How To Write Suspense

How To Write Suspense

Suspense is an essential element in any genre of fiction, and there are a few simple ways to write it. While suspense can be a difficult concept to define, it can be identified in a few ways. Suspense is a feeling of anxiety and uncertainty that’s created when the outcome of an event is unknown. It’s an emotional reaction that arises when readers don’t know what’s going to happen next. It’s also a powerful tool you can use to keep your readers turning pages. Here are some tips for writing suspense in your own works.

Grasp genre

There are many different kinds of thrillers to choose from when writing how to write suspense. So, it’s important to know which you’re most drawn to. If you’re fascinated by spies and international intrigue, you probably don’t want to write a historical mystery about whodunit at an all-girls prep school. Unlike other genres, mystery isn’t measured in the big wins or losses or your characters — it’s about the puzzle, the mystery you’re keeping hidden until the very end. When you know the genre you’d like to explore, study popular thriller and suspense books in this genre. 

Read subtitles and particularly the blurbs and reviews of books you enjoy, as they’re often the place where the author explains why the book is compelling. If you can’t get a hold of a physical copy of what you’d like to read, do some research online — just look for books and articles about popular books in your chosen genre, and use those examples. By digging into genre tropes, you can see what readers of this genre are expecting and what they want. This will help you develop your voice as you write how to write suspense.

The style of your thriller will also have a huge role when you write how to write suspense. Perhaps you want to write a novel told from the alternating viewpoints of several different major characters, giving you a wider look at the world as the situation grows more and more desperate. If so, you’ll want to make sure that your characters are multi-dimensional, so that as the story emerges, they’ll become more and more complex and satisfying. Especially in suspense, these twists ensure that you’ll keep your readers or movie-goers on the hook. If you’re a pantser, keep in mind that you may have to challenge yourself to make careful notes as you write how to write suspense, since slip-and-fall clues and garden-variety red herrings aren’t going to offer you a chance to show off your thrilling chops!

Study your target market

While the exact structures and techniques of suspense will vary depending on the genre, the basic process of building tension is the same. So before you begin plotting out your suspense-heavy story, make it a point to read some bestselling books in your genre. Study their pacing and their plot and characterization arcs. What kind of suspense do they create, and how do they manage to do it while still moving a continuous narrative forward? How do they use the uncertainty to turn the arc into a suspense arc?

Look at how action and inaction affect the suspense in each story. Are characters making decisions accidentally, or do they make seemingly inefficient choices because they’re trying to build tension? Do any characters have foreknowledge of what will happen later, and try to ignore it? How does a main character’s behavior and issues relate to the suspense of a thriller story, and how are they different in other genres? Plot out your pacing on a piece of notebook paper, jotting down the points of action as X/O symbols and the points of inaction as a series of dots. Your paces should generally hover around 50/50 — if they’re weighted heavily toward action or inaction, it will unbalance the story and make it seem less suspenseful, especially if it’s mostly inaction.

Pace the novel from opening to climax

The way you pace your novel has an enormous effect on how suspenseful it feels. There are a lot of ways to do this, whether your story is written from the first person or third, from one point of view or multiple. These differences in writing style all come down to increasing or clarifying suspense as your novel progresses. Bring in oblique seams, such as non-chronological or fragmented writing, to catch your reader’s attention and create tension in the present moment. There are many ways to do this, but by taking these cues from suspenseful novels, you’ll be able to create anxious, thrilling moments, one page at a time.

The turning point of each scene should always have some kind of immediate consequence for its heroes. At the meaner end of the spectrum, snap the speed of your writing, which creates brief instants for each developing incident to hammer home their cumulative effect. On the lighter end of the technique scale, a scene can still be filled with tension, just without the rapid-fire scene-by-scene cliffhangers. These villains may be friendly rivals or some other kind of constant, instead of sudden mishaps. If you use a balanced mix of techniques across your novel, you’ll create subtle suspense that never lets up.

Understand your character’s intentions

You can’t create suspense in your plot without first understanding your character’s backstory and motivations. After all, if there’s nothing at stake for your protagonist, there’s no suspense. As you write, remember to consider why your character acts the way he does. Will he risk his life for the man he killed in a duel, or will he throw him down a well? Some of your character’s motivation will be on the page, especially if it’s based on the three-act structure. However, there’s a good chance you’ll have to add motivation to the scenes to ensure your character sees the situation in the same way the reader does. That’s what makes him a three-dimensional character.

Keeping the character motivation is key to your readers staying tuned in for the next part of the story. If, for instance, he’s catching up to an escaped serial killer, readers know he has a good reason to continue chasing him. When he reaches a surprising dead end — maybe the killer hid the body in a church crypt or the bottom of the river — on page 40, readers are going to wait to see what really happened. Getting them to wait is, in fact, one of the best ways to create suspense. Parachute students are required to exercise this ability when they first begin training and must jump out of a plane blindfolded, only to pull their own rip cords at a designated location. That way they can form a picture of what is coming by creating suspense for themselves.

