For many writers (and readers), “suspense” is a genre. However, it is also a key element in almost all fiction—if you want your readers to keep reading, that is.
Tools for creating suspense belong in every writer’s toolkit because they help arouse expectation or uncertainty about what’s going to happen.
And that worry pulls readers deeper into your story, whether it’s a romance (will the woman find out about her boyfriend’s lies?), a thriller (will the hero find the terrorist in time?), literary fiction (will the main character forgive her mother?) or any other genre.
In an earlier article, Hank detailed some ways to increase emotional suspense for a novel’s characters.
In a sense, all suspense is tied to eliciting emotions—anticipation, worry, fear, hope—in the reader.
You may find one or all of the below tips helpful in adding suspense to your novel, no matter where you’re at in the writing process, from drafting to the 14th revision.
Plant clues early and often that something bad is going to happen. Readers will pick up on them and be worried on the protagonist’s behalf. You can do this for minor negative happenings (a radio report of a traffic jam, the protagonist must catch a flight, readers worry she’ll miss it), all the way to catastrophic ones (the main character is dropping things more often, he makes a doctor appointment, the doctor runs tests, and all the while readers are on the edge of their seats wondering if he’s got ALS or is just klutzy). You can use foreshadowing many, many times per book, layering it in.
Ratchet up the stakes
In the miss-the-plane example, readers will feel concern only if the consequences of missing the plane are significant. Will she miss her best friend’s wedding, be late for an important job interview, not reach her father’s deathbed before he dies? Make the character’s goals clear from the get-go, and her reasons for wanting/needing to achieve them, and the stakes will come into focus. As the book progresses, the stakes should get higher (and you can—and should—foreshadow those early on, too).
If suspense is based on uncertainty, then predictability is the kiss of death. On occasion, when you foreshadow something negative, flip it around. Maybe the plane the character missed ends up hijacked, crashed, diverted to Islamabad, or parked on the runway for twelve hours. Surprise—she’s better off for having missed it! Maybe missing the plane forced her to turn to her ex-boyfriend with the pilot’s license to fly her to her best friend’s wedding, and they rekindle their romance. If you do something like this early on, the next time readers pick up on your foreshadowing, they won’t know what to expect and that will build suspense.
Take away your protagonist’s weapons, team, and defenses
Toward the end of many books, there is a climactic meeting between the protagonist and the main antagonist. For maximum suspense, the protagonist must meet his antagonist alone. This is why Dumbledore (and many another mentor in literature) had to die.
When you strip the protagonist of her gun, her allies, and possibly her sanity (temporarily), you throw the outcome into doubt and that creates suspense.
Be creative when thinking about your character’s “weapons.” Yes, it could be an AR-15, a death ray, or a dragon, but it could also be professional respect, self-confidence born of a solid relationship, a logical mind, or other psychological element.
Use these techniques, and don’t feel bad that you’re keeping your readers up late at night, turning the pages to find out what happens in your books.
What authors do you think are good at building suspense? Have any tips of your own you want to share? Come tell us on Facebook.