Learning how to write cliffhangers and suspenseful scenes is a crucial skill, whether you write mystery thrillers, fantasy fiction or another genre. The suspense examples from books below show how to bring readers to the intolerable state of not knowing that makes us race to turn the page. Here are 5 tips to start:
1. Build anticipation for your chapter’s most suspenseful incident
2. Reveal vital information your characters don’t yet know themselves
3. Use shorter sentences to increase pace and tension
4. Create constraints that complicate characters’ goals
5. Depict gripping character dilemmas
Let’s look closer at each of these pointers:
1. Build anticipation for your scene’s most suspenseful incident
Small signs of a coming showdown build tension. Consider this example of suspenseful scene structure:
- 1: Character Naomi buys a newspaper – a headline on the back (which Naomi does not see before she’s interrupted by a phone call) reads ‘Lake District Killings Stump Investigators’
- 2: The caller is Naomi’s boss asking her to collect a package in said Lake District
- 3: Naomi’s car breaks down in the area but there’s a garage nearby. She goes to get help and the owner gives her the creeps
The newspaper headline Naomi hasn’t seen alerts us to the danger of her destination. When her car breaks down, that knowledge is in the back of our minds as readers (but not in Naomi’s mind because she’s oblivious to the danger).
This creates dread because we anticipate a shocking turn of events. If this chapter were to end on the shifty garage owner telling Naomi to wait while he nips out back, this would be a good minor cliffhanger, regardless of whether the owner later proves to be the killer or only a red herring (a false suspect).
2. Reveal vital information your characters don’t yet know themselves
Giving your reader troubling information your protagonist does not yet have, information that directly concerns them, is an excellent method for creating suspense and tension.
Consider this example from David Mitchell’s novel, Cloud Atlas (2004):
Suspense in David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas
In the section of the novel titled ‘Half-Lives – The First Luisa Rey Mystery’, Luisa Rey is a journalist investigating a nuclear power plant in California that may be contravening safety regulations.
Her investigation places her in danger, as the ruthless owners face dire consequences if news of their irresponsibility leaks.
Towards the end of the chapter, Luisa is driving in her orange VW, en route to report her latest findings. Meanwhile, we read this exchange between a security guard and a mysterious man, Mr Smoke, at a checkpoint near the plant:
“I’m guessing Joe Napier has just called you and ordered you not to let an orange VW pass the checkpoint.”
“That’s correct, Mr. Smoke.”
“I’m here to countermand that order, on Mr Grimaldi’s personal authority. You will raise the barrier for the VW and let me follow. You’ll phone your buddy on the mainland checkpoint now, and tell him not to let anything through until he sees my car. When Mr Napier gets here, about fifteen minutes from now, you will tell him Alberto Grimaldi says, “Go back to bed.” Understand, Richter?”
“Understood, Mr Smoke.”
David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas (2004), p. 143
Mitchell creates tension because we know a guard has been given instructions regarding Luisa’s VW. We also see potential help for Luisa – her friend Joe Napier – will be diverted. Mr Smoke proceeds to threaten the guard subtly:
“You got married this spring, if memory serves?”
“You have an excellent memory, sir.”
“I do. Hoping to start a family?”
“My wife’s four months pregnant, Mr Smoke.”
“A piece of advice, Richter, on how to succeed in the security business. Would you like to hear this piece of advice, son?”
“I would, sir.”
“The dumbest dog can sit and watch. What takes brains is knowing when to look away. Am I making sense to you, Richter?”
Mitchell, Cloud Atlas, p. 144
This exchange stacks the odds against Luisa. Our suspicions Mr Smoke has dark intentions are confirmed when Mr Smoke rams Luisa’s car off the road after the checkpoint, sending her plunging into the sea below in a tense, chapter-ending cliffhanger.
Similarly, give your reader information they wish they could relay to the endangered or otherwise oblivious protagonist.
3. Use shorter sentence length to increase pace and tension
Sentence length and structure can dramatically alter the mood of a passage. Long, flowing sentences often achieve a lyrical effect. Short, terse, intense sentences, on the other hand, speed up the flow because we parse or process what they mean faster.
Take this example from E. Annie Proulx’s Pulitzer-winning novel, The Shipping News (1993).
Sentence length and tension in The Shipping News
The protagonist Quoyle has found a mysterious suitcase washed up on rocky outcrops on the Newfoundland coast. The chapter builds to Quoyle finally opening the suitcase when he is back on land:
Quoyle dragged the suitcase under the single wharf light. He found a piece of pipe and jabbed the lock. The pipe clinked against the brass. The lock held. Quoyle looked around for something to pry, a screwdriver or chisel, but there was nothing but stone and broken glass. In frustration he raised the pipe over his shoulder and swung as hard as he could at the lock. A metallic crack and, with a frightful wave of stench, the suitcase sprang open.
Under the light he saw the ruined eye, the flattened face and blood-stiff mustache of Bayonet Mellville on a bed of seaweed. The gelatinous horror slid out onto the wharf.
E. Annie Proulx, The Shipping News (1993), pp. 177-178
Quoyle’s grisly discovery – the severed head of a character encountered in an earlier chapter – is gradually built to throughout the chapter. The short, verb-centred phrases (‘the lock held’) create a breathless sense of unfolding action. Vary sentence length too, because it will make moments of suspense and terror move faster.
4. Use constraints that complicate characters’ goals
When a character must achieve an impossible-seeming task, additional constraints – such as time limitations – increase tension.
The third novel in Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series, The Waste Lands (1991), for example, has a cliffhanger [spoiler follows].
The novel ends with a tense train ride on a monorail whose AI is highly intelligent but has gone insane. King’s characters must escape the city of Lud on the monorail, as the city’s destruction is imminent due to the malfunctioning AI. The train announces to the band of characters that it will derail itself before they reach their destination unless they can defeat it in a riddle contest.
These constraints effectively increase tension. For the characters to reach their goal they must outwit complex AI. King then adds a further element of unpredictability, the AI’s malfunctioning. The story ends on this cliffhanger, without giving the reader a comforting resolution.
Constraints you can use to create obstacles to your characters’ goals and make your scenes tense include:
- Time constraints (such as the rapidly approaching destruction that drives King’s characters to flee Lud)
- Physical constraints – a character, for example, must hurry from a malevolent pursuer but they are injured, slowing them down
- Mental constraints – popular sources of tension in sci fi novels, where characters must sometimes understand and solve complex problems involving machine learning to correct hazardous yet logically explicable behaviour
5. Create gripping character dilemmas
There are many suspense examples in books that show how a good character dilemma can make a story gripping. Tension and suspense grow from our investment in characters’ arcs.
In David Mitchell’s example above, we invest in Luisa Rey’s arc because she is on an ethical path to expose corrupt corporate behaviour that is threatening others’ wellbeing. Besides making characters face external threats to their goals (known and unknown), create interesting dilemmas.
Steven James writing for Writer’s Digest lists some character dilemmas that increase suspense:
- Competing desires: A character is torn between opposing wants.
- Tests of faith: A character must ask themselves how far they’re willing to go to stay true to primary beliefs or values
- Being forced into a corner: A character has no easy way out but is compelled to make a decision through external forces. The classic example of this is Sophie’s Choice (1979), the tragic (and controversial) story of a woman imprisoned in Auschwitz who must choose which of her children lives
Character dilemmas often deepen existing tensions. For example, when Quoyle discovers the severed head in the suspense example from The Shipping News, this could in turn become a dilemma. Who should Quoyle tell first? What will the consequences of uncovering this murder be? Creating gripping sequences of dilemmas, choices, and further dilemmas that arise from these choices creates sustained tension.
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