Use foreshadowing

Suspense is a horror-driven sensation, and it requires a gradually rising action. The best way to achieve that is by foreshadowing — hinting at something to come, so that your reader will immediately anticipate its revelation. Foreshadowing doesn’t have to be heavy-handed. A character who hears a strange noise in a dark room is foreshadowing. The protagonist accidentally knocking open a door that’s been closed for hundreds of years is foreshadowing. The gift of a mysterious package with no return address is foreshadowing.

Using foreshadowing effectively is as simple as remembering that people don’t get scared of things they know. People may be scared at the sight of a Godzilla-sized creature running towards them, but what really frightens them is not being able to predict it. Foreshadowing is the best way to build beyond the action of the scene toward a truly suspenseful event. Foresee it, and your reader will see what is coming all too well.

Make things go wrong

Suspense exists to create a sense of anticipation. It causes the audience to wonder, “What’s going to happen?” And to create that feeling, you have to make actions and choices. Things have to go wrong, trip up, spiral out of control. 

This doesn’t mean all your characters have to be disaster-prone, constantly anticipating the worst. Sometimes the flash of awareness is just all that’s necessary. For example, say you have a tight third-person narrative explaining what’s going on in the hero’s mind as she breaks into an office building. She calculates the right place to hide in the bushes and sets her burgling tools. Then you describe the latch on the front door as it clicks—the living, thinking machine that the heroine is anticipating, albeit in the background, in the ambient world. The sound of the latch describes what “goes wrong.” Sure, you could show how she executes the plan successfully, and avoid telling the audience what’s going to happen. But that’s seldom as powerful as taking an active role in furthering the suspense. When you do that, the suspense you’re writing builds on itself, and tends to take on a more effective emotional tone. It also channels the audience’s resilience toward the protagonist. 

Let’s say there’s a set of peaceful, quiet scenes where the hero and her family have dinner together or the hero and her friends go dancing. It’s quiet, there’s a sense of normalcy, the focus is on what’s normal in this character’s world. And then you switch into describing the distant sound of an alarm blaring in the distance, or the sudden appearance of a dark cloud on the horizon. Subtle things can work, too. You don’t have to describe the proverbial ticking time bomb going off. A ticking watch, insects crawling out from under the floorboards, or a stray cat lurking in the shadows is often enough.

Make it worse

The beauty of writing suspense is that it’s hard to be too heavy-handed with it. Real women and men encounter outrageous and sometimes terrifying things every day of their lives. Writing isn’t a matter of being true, it’s a matter of being relevant. Your audience wants stories that are juicy and exciting, not speeches about the evils of your corporate overlords. If you aren’t writing about people overcoming real, believable adversity, your suspense tactics are going to fall flat. Getting free from the mindset that suspense has to be supernatural. Life is often scarier than we give it credit for.

Remember all those old jokes about unrealistic convenience? “Why doesn’t somebody just step on a rake so we can get this story started?” “It’s too bad we don’t have a deus ex machina hanging around!” Because suspense works on the principle of building and building and building anticipation, things can’t be too tidy. Even if you have a good guy triumphing over a bad guy, don’t wrap things up and tidy too quickly — if it’s too easy for your hero, it’s going to seem too easy for your audience. Suspenseful fiction needs to make the audience feel just a smidge unbalanced. It’s a mindset that can be a little hard to break out of — after all, your job as a writer is to make things easier, not more chaotic! But realize that the person writing suspense crazier isn’t really making perfect sense, it’s accepting the imperfections being put forward in a life. And that happens every day, even to the sanest person you know.

Have no hope

To make your audience feel suspense, you have to contrast your character’s circumstances with theirs. The word “suspense” means “to leave unresolved” so your audience is initially at ease and they know how your character’s situation is going to play out beforehand. Your character will get their happily ever after, because the audience knows that’s how stories are supposed to end. That dynamic is why your character’s situation will never be truly hopeless — if things are completely hopeless, the audience would be feeling utter despair so they would be relieved when the character finally gets through their tough time. And stories aren’t satisfying if they leave the audience feeling relieved. As you write your characters into more and more terrible situations, you need to be careful not to make them too hopeless. Since the audience knows the character will likely survive the ordeal in the end, you don’t want to set the bar so high that the audience can’t be anxious about it.

Take a moment to list significant events in the life of a single character, figuring out how they’ll resolve dramatically at the end. Every time you have an exciting or joyous part of your plot, twist things by turning a key character’s life into a source of unrelenting misery. Make sure that your audience expects things will get better, then crush every hope you constructed with the character by interjecting new and exciting plights. It might take a while to create and balance all those levels, but the structure is there.

Let your characters bring the emotion

In many suspenseful stories, especially thrillers, so much of the dread comes from the audience believing something terrible might happen any moment. In those stories, the characters are often the cause of that tension. When the audience has empathy for the characters, it sets a trap wherein they sympathize with the potential victim. They don’t want the character to die, lose everything, or go to jail.

You can use plotting, or uncovering twists and turns in the narrative as clues the audience is following. Show the audience only part of what’s happening while hinting at more layers of mystery — they’ll read on to find out what they’re missing. Longer sentences, descriptive paragraphs, and lots of concrete nouns are all great ways to maintain the monotonous rhythms of regular life as you keep your book’s world unremarkable and shabby. Commit to following this path consistently, no matter how tempting it is to let in some vivid imagery or surprising turns of phrase to heighten the sensation of what’s happening. Bear in mind that hyperbole and detail don’t always work — keep your writing low-key! 

