Suspense refers to both genre and a storytelling device that creates tension and builds your reader’s desire to find out. Read suspense writing examples, learn suspense-adding story devices you can use, and what experts at creating suspense say.
What is suspense?
Suspense (defined by Oxford Languages) is ‘a state or feeling of excited or anxious uncertainty about what may happen’. It comes from the Latin suspensus meaning ‘suspended, hovering, doubtful’.
Suspense as a literary device refers to the excited or anxious uncertainty the reader feels. A feeling created by narrative tone, mood and questions. What’s said, implied, and inferred. The baked-in, half-afraid ‘and then?’
Libraries and book merchants often group Suspense with ‘Mystery’ and ‘Thriller’. These two genres have strong elements of suspense, such as high tension, elaborately-constructed plot (including the use of plot twists). Suspenseful writing has a sense of urgency, often due to high stakes with life-or-death or otherwise vital potential outcomes.
Suspense vs mystery: What’s the difference?
Genre can be confusing because a suspense novel (such as a psychological suspense) may have mysterious elements, while a mystery novel uses suspense to drive questions (such as the reader’s anxious anticipation for the revelation of a killer’s identity, or that of their latest victim).
Writer Marianne Joyce gives an excellent definition via Quora of elements that distinguish suspense from mystery:
A mystery is constructed as a puzzle to be solved, generally opening with a murder or a dead body, a detective protagonist (formal or informal) trying to figure out “whodunit” […]Marianne Joyce, answer to question ‘What is the difference between “Mystery” and “Suspense”?’, via Quora
A suspense story opens with the equivalent of a killer planning a murder that has not yet occurred. The story is a race to prevent the killer from carrying out her plan. The protagonist is not limited to a “detective.” The appeal is more visceral and the interest is in resolving the tension of waiting for something bad to happen.
The two genres share some of the same elements, but the satisfactions are different. In mystery, the bad thing has already happened. In suspense, it hasn’t happened yet. Not to say there aren’t many variations and cross-overs and hybrid forms, but the difference between the two genres is in the nature of the basic appeal.
In this article, we’ll be focusing primarily on suspense as a literary device, how to write tenser stories that keep readers gripped and guessing, in any genre (such as writing horror, thriller, mystery or action).
Who are popular writers of suspense in fiction and film?
Before we explore suspense writing examples and devices, who are considered masters of suspenseful storytelling?
Authors of suspense stories in fiction
In suspense fiction writing in English, names you may come across include:
- Dame Agatha Christie – British author of murder mystery detective novels and crime short stories. Perhaps best known for her books focusing on inspector Hercule Poirot
- John Le Carré – British-Irish author famed for spy thrillers, novels about espionage
- Patricia Highsmith – American novelist and short-story writer of psychological thrillers. Best known for her ‘Mr Ripley’ character
- Harlan Coben – American author of mystery/thriller novels, the first author to receive the trifecta of the Edgar Award, Shamus Award and Anthony Award
- Gillian Flynn – American author of mystery and psychological suspense hits such as Sharp Objects and Gone Girl (Read her advice on writing what you know.)
- Liane Moriarty – Australian author of mystery thriller hits such as Big Little Lies (2014) which won the Australian Sisters in Crime Davitt Award
- Thomas Harris – American author best known for his cannibal suspense character Hannibal and the films and eponymous series it spawned
- Paula Hawkins – British author of mystery and psychological suspense and the hit novel The Girl on the Train
- Shari Lapena – Canadian author of mystery-suspense and thrillers best known for the 2016 bestseller The Couple Next Door
- JD Robb – the pseudonym of US author Nora Roberts who writes romantic suspense
- Wanda M. Morris – American author and corporate attorney who writes legal thrillers meets mystery/suspense and has featured on many ‘best of’ mystery and suspense lists
- Grace D. Li – American author of Portrait of a Thief , a heist novel nominated for the 2023 Edgar Allan Poe Awards (awarded by the Mystery Writers of America) for best mystery/suspense novel
- Danya Kukafka – American literary agent and author of literary suspense novel Notes on an Execution, awarded one of NYT’s best crime novel in 2022
Suspense screenwriters and directors
Top names in suspense film and TV include:
- Sir Alfred Hitchcock – British director known as ‘The Master of Suspense’. One of the most influential film directors of the 20th Century, Hitchcock was a master of creating suspense via editing, sound, and every other element of visual storytelling
- Rod Serling – American creator, writer and narrator of cult classic TV series, The Twilight Zone, which blended SFF with suspense, mystery, horror and psychological thriller
- Ray Bradbury and Roald Dahl – better known for their science fiction and dark comic children’s writing respectively, both also wrote many episodes of Hitchcock’s suspense anthology series (which propelled him to a household name), Alfred Hitchcock Presents
- Billy Wilder – co-writer of Sunset Boulevard (1950), the black comedy/film noir classic often listed as one of the best films ever made. Also various Oscar-winning romantic comedies and other genres with crossover suspense elements, such as The Apartment (1960)
🗣️ Who are your favorite suspense writers or directors? Tell us in the comments.
