Is lack of suspense killing your novel writing game? Check out these ten tips to write suspense and up the anti of any novel.
I'm going to cover 5 major must follow rules for creating suspense from nothing, and 5 minor tips for immersing readers in the action and anxiety of your story.
Suspense is all about the journey, the drawn out ache of worry and uncertainty. These tips will help you set the mood, set the pace, and unsettle even the most avid thriller fanatic.
For great examples, grab a book from my Halloween Reading List!
Introduce the Bomb
Suspense always begins with the ending in mind. It’s the impending dread, the bomb just waiting to drop. Your bomb can be anything: an actual bomb, a work deadline, catching the murderer before they can strike again, breaking the curse before midnight, etc.
Whatever your bomb may be, it needs a countdown. Which brings me to…
Set a Timer
Your characters and readers should know something bad is coming, and soon. And they should be given a small window of time to avoid disaster. The time limit will vary for every story, but it should always be right on the cusp of just enough time and “will they make it?”
You can even give your characters plenty of time to achieve the goal, but introduce conflicts and disasters to stand in their way. This definitely ups the anxiety, but it can also increase the hopelessness and impossibility factor. You’ll want to give them small victories so their final success isn’t too unbelievable, or their failure isn’t expected and welcomed.
Stick to the Timer
I can’t express this enough. If the protagonist only has five minutes to accomplish a task, it shouldn’t take ten minutes to read about it. Drawing out these kinds of scenes creates an air of suspended belief around time itself.
The only time you should draw out a scene like this is if you’re going for a slow-motion effect. Say your protagonist gets conked on the head and everything is woozy and distorted. He loses his sense of time and urgency, and everything appears slowed down. But once he comes to, so too should the reality and impending threat of time. What he thought only took five minutes actually took ten. This creates a good jarring effect in suspense writing.
Everyone sees the seconds ticking away before the bomb goes off, but what happens when they fail or succeed in diffusing it? Who planted it in the first place? Are there other threats looming?
This is the plot twist and you’ll want to set it up in a way that doesn’t feel disconnected from the rest of the story. You’ll want to include Chekhov’s Guns that appear to be directed towards the bomb, but actually foreshadow the plot twist.
You want your reads to gasp and think “How did I miss that?!”
I’ll write a post all about foreshadowing either later this month or the next.
Keep the Story Moving
Each new scene should set the pace when writing suspense. The story may start out calm enough, but each scene should add a layer of urgency. When one scene ends, the next should have less time left to accomplish the goal.
And, if you’ve ever experienced anxiety, then you know how it can impede your time management skills. If you have several short quick scenes followed by one longer Murphy’s Law scene, the suspense and dread will skyrocket because the reads know you don’t have time for this. Just be sure to use this trick sparingly. Overdoing it can reduce the effect of the timer you set at the beginning.
Interact with Scenery
The setting shouldn’t just be background. Remember that Chekhov’s Gun we mentioned earlier? Pick it up. Use it for the wrong purpose. Break it. Lose it. Every detail you mention should serve a purpose.
That musty old arm chair you mentioned in the sitting room should be moved in a later scene. Who moved it? That luxurious all-too-expensive rug in the tiny dilapidated house should be hiding secrets. The lemon of a car doesn’t start. The grand staircase is slowing them down and wearing them out.
When you write suspense, every second counts. Don’t mention anything that isn’t serving a purpose.
Use Your Senses
Obviously, you aren’t going to use all your senses in every scene, but they can help to evoke different feelings. They can help immerse your readers into the action.
If the room is dark, focus on the grating sound, like metal on concrete. The way the hairs on your neck stand on end as the sound gets louder and louder. Recognize a scent that’s out of place. A perfume you recognize. Feel something slick and sticky beneath your boots.
Different senses work by putting a magnifying glass to a specific detail you want your readers to focus on. Use it.
Choose Otherworldly Settings
That brings me to location. When I say otherworldly, I don’t mean fantasy or space exploration. Although, you could use them as well. I mean, choose a setting that departs from everyday experiences.
This is why ghost stories work so well in Victorian manors. It tends to put characters and readers outside their element. They know what a house looks like, but they aren’t used to so many unoccupied bedrooms. Most people have never seen a dumbwaiter; they aren’t used to the sounds old houses make when they settle. The otherness of the manor itself suddenly creates a chill that you hadn’t noticed lingering in the air before.
Pick settings that impact your characters. Your location should play just as much of a role in the outcome of your story as your characters do.
Highlight the horror by silhouetting it next to something happy. Distract your readers with humor and light-hearted banter. Let your characters have moments and steal kisses. Then just as quickly remind them they’re running out of time.
Foil characters are another great way to contrast good versus evil, but we’re going to go a step further in the next tip.
Blur the Lines
The good-guy protagonist should have flaws. The villain should be charming and attractive. Hide characters in plain sight. Play with the tropes. Did the nice old lady do it? Was it the creepy janitor that never talks? Could it have been the investigator all along???
Every character should be a suspect. Every character should have motives. Okay, so maybe not every, but you get the idea. The more uncertain evidence there is, the harder it will be for your readers to guess who-done-it.
But, don’t just stop with characters. Question morals. Blur the lines between right and wrong. The choices your characters make should be up for debate. Were they justified in their actions?
That's it. Well, the main points anyways. We'll go into more detail on related topics later on. I hope you enjoyed this Friday's tip on how to write suspense.
If you have any questions, need more details/examples, or know any other tips, feel free to leave them in the comment section.
As always, subscribe and catch next week's post where we discuss character fears. I'll even be providing a laundry list of fears you can use to develop your own characters.
Thanks for reading and happy Friday!