Your audience is much more likely to believe the sense of normalcy you’ve created and let themselves feel afraid when they learn that the narrator doesn’t understand what’s happening in the scene. As the reader becomes more and more frightened, you’ll find there’s a small plethora of strategies for how to write suspense. Once the audience feels safe, the hyperextended tension/anticipation of what will happen will begin to release and the scene will begin.

Avoid telling in your dialogue

You have to be careful to keep your writing tight. The camera viewpoint is the perfect way to do this, because it limits both action and explanation, forcing the reader to fill in the details in an “in-the-moment” way. Telling dialogue is, unfortunately, a common mistake that can easily cut tension. Even if it’s key to the plot that a character explains a key fact or objective to a second character, having the first character explain it makes the second character sit around and listen to a long monologue! Each character needs a coherent objective all the time — if two or more characters share that objective, you have the basis for a great scene. They can work it out or learn from each other. If the scene leads to a complication or setback, you’ve introduced tension.

But what if your characters don’t have that sort of interaction early on? Then you have to show the information cut to the relevant character. Give her a clear presentation of an immediate goal so that we know she wants to do something — breaking the rules in pursuit of her goal causes your initial scene to move ahead. We have to know and understand her objective, so if she does something wrong, then your second character rejects her. If he does that properly, we can cut the unnecessary second character. This method propels the audience forward through the scene so that once the main character reiterates her objective, it rolls out of even the busiest action scene.

Write sensory details

The human brain is wired to respond to sensory stimuli, whether taste, touch, sound, sight, or smell, and we react by imagining ourselves in the moment. Not only does this form a powerful memory, it makes the reader actively engage with what you are writing, rather than sitting back to be entertained. Make each sense more than just descriptions — let the taste of a banana the heroine eats evoke a wave of nostalgia or a thrill of sensuality. Let a soft, damp touch suggest what she imagines a lover’s skin might feel like under her fingers, or let sight of some small feathered movement from the corner of her eye raise the hair on the back of her neck. Serenade us with your words, so we can forget that what we have read is fiction.

The more visceral your descriptions of the settings and characters, the more powerful your reader’s reaction will be. Remember, however, that the reader will have actual knowledge of the final outcome, and be able to compare your descriptions to events that they know. Start writing in broad strokes — remember, getting the broad strokes in place, to leave gaps for you to play around within them. 

Let characters change or evolve

Characters are crucial to a successful book of suspense. The plot is artificially confining, so the characters will either have to attack the conflict directly, or turn inward to cope with the stress. Either way, they are likely to change, even when those around them may be telling them not to. Foreshadowing their eventual change is an opportunity to build up tension by making the reader impatient for a character’s epiphany. A lot of writers struggle with this, so it’s important to be honest with your timing. Don’t rush character development — this is the great payoff we’re waiting to read about — an essential element when holding the reader’s interest.

The changes caused by the circumstances should bring out hidden aspects of the character — both good and bad — and force him or her to make a choice about how to respond. Like many things in writing, what’s your book’s core conflict about? That will be a question for each of your main characters to answer, in his or her own way, for themselves. It will be the most difficult choice of all, but without it changing your characters you risk defeating the purpose of the plot, of the suspense, and of the entire book.

Balance with flavor

Just as you can’t have cake without frosting, you also can’t make a thriller without balancing it with other elements like settings, characters, and storytelling techniques. Suspense is a plot element, not a story element. In other words, you create suspense by peppering your text with dramatic situations, but the way you reveal your story’s plot and in what order is up to you. Here, too, you’ll want to “flavors” together. Knowing how to write suspense means finding essential ingredients like a picturesque setting, realistic characters, a tight plot, and the right narrative techniques. Each of these elements is like its own layer of frosting — giving you not only a delicious treat but a powerful story as well.

Setting is a key part of how to write suspense. A setting that accurately reflects the genre of your story helps to ground the reader and immerse them in the, well, setting of your storyline. Unfortunately, a great setting often comes at a price — it can feel limiting. That’s why, when you begin writing, you shouldn’t be so bold as to try to capture too many details at once. Instead, focus on the few important elements that can help you describe the vibe of the setting, like a person’s sight lines or the drip of a clock’s hands. It’s a great idea to sketch out the rooms and scenes that are important to you, so that you don’t forget them while writing, or don’t go overboard. It’s also important to work within the limits of your character’s knowledge of a setting. Keep it practical, and don’t forget that people read “forward.” You won’t lose anyone’s interest in the world as long as there’s more to come.

Whether you’re writing a suspense novel, screenplay, or a play, the best advice is to keep your audience guessing. You’re exploring the depths of your own imagination and immersing the reader in the world you’ve built. If you’ve done your job well, you know that your audience will do too, and you don’t want to spoil the surprise with an ending that doesn’t match up to your high standards. The more it means to you that your reader will be as spellbound as you are in creating the kind of suspense that inspires some of the best works of literature in any genre.

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