GET HELP WRITING SUSPENSE STORIES
Find helpful critiques, writing craft webinars with published authors, and tools to tell a great story.LEARN MORE
How to write suspense: 10 tension-adding devices
Thinking about how to create suspense in stories? Here are ten narrative devices. Keep reading for examples of suspenseful story openings and descriptions.
- Use deeper POV to create angst
Suspense builds when we have empathy for characters’ worries and concerns. Deeper POV can capture your MC’s angst.
- Use tense tone and mood in description
Suspense writing examples show how tone and mood build nervous or excited anticipation. What promises drama, like a hidden, ticking bomb?
- Write shorter sentences that beg questions
What was that sound from the attic? Try shorter sentences that create anticipation for something sinister, troubling or exciting.
- Defer character and plot reveals
For example, a friend needs to tell another something troubling about a new partner (but they get distracted during their brief encounter).
- Carry over urgent resolutions (create cliffhangers)
Where can you end a story segment so that your reader/viewer is impatient for what they’ll still find out?
- Play with non-linear timelines
Non-linear timelines create suspense by giving pieces of story without immediately giving their fuller, mystery-solving context.
- Use structured, teasing fragments
You might have a chapter or prologue that’s just teasing or troubling action (see the example by Frieda McFadden).
- Use dramatic irony
Dramatic irony is when your reader knows more than a character does (for example, the innocent traveler does not see illegal substances being concealed in their suitcase by a smuggler).
- Milk off-stage character introductions for suspense
Joseph Conrad builds and builds the reader’s anticipation for meeting Mr Kurtz with what is said about him in absentia in Heart of Darkness.
- Infer the impending unpleasant
What can you hint is coming that your characters (and readers, by extension) won’t be happy about?
Let’s explore each of these suspense writing ideas a little further:
Write suspenseful sentences in deeper POV
Deep POV brings us closer to characters, even when the person of narration is limited third rather than first person (he/she/they instead of I), or even in the more uncommon second person.
In suspense writing, the closeness of deep POV that shows more than tells is great for creating psychological suspense; a deep sense of a troubled mind or scenario.Tweet This
For example, in Notes on an Execution, Danya Kukafka begins with a character (narrated in second person) awakening in prison on the last day of their life:
You are a fingerprint.Danya Kukafka, Notes on an Execution (2022), p. 3.
When you open your eyes on the last day of your life, you see your own thumb. In the jaundiced prison light, the lines on the pad of your thumb look like a dried-out riverbed, like sand washed into twirling patterns by water, once there and now gone.
We see through serial killer character Ansel Packer’s eyes immediately (no telling exposition, e.g. ‘Ansel is a prisoner awaiting execution’).
The effective story opening makes the reader curious what Packer did to land in prison. We’re curious to learn why it is the last day of his life.
Use tense tone and mood in description
Suspense writing examples like the story opening above aren’t all explosions and the sound of running. Yet tense tone and mood in description help to establish anxious anticipation.
Sometimes suspense is as light as a cloud of hovering suspicion.Tweet This
See how Dame Agatha Christie creates the sense of a first encounter that sows a feeling of dislike and suspicion in her narrator in her first Poirot book:
“Styles is a really glorious old place,” I said to John.Agatha Christie, The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920), p. 10.
