
The suspense during the final moments of the match was unbearable.


A strained relationship between individuals or groups.
There has always been tension between the two departments.


The temporary cessation of one's right to property or rights until certain legal obligations are fulfilled.
His claim to the inheritance was in suspense until the court's decision.


Physical or nervous strain.
She massaged her neck to relieve the tension from working all day.


A pause or delay.
The meeting was held in suspense while the committee deliberated.


The act or process of stretching something tight.


Anxiety or apprehension resulting from an uncertain, undecided, or mysterious situation
The suspense as they were announcing the winners was unbearable.


The condition of so being stretched; tautness.


The quality in a work of narrative art, such as a novel or film, that causes the audience to experience pleasurable excitement and anticipation regarding an outcome.


How do writers create tension in a story?

Through conflict, challenges, or threatening situations for characters.

Can tension be physical as well as emotional?

Yes, it can refer to both physical strain and emotional stress.

Does tension increase or decrease interest in a story?

Tension typically increases interest by raising stakes and creating emotional investment.

Can suspense exist without tension?

Suspense often relies on some form of underlying tension but can exist as anticipation without stress.

Do all genres of literature use suspense?

Most genres can use suspense, but it is more prevalent in thrillers, mysteries, and horror.

How can music contribute to tension and suspense in a film?

Through dissonant sounds, rising volume, and pacing that align with the narrative's tension and suspense.

Is it possible to measure tension?

In physical terms, yes, but emotional tension is subjective and harder to measure.

Can real-life situations create suspense?

Absolutely, any situation with uncertainty about the outcome can create suspense.

Is suspense always related to negative outcomes?

No, suspense can relate to positive outcomes as well; it’s the uncertainty that’s key.

Can a peaceful scene have tension?

Yes, if there is underlying conflict or threat present.

Is tension necessary for a good story?

While not necessary, it is often used to engage readers and add depth to a story.

Can tension be a sign of a compelling conflict in a narrative?

Yes, it often indicates that the conflict has high stakes and is engaging to the audience.

Are cliffhangers a form of suspense?

Yes, they are a common way to create suspense at the end of a story segment.

Can tension be beneficial?

In small amounts, it can heighten awareness and focus, but chronic tension can be harmful.

Is suspense a literary device?

Yes, it is used in storytelling to keep the audience engaged.

Can a person feel suspense about a positive event?

Yes, such as suspense about a surprise party or the result of a competition.

Does suspense have to be resolved?

Most narratives resolve suspense to provide closure, though some may leave it open-ended.

Can humor be used to relieve tension?

Yes, humor is often used as a tension relief mechanism.

How does one create suspense in writing?

By withholding information, pacing the story, and using cliffhangers or twists.

Are tension and suspense used in marketing?

Yes, to capture interest and keep consumers engaged with a product or campaign.
About Author
Written by
Harlon Moss
Harlon is a seasoned quality moderator and accomplished content writer for Difference Wiki. An alumnus of the prestigious University of California, he earned his degree in Computer Science. Leveraging his academic background, Harlon brings a meticulous and informed perspective to his work, ensuring content accuracy and excellence.
Edited by
Janet White
Janet White has been an esteemed writer and blogger for Difference Wiki. Holding a Master's degree in Science and Medical Journalism from the prestigious Boston University, she has consistently demonstrated her expertise and passion for her field. When she's not immersed in her work, Janet relishes her time exercising, delving into a good book, and cherishing moments with friends and family.

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