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:
First: What is suspense in a story?
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 Latin suspendere which literally means ‘to hang below’. That’s why the ‘cliffhanger’ – a section or book ending 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 suspense visually, through shot composition, colour tone, audio and more.
So how do you build suspense in your writing?
1. Use suspense-creating adverbial clauses of time
Adverbial clauses of time are 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 the outcome: ‘Why couldn’t she reach the exit?’ This questioning is further provoked by the use of ‘could’ (a ‘conditional’ word), as it creates a sense of possibility.
In the second example, the phrase ‘in 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 isn’t 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 you’ve 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. Can’t afford another dead end – they’ll find me in a minute. A door. Could this be it? Not even a moment to unfold my floor 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:
3. Use suspenseful character development
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 character’s lot or situation can be used make your story gripping. Human drama is effective for drawing readers in because it trades in raw emotion. If a character is in a downward spiral and making terrible (or even life-threatening) choices, the reader wonders whether things will change for the better or not.
To create engrossing suspense in you character arcs:
- Give primary characters flaws that threaten to derail their passage to their goals – leave readers asking ‘will they or won’t 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 current situations for climactic moments.
Character development can create the excitement in the face of uncertainty that makes readers curious. Cliffhangers in suspense writing don’t have to involve actual cliffs. Your main character’s internal conflict can be equally precarious and suspense-creating.
Time is another important element of suspense:
4. Use time limitations
Gripping novels often play out within a short span of time. There’s a reason the political thriller series 24 covered only 24 hours in real time each season. Viewers could experience the many tense moments during each action-packed day in the life of the main character, a fictional counter-terrorism agent.
Time limitations add pressure and help to stack the odds 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 haven’t spoken out, and one is planning to book a one-way transcontinental flight in two days’ time
- A woman is fighting a gambling addiction and is given one month to pay back a ruthless loan shark
- A college student is running late to his final exams which start in fifteen minutes from the story’s opening
Suspenseful time limitations don’t 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 isn’t a punctual person. Yet it also makes the reader want to know about the outcome of a suspenseful situation and thus grabs interest.
5. Add plot complications
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.
In The 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 central characters such as Gandalf, and create suspense regarding whether these characters live or die. Tolkien’s 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 believable precariousness
- 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, in Their Eyes were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston, the arrival of a hurricane in the novel’s southern produces a major and suspenseful complication, one that isn’t wrought by the characters’ actions).
6. Foreshadow important plot events
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 what’s to come, the more readers will wonder what the reveal will be.
For example, if you were writing a novel about a tragic summer 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 rickety raft.’
Foreshadowing significant plot points creates the burning question that is central to suspense stories: ‘What happens?’
7. Change character perspective at key points
If you’re 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 Grammarly’s blog).
Leave off one character’s arc when there is a situation requiring resolution to continue another character’s story. That way, the reader is doubly invested in the current story being narrated as well as the story they haven’t read the outcome of yet. A great example of this device is David Mitchell’s Cloud 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 and create a blueprint for your own suspenseful book.