By Tracy Clark

Hank says: Wow. The fabulous Tracy Clark knows her suspense. Let me prove it. In her new book HIDE, hard-boiled Chicago detective Harriet Foster is on the hunt for a serial killer with a deadly affinity for redheads.

Ooh. SO scary. How could anything be scarier? Or more suspenseful? But wait. HIDE goes on:

When a young red-haired woman is found brutally murdered in downtown Chicago, one detail stands out: the red lipstick encircling her wrists and ankles.

How does Tracy Clark do it? She’s agreed to reveal her secrets–but only her on Career Authors.


Suspense is a feeling. It’s a growing dread, a rising panic, a ticking clock, an uncertainty. Suspense is creating a high-stakes situation and then stringing it along slow and easy, letting the pot of water that is your crime novel simmer before it boils. Jeopardy. Uneasiness. Dread. Worry.

There is a toddler ambling toward train tracks unaware that a train is due any minute. The kid makes it to the tracks just as a train whistle blows in the distance. The train is heading right for him. This is the moment Mom races out of the house, spots baby on the tracks, and runs for him, yelling bloody murder. The kid panics, starts to toddle back, but his shoelace gets caught on a railroad tie. He’s stuck. The train is coming. Mom can see the smoke coming out of the old timey smokestack (I don’t know how a steam engine got in here but go with it). The kid has seconds, seconds, before he’s flattened like a pancake. Mom not going to make it … or is she?

Train. Toddler. Shoelace. Mom. What if Mom trips and falls? Your reader starts to get nervous, antsy. The writer’s pulse quickens, too. Will Mom save baby? Writer decides to end the chapter there. The next chapter picks up on a scene dealing with an equally compelling subplot, but the baby’s fate will have to wait. Suspense. Ha. Writer wins.

Here are 6 tips for building suspense into your crime novel.

 I always start with CHARACTER

This is fundamental, really. Unless you give your reader characters they care about, it doesn’t matter what else you do, they won’t be there for it. A novel will rise or fall on character. Give your readers good ones, unique ones, memorable ones, and they will be invested in their journey, their problem. They will stick around to see what happens to them. Good guys or bad guys, antagonist or protagonist, whatever you do make them interesting. Spending time here will never be a bad investment.

Something’s not right

It’s a feeling. You’ve got your engaging characters, they’re out there living their book lives, and all is going well, until something seems a little off. Then there’s a strange phone call, an anonymous letter stuffed into the mailbox on a sunny Sunday, a sense that your character’s being watched or followed, but that can’t be, can it? All writers say it with me, “Yeah, it can!” Introduce a situation, roll it out slow and easy, let it sit for a time, let the sense of dread seep into your readers’ bones.

Between a rock and a hard place

Now you raise the stakes. Dread, a feeling of something not right, has given way to an actual situation. Your character’s boxed in. She’s in a predicament and sees no way out. This is where you craft your intricate puzzle to entice your readers.

What will Meghan (let’s call her Meghan) do when she finds out who placed that letter in her box? This is where we find out, perhaps, that Meghan has done some not so great things in her past. This is where you as the writer take that letter and pile all kinds of sinister on top of it. The unseen thing, that feeling, has become an issue. The stakes are high. Meghan could lose everything she values if she makes the wrong move. She could lose her life; worse yet, she could lose someone she cares about. (Cue ominous music).

Writer? Add a 10-year-old daughter here. They’re fiction gold. Perhaps a Sophie’s choice deal? Or a steal the microfiche or Bad Guy blows the entire world to LEGO blocks? Long story short, Meghan’s in a pickle. A civilized person would give her a break and cut her loose, but you’re a writer, so instead you take that microfiche dilemma and add a nuclear threat to the mix, either Meghan comes through or the whole world blows! Create a problem. Make it worse. Then when you think it can’t get any worse, you make it worse.

Don’t forget the puzzle

I’ll stop picking on Meghan, but once you have your characters and you’ve given them “the problem” and raised the stakes. This is where you as the writer concentrate on the puzzle, the clues, the leads, the false starts, the red herrings, THE GAME. Think of a shell game. You as the writer must move those little shells around fast and quick hoping your reader will not be able to recall which shell you put the colorful marble under. That marble is your story. The sleight of hand, the quick razzmatazz? That’s you working that puzzle so hard that when you finally reveal the solution, your reader will be more than satisfied. What you don’t want is all buildup and no payoff.

Don’t forget the bad guy

Back to Meghan. You’ve basically ruined her life. She’s up against it. All kinds of things are popping up. She’s gotta steal microfiche! Who still uses microfiche?! And she’s got a kid she needs to protect. But who’s holding Meghan’s feet to the firepit? BAD GUY. Bad guy has to be formidable for the suspense to work. The reader has to be as afraid of Bad Guy as Meghan is; they have to worry that Bad Guy means it when he tells Meghan he will bury her deep if she doesn’t get him what he wants. The protagonist/antagonist matchup in suspense (or any fiction) must be legit. Bad Guy must be just as three-dimensional as Meghan. That central conflict must feed that oily feeling of impending doom. Your reader should witness a high-stakes chess match between two champions without the outcome being a forgone conclusion. Anyone can come out on top — all it takes is one wrong move

End of the roller coaster ride

Meghan figured it out. We all knew she would. Turns out Meghan was an ex-CIA operative who’d put down all that espionage mumbo-jumbo and walked away from the biz, only to be reeled back in. (I’m just spit-balling here). But by the time your readers get to the last page of Meghan’s race for life, they should be gasping for air and happy as clams. Think of that feeling you get at the end of a roller coaster ride—relief, exhilaration, gratitude you made it back in one piece—that’s how you want your readers to feel. You get to this fifth step by mastering the other four.

Note: Suspense is not built in a day. You won’t get it in draft one. You build suspense after many passes, after feeling out those places in your manuscript where more tension and more stress and more menace can be inserted. You’ll know these spots when you see them. You can feel it when you’ve gotten it right.

Oh, and that baby on the tracks? Lassie runs in, gets the kid’s foot out of the shoe with her teeth, and then drags the little toddlin’ Tommy to safety just as the train roars past. End scene.

Ha. Writer wins again. What did you learn from these tips? And what are your secrets to suspense? Let’s talk about it on the Career Authors Facebook Page!


Tracy Clark is the author of HIDE: Detective Harriet Foster, Book 1 (January 1, 2023; Thomas & Mercer)—as well as four novels in the Cassandra Raines series. She is the 2022 and 2019 winner of the Sue Grafton Memorial Award, an Anthony and Lefty Award finalist, and her books have earned starred reviews and been shortlisted for the American Library Association’s RUSA Reading List, named a CrimeReads Best New PI Book of 2018, a Midwest Connections Pick, and a Library Journal Best Books of the Year selection. She is a board member-at-large of Sisters in Crime, Chicagoland, a member of International Thriller Writers, and a Mystery Writers of America Midwest board member. You can visit Tracy online at