“Yes, it’s a fine property. It’ll be mine someday – should be mine now by rights, if my father had only made a decent will. And then I shouldn’t be so damned hard up as I am now.”
“Hard up, are you?”
“My dear Hastings, I don’t mind telling you that I’m at my wit’s end for money.”
“Couldn’t your brother help you?”
“Lawrence? He’s gone through every penny he ever had, publishing rotten verses in fancy bindings. No, we’re an impecunious lot. My mother’s always been awfully good to us, I must say. That is, up to now. Since her marriage, of course -” he broke off, frowning.
For the first time I felt that, with Evelyn Howard, something indefinable had gone from the atmosphere. Her presence had spelt security. Now that security was removed – and the air seemed rife with suspicion.
Hercule Poirot’s friend Hastings narrates the story. The above segment is shortly before the wealthy owner of the manor Hastings is staying at is poisoned, leading Hastings to seek Poirot’s investigative eye.
Tone and mood words that build suspense
What words and descriptors in the above suspense writing example (and in general) build suspenseful anticipation?
Christie uses words such as:
- security (implying its disappearance)
- suspicion (implying an atmosphere becoming full of it)
There is also trailing off, self-interruption – the suspenseful inference of empty space, non-speech.
Words (and silences) that imply uncertainty, unease and the potential for conflict create suspense.
In suspenseful writing, people (or things) often vanish, reappear unexpectedly (or in unexpected contexts), change, darken in implication, seeming intent, or association. A small deception or strange utterance may make the reader wonder what greater deceptions (or stranger utterances) lurk around the next corner.
Write shorter sentences that beg questions
If you examine Christie’s style, it is quite ornate. Earlier suspense, mystery, and thriller writing (such as in the ‘Golden Age’ of mystery) often reflects the mannered discourse (language system) of its times.
Yet short, clipped sentences are often favored in contemporary suspense fiction. The segment after the opening above, from Kukafka’s literary suspense novel, for example, starts:
Inmate, state your name and number.
Ansel Packer, you call out. 999631.Kukafka, p. 3.
The guard’s instruction confirms the opening’s inference that Ansel is in prison. Ansel’s description of his cell proceeds to this clear question on the next page:
The chaplain spoke about forgiveness and relieving the burden, and accepting what we cannot change. Then, the question.Kukafka, p. 4.
Your witness, the chaplain said through the visitation. Is she coming?
See how short sentences and fragments (e.g. ‘Then, the question’) create anticipation for what’s to come. Questions about questions. Witnesses (who they could be, what they may say or do).
Defer character and plot reveals
One trick in how to create suspense is extraordinarily simple: Defer. Say, ‘not now’ to the reader (but also ‘wait and you’ll find out soon’). The way a YouTuber might say ‘Keep watching this video to find out if…’
Here’s an example from episode 101 of The Twilight Zone (showing how the series made good use of situational suspense), written by Rod Sterling:
It is dawn, the road is deserted save for a small diner on the left-hand side. A broken neon light flashes on and off over the front door.
From inside the sound of a rock-‘n’-roll record lends a strange, raucous dissonance to the early morning silence. Then the camera sweeps right for a
LONG SHOT [OF] MIKE FERRIS
Who suddenly appears, walking down the road. His step is tentative, unsure. He’s a tall man in his thirties. His dress is nondescript, his only identifiable garment being army pants. There’s an indecisiveness, a puzzlement, in his features as he comes closer to the camera, sees the diner, stops, rubs his knuckles over the side of his face and feels his beard’s stubble. He pats in his pocket, unsure, reaches in and pulls out a couple of dollar bills. For some reason this buoys him up. He looks a little more resolved as he walks up the steps and into the diner.Rod Serling, script for The Twilight Zone, Episode 101: ‘Where is Everybody?’.
