Suspense: Why You Want It and How to Create It

In a story, when we talk about suspense we are talking about the ability to keep your reader on the edge of their seat.  They firmly believe that something is going to happen.  It may very well happen soon.  And the reader feels tense.

Sometimes suspense comes with knowing something big is at stake.  The timer is counting down and when it reaches zero . . . ka-boom!  Or it can be a matter of a character being in a live-or-die situation. This live or die situation could be literal – air is running out, a bomb is counting down, or the virus is building in his system.  Or it could be emotional as the character competes at state, in the elementary school science fair or for the love or their teen life.

The situation is tense but how do you create tension in your writing.  Here are nine tricks to try:

  1. Write your story in the third person so that the reader can see something coming even if the character cannot.
  2. Limit things in time or space.  This could mean a countdown or limiting the character’s physical movement – they have to get off the bus, out of the cabin, or out-of-town.
  3. Reduce the time or space.  The timer suddenly starts counting down even faster.  Or the space available is reduced.
  4. Use a scary setting.  Don’t just put your character in a setting that they find scary. Use one that people find scary.  A deserted mental hospital. A dark space station.  Someplace high.  Someplace with spooky noises.
  5. Foreshadow, hinting at a problem before it arises.
  6. Pile on the complications.  Just when your character has the prize within reach, snatch it away and add another complication.
  7. Remove a key defense.  The character’s phone goes dead or a door slams down separating them from their friends.
  8. Create doubt.  Does the character wonder if she can succeed?  Maybe things are too closely paralleling an earlier failure.
  9. Through the details you include.  When you describe your setting, include suspenseful or creepy details.  Branches are grasping.  Sounds are secretive whispers.  A building settling is moaning in agony.

I’m going to have to create suspense as I work through my mystery and I don’t just mean the scenes that involve my would-be detective and the murderer. I’ve been writing all around it but I need to write the scene where they find the body.  Step by creepy step, I’ll need to layer in the details that will have my readers on the edge of their seats.


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