Mystery Novel Journalism
2022 Jun 06

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Suspense writing: 7 hacks to notch up tension

Suspense writing, when executed well, turns a simple story into an engrossing page-turner. Tension and pacing, narrative structure, elements of setting and character development are all important in writing suspenseful stories. Here are 7 ways to create suspense in fiction:

Suspense writing, when executed well, turns a simple story into an engrossing page-turner. Tension and pacing, narrative structure, elements of setting and character development are all important in writing suspenseful stories. Here are 7 ways to create suspense in fiction:

Suspense, as a literary term, means a quality in a work of fiction that arouses excited expectation or uncertainty about what may happen (OED).The English word comes from the Latinsuspenderewhich literally means to hang below. Thats why the cliffhanger a section or bookending that ends on a tense moment and defers resolution is the prime example of suspense.

In film there are all kinds of ways to create suspensevisually, through shot composition, colour tone, audio and more.

So how do you build suspense in your writing?

Adverbial clausesof timeare phrases that locate actions in chronological relation to other actions. For example:

Before I could reach the exit, I felt something wrap around my leg

In the middle of the night, I heard an eerie whispering

In the examples above, suspense is created by the two adverbial phrases. When we read before I could reach the exit, we know something happened that prevented the narrator from reaching their immediate goal. This creates suspense, by raising our curiosity about theoutcome: Why couldnt she reach the exit? This questioning is further provokedby the use of could (a conditional word), as it creates a sense of possibility.

In the second example, the phrasein the middle of the night describes the act of hearing, and things you hear in the middle of the night (unknown, eerie things especially) are much more suspenseful and ominous than anything heard in broad daylight.

Practice making actions seem more suspenseful using adverbial phrases to open sentences. As an exercise, write three sentences using the following openings:

In the middle of the night, I

Before I could even run, the

2. Use shorter sentences (a staple of suspense writing)

Sentence length is important when writing suspense. Ideally, your writing should have variety and flow so that the rhythm of the words on the page isnt dully repetitive. Yet in scenes of high drama and anticipation, shorter sentences increase pace.

To illustrate: Think about how when you try to speak immediately after youve sprinted, you can only say a few words at a time: That breathlessness is something to keep in mind when writing an eventful suspense scene. For example:

No exit. I tear back to the main corridor. Cant afford another dead end theyll find me in a minute. A door. Could this be it? Not even a moment to unfold myfloor plan.

Varying sentence length both makes your writing more interesting and structurally shows a change in the tempo of a scene.

Besides using sentence structure and construction to create suspense, there are elements of suspense you can create through character development and narrative devices,too:

In the mystery/suspense genre and other suspenseful genres such as romantic suspense and horror, character development is an important component of suspense.

Changing a characters lot or situation can be used make your story gripping. Human drama is effective for drawing readers inbecause it trades inraw emotion. If a character is in a downward spiral and making terrible (or even life-threatening) choices, thereader wonders whether things will change for the better or not.

To create engrossing suspense in you character arcs:

Give primary characters flawsthat threaten to derail their passage to their goals leave readers asking will they or wont they overcome?

Show your character making forward progress and taking steps back: The best path to a goal is seldom a straight line.

Keep surprising or shocking information about your characters backstories and currentsituations for climactic moments.

Character development can create the excitement in the face of uncertainty that makes readers curious. Cliffhangers in suspense writing dont have to involve actual cliffs. Your main characters internal conflict can be equally precarious and suspense-creating.

Time is another important element of suspense:

Gripping novels often play out within a short span of time. Theres a reason the political thriller series24covered only 24 hours in real time each season. Viewers couldexperience the many tense moments during each action-packed day in the life of the main character, afictional counter-terrorism agent.

Time limitations add pressure and help to stack theodds against your characters. The ticking bomb is the obvious example of a time-sensitive plot device that increase suspense. But time limitations can be used in all fiction genres: Romance, historical fiction, mystery, fantasy and others. Some examples of suspense-generating time limitations:

Two characters are romantically interested in each other but havent spoken out, and one is planning to book aone-way transcontinental flight in two days time

A woman is fighting a gambling addiction and is given one month to pay back a ruthlessloan shark

A college student is running late to his final exams which start in fifteen minutes from the storys opening

Suspenseful time limitations dont have to be pivotal to your plot necessarily. In the case of the third example, this might simply be a situation that introduces us to the main character and tells us that he isnt a punctual person. Yet it also makes the reader want to know about the outcome of a suspenseful situation and thus grabs interest.

Narrative structure in suspense writing needs to be taut or your novel will start to wander and lose some of its tension. Adding plot complications can increase suspense.

InThe Lord of the Rings, for example, dangerous conflicts with labyrinth-dwelling beasts lie along the heroes path towards their primary goal. Conflicts such as these separate the main party from crucial centralcharacters such as Gandalf, and create suspense regarding whether thesecharacters live or die. Tolkiens effective plot complications thus create suspense in useful ways:

They show that the main characters will have to fulfill their objectives against mighty odds

They show that even the most powerful member of the group can be overcome this creates believableprecariousness

They create unknowns: Will the characters who have disappeared return or not?

Plot complications can arise out of character actions and incidents, or out of external events that affect your characters. (For example, inTheir Eyes were Watching GodbyZora Neale Hurston, the arrival of a hurricane in the novels southern produces a major and suspenseful complication, one that isnt wrought by the characters actions).

Another element of narrative structure that creates suspense is foreshadowing. Hinting at future developments engages readers curiosity, and the more elliptical and teasing you are about whats to come, the more readers will wonder what the reveal will be.

For example, if you were writing a novel about a tragicsummer recalled by a member of a group of friends, the story might open thus:

Had we known at the start of that summer what would happen, we would each have gone off to youth camp or stayed indoors, not daring to venture downriver on our ricketyraft.

Foreshadowing significant plot pointscreates the burning question that is central to suspense stories: What happens?

If youre writing a trilogy or series, you may want to end each novel on a minor cliffhanger so that readers feel compelled to read subsequent books in your series. Yet you can also create minor cliffhangers in the course of your story by changing character perspective(as Kimberly Joki suggests here on Grammarlys blog).

Leave off one characters arc when there is a situation requiring resolution to continue another characters story. That way, the reader is doubly invested in the current story being narrated as well as the story they havent readthe outcome of yet.A great example of this device is David MitchellsCloud Atlas. Each section of the novel ends in a perilous or perplexing situation, and Mitchell resolves these cliffhangers in reverse order, so that Mitchell ties up the loose ends of the first story last.

Plotting and a strong central story idea are crucial for mastering the elements of suspense writing. The Now Novel process will help you find your central idea andcreate a blueprint for your ownsuspenseful book.

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Suspense in books: 6 ways to grow anticipation

Writing background characters: 5 uses

Writing resources: Our best of 2021

how to create tensionwriting suspense

Jordan is a writer, editor, community manager and product developer. He received his BA Honours in English Literature and his undergraduate in English Literature and Music from the University of Cape Town.

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First: What is suspense in a story?

1. Use suspense-creating adverbial clausesof time

2. Use shorter sentences (a staple of suspense writing)

3. Use suspenseful character development

6. Foreshadow important plot events

7. Change character perspective at key points

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