Though written as a YA novel, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins was a big hit with readers of all ages. One key to its success was its use of suspense, and we can examine it to learn how to write suspense ourselves.
First, create an engaging protagonist. The reader needs to care what happens in the story in order to build suspense. The protagonist should be flawed – no one wants to read about or can relate to a character who is perfect – but should be someone the reader can come to care about. Katniss can be prickly and impulsive, but she is also brave and cares deeply about those closest to her.
Put something of significance at stake. In The Hunger Games, that something is the very survival of Katniss, something very big indeed. However, a mistake many writers make is thinking that suspense can be built only with big issues like survival, worlds ending or wars. If we look at The Hunger Games, we can see that there are smaller elements that build suspense as well. For example, we wonder what will become of her friendship with Gale. The key is to convince the reader of the significance of something to the characters whether it is maintaining a relationship, being on time for an important appointment or saving the world.
Give the protagonist clear problems to solve. You’ll create more suspense with characters who have easily pinpointed goals and problems. In Katniss’s case, she needs to protect her sister and stay alive.
Make the protagonist try and fail, and keep raising and complicating the stakes. The above points lay the groundwork for effective suspense; this technique will make sure that you maintain it throughout your novel. For example, Katniss survives the first deadly hours of the games only to nearly die of thirst in the days that follow. She is also badly burned and chased by a pack. She is resourceful but by no means infallible.
Staying alive might be enough for one protagonist to contend with, but Collins raises the stakes on us by giving us a young girl, Rue, for Katniss to care about and protect. Later, Katniss’s simple problem of staying alive and killing off the other contestants is further complicated by her relationship with another contestant, Peeta. Now she not only has to survive, but she has to outwit the game makers and the government and save them both. A lesser writer would have been satisfied to simply have Katniss win the games, but Collins pushes it further. To do something similar in your own novel, look at each major development and ask yourself how you might complicate it more for the character.
How will you build suspense in your novel?
Image from here.