The description of the setting and Mike Ferris defers several pieces of information, such as:
- Where everybody is (A question that becomes eerier as the episode unfolds and there is nobody in the diner or a nearby town Mike walks to)
- Where Mike got the dollar bills (and why he is glad he has them)
- Why Mike seems tentative, puzzled, and indecisive
Suspense takes signs and symbols – a pocketful of dollars, an empty diner – and uses them to amplify uncertainty, the possibility that anything could happen.Tweet This
Carry over urgent resolutions (create cliffhangers)
You might say cliffhangers are the cheapest trick of all in suspense writing. Ending an episode of Line of Duty or True Detective with an investigator facing down the barrel of a gun, for example.
Even if they annoy audiences sometimes, cliffhanger endings done well keep them returning.
To create suspense, use scene and chapter breaks to hold over pressing questions.
For example, a cliffhanger may make the reader or viewer ask:
- What now? Such as when agent Leamas’s informant is gunned down as he waits for the man at a checkpoint in the opening to John Le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963).
- What trouble is brewing? An episode or story segment may end with a character’s capture, dismissal, being wrongfully accused, not spotting a crucial detail a camera lingers on (one that promises trouble).
- What will the answer be? The question in the first half of a cliffhanger may be a proposal and tough choice, an offer with high risks attached, a question whose answer could change everything.
Cliffhangers aren’t only devices for mystery, suspense, thrillers. Think of Gandalf falling from the bridge in the battle with the Balrog in The Lord of the Rings, the reader not knowing his fate for sure.
All genres benefit from suspense in balance with their other vital elements.
🗣️ What’s one of your favorite suspense-creating cliffhangers of all time? Tell us in the comments below.
Play with non-linear timelines
Although the timeline of a story should have a start, middle and end, the presentation of said timeline or chronology doesn’t have to be in that order.
Non-linear timelines create suspense by, for example, hinting towards a tense situation further down the line which the narrative will catch up with.Tweet This
Marquez uses this to brilliant effect in Cien años de soledad (One Hundred Years of Solitude, 1967), with the opening narration saying, ‘Many years later as he faced the firing squad…’ about one of the main characters). This resembles Kukafka’s literary suspense opening in implying a messy ending for a character right at the start that we will have to wait to find out more about.
It goes back to Marianne Joyce’s reminder that in suspense, ‘the bad thing hasn’t happened yet’ – it’s what your reader’s peeping at through hands covering their eyes.
What suspenseful situation could you lead with, even if it’s from a different part of the timeline?
The one thing to remember is to keep relative time clear (for example, using a subheading with the year for each section so your reader can get the overall timeline straight somehow).
Puzzling narration? Fine? Frustratingly confusing narration? Not so much.
Use structured, teasing fragments
Suspense writing is savvy in using every literary device available to the author to create anxious anticipation.
That includes form, section length, where you leave blank space to turn to the next chapter.
Shorter sections create faster pace, too.
FREE LESSON SERIES ON WRITING GRIPPING STORIES
Get five lessons on pace, tension and action direct to your inbox over five days when you join our newsletter.SUBSCRIBE HERE
A fragment such as a chapter or prologue that is concise is a common suspense ploy. Many books in the top rankings on Amazon for suspense follow a similar format:
- A short, one- to two-page page prologue that implies a suspenseful situation (such as the narrator being the daughter of a serial killer in Frieda McFadden’s The Locked Door).
- The prologue leaves questions about a bad situation that will happen (or how a character escaped – or did not escape – an unfolding one).
McFadden’s suspense novel opening:
Twenty-six years ago today, a man named Aaron Nierling was arrested in his home in Oregon.Frieda McFadden, The Locked Door (2021), p. 5.
Most people knew Nierling as an upstanding citizen. He held a steady job and was a dedicated husband and father — a family man. He had never received a parking ticket in his lifetime. He had certainly never been in trouble with the law.
McFadden’s narrator goes on to detail the grisly crimes Nierling was incarcerated for, before the prologue ends:
He is a narcissist and psychopath, who likely killed at least thirty women without a trace of remorse. He is insane. He is a monster.
He is also my father.McFadden, p. 6.
Although the writing is a little ‘unpleasant scenario by numbers’ (and the Goodreads reviews are polarized but positive on average), this example shows a common way fragmentary, shorter sections (especially prologues) create suspense and stir reader curiosity.
Use dramatic irony
What is dramatic irony?
This is when your reader or viewer knows more than your characters do, thanks to a secondary viewpoint (such as a long shot in film revealing a crucial detail a character missed in a scene).
How is dramatic irony suspenseful? When we are aware of more than a character, there is the suspense of wondering when they’ll catch up to us in the information they know. A commentor on a Medium article about Hitchcock uses this effective example:
(Spoiler) In the 1936 film Sabotage, the villain plants a bomb in a package carried by a young boy. The boy doesn’t know about the bomb, so all of his actions (e.g. playing with a cute dog on the bus) generate suspense in the way you describe (audience wants to shout out a warning to the boy).Steven Hale, via Medium, ‘How Hitchcock Generates Suspense in His Films’, accessed 23rd February 2023.
You can create suspense in all genres through this ‘double vision’.
Example of dramatic irony and suspense in a romantic story
For example, in the Oscar-winning love story, Cinema Paradiso, the opening shot is of the main character’s mother knitting.
The doorbell rings, and the mother heads downstairs, unaware her wool has caught on her clothing. As she goes to answer the door, the camera remains on her knitting, as it unravels with her movements.
This is an example of how to create suspense (and humor) out of a non-violent scenario. The knitting is not ‘life-or-death’, but its unravelling is suspenseful because the mother doesn’t know what we, the audience, do.
The unfortunate nature of the scenario (hard work being undone with the worker unaware) creates suspense along with tragi-comic pathos.
Milk off-stage character introductions for suspense
Another popular suspense-creating device in writing: Make characters talk about someone offstage, a character who has not yet appeared.
This is especially suspenseful if it is implied that character is feared or unpleasant in some way (like Maris Crane in the sitcom Frasier).
You could call this the ‘Mr Kurtz’ effect. in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1902), we hear a lot about the corrupted Mr Kurtz (a cruel and violent overseer of a colonial outpost in the former Belgian Congo) before we actually finally meet the power-drunk, dark-sided man.
This narrative ploy keeps us waiting in apprehension – in suspense – for Kurtz’s introduction.
Infer the impending unpleasant
The above examples are similar in that they use inferring something unpleasant approaching to create suspense. From hinting towards the atmosphere of suspicion and dislike preceding a fatal poisoning at an English manor house (in Christie’s story), to finding out what a girl’s life with her serial killer father is like (in McFadden’s).
What will your reader be anxious to find out? What do they hope won’t come to pass?
Suspense writing tips from authors and directors
What do pros of suspense writing say about writing suspense or using suspense as a device? What do suspense writing examples from their work teach us? Read examples from Christie, Le Carré, and others.
Dame Agatha Christie on the deceptiveness of appearances
Many of Dame Agatha Christie’s best quotes for learning about writing suspense are found in her novels.
For example, this quote from Murder on the Orient Express (1934), one of her most famous detective novels starring her protagonist Poirot, about deceptive appearances:
Hercule Poirot was a moment in replying.Christie, Murder on the Orient Express (1934), Location 254 to 282 (Kindle version).
“When he passed me in the restaurant,” he said at last, “I had a curious impression. It was as though a wild animal – an animal savage, but savage! you understand – had passed me by.”
“And yet he looked altogether the most respectable.”
“Précisément! The body – the cage – is everything of the most respectable. But through the bars, the wild animal looks out.”
The suspense of these character descriptions lies in making the reader remember outward appearance does not necessarily align with the content of a person’s character. It casts suspicion on (and creates suspense about) a man who may not be the person he plays in public.
Sir Alfred Hitchcock on suspense versus surprise
Hitchcock, in conversation with French New Wave director Francois Truffaut, uses the example of a bomb planted under a table to illustrate the difference between suspense and surprise:
“There is a distinct difference between “suspense” and “surprise,” and yet many pictures continually confuse the two. I’ll explain what I mean.
We are now having a very innocent little chat. Let’s suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, “Boom!” There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence.Hitchcock, Chapter 3 in Hitchcock by Francois Truffaut (1966), p. 73, emphasis added.
Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. The public is aware the bomb is going to explode at one o’clock and there is a clock in the decor. The public can see that it is a quarter to one. In these conditions, the same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: “You shouldn’t be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!”
The difference is that in surprise as a narrative device versus suspense, there is not the build-up of nervous expectation. Suspense is the expectation of the unexpected. Forewarned is fore-alarmed.Tweet This
Patricia Highsmith on creating suspense in atmosphere using six senses
Patricia Highsmith, regarded as one of the great crime writers, wrote a guide to suspense-writing. In Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction (1966), she gives this sound advice on involving the senses:
A neglect of atmosphere is hardly a snag, but can give a writer a thin-ice feeling as he progresses, without his knowing why. I cannot think of a formula for creating atmosphere, but since atmosphere comes in through any or all of the five senses, or sixth also, one should make use of them. How a house smells, the general color of a room – olive green, musty brown, or cheerful yellow. And sounds – that of a tin can being blown down a street, of an invalid coughing in another room, the mingled smell of medicaments, often dominated by camphor, that is in many old people’s rooms. Or on a country estate where nothing seems wrong or threatening, one may feel for no reason that the trees are about to fall inward and demolish the house.Patricia Highsmith, Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction (1966), location 1090 (Kindle version).
Highsmith’s reference to a sixth sense is interesting, the sense of premonition. This finely-attuned sense – the detective’s hunch, dislike, suspicion – plays a big part in the Poirot suspense writing examples above.
Perception as a vehicle of anxious anticipation (such as the apprehension about the trees and the house in Highsmith’s suspense example) is crucial in psychological thrillers and other genres’ where characters’ psyches supply suspense (such as horror).
Suspense writing examples
Read examples of suspenseful writing including suspenseful story openings and suspenseful description that creates stark tone and mood.
Examples of suspenseful story beginnings
I am serving the fifth year of a life sentence for murdering my own child.Harlan Coben, I Will Find You (2023).
Spoiler alert: I didn’t do it.
Tom glanced behind him and saw the man coming out of the Green Cage, heading his way. Tom walked faster. There was no doubt that the man was after him.Patricia Highsmith, The Talented Mr Ripley (1955).
“State your name for the record, please.”Grace D. Li, Portrait of a Thief: A Novel (2022).
This was how things began: Boston on the cusp of fall, the Sackler Museum robbed of twenty-three pieces of priceless Chinese art.
See how each example implies something bad that has happened or will happen? How each author loads their story’s beginning with many unanswered questions.
Examples of suspenseful scene-setting and description
See how description is used to create a sense of psychological unease and anticipation in these examples:
At that exact moment, 6-0-0, the sun climbed over the skyline of oaks, revealing its full summer angry-God self. Its reflection flared across the river towards our house, a long, blaring finger aimed at me through our frail bedroom curtains. Accusing: You have seen. You will be seen.Gillian Flynn, Gone Girl (2012), p. 3.
He felt safe in the taxi. Safe and warm. The warmth was contraband, smuggled from his bed and hoarded against the wet January night. Safe because unreal: it was his ghost that ranged the London streets and took note of their unhappy pleasure-seekers […]John Le Carré, Call for the Dead (1961), p. 3.
Jackson, Mississippi, was a big enough place that if you didn’t go to church or work for any of the white families in town, maybe you could hide out, disappear among the crowd. I didn’t fit into either one of them categories. I was simply a colored woman who’d killed a white man in Mississippi. It didn’t matter that I’d gone to the police about his attack days ago. I needed to get out of town. Fast.Wanda M. Morris, Anywhere You Run (2022), p. 9.
These suspense writing examples show several suspense hallmarks:
- Use of setting to contribute psychological suspense: The way the narrator in Gone Girl reframes sun falling on him in bed as an accusation implying a guilty conscience, for example.
- Opposition between safe inside/unsafe outside: For example, Le Carré’s intelligence officer George Smiley contrasting the safety of the taxi with the darkness of the streets and the city’s underbelly.
- Place as a catalyst for urgent action: Wanda M. Morris’ description of Jackson, Mississippi quickly turns to why the protagonist must get out of it in a hurry.
🗣️ What’s an example of suspenseful writing you love? Share it in the comments.
Get help writing suspense with editorial and community critiques, regular writing craft webinars, story outlining tools and more. Join The Process for all the tools to write a suspense story.