Suspense isn’t just for mysteries. It’s a critical element of any successful story.
Done well, suspense uses uncertainty to make the reader feel both excited and anxious. Suspense is what keeps a reader turning the pages. It’s a sense of dread or anticipation brought on by a lack of information that keeps the reader guessing. Will she, or won’t she? Can they ever overcome the odds? Who will he choose? Will she tell the truth? Will they get there in time?
- Give your protagonist an explicit goal or objective: If your readers know exactly what your protagonist wants (or wants to avoid), they will be more easily hooked because they will want to know whether or not the protagonist achieves the goal.
- Raise the stakes: This is about knowing what will happen if the protagonist fails – what are the consequences? As with having an explicit goal, clarity and transparency about the stakes will go a long way toward engaging your readers. You can also play around with increasing the importance of the stakes to the protagonist. In other words, how can you make achieving the goal more important to the protagonist? For instance, if your protagonist is a young jockey who really wants to win a particular race, you could raise the stakes by having the owner of the horse threaten to fire the jockey if he doesn’t win. Or, maybe the owner is going to put the horse down if it loses one more race. You can also experiment with making the protagonist’s objective important to a greater number of people. In class, Pereira used the example of a courier having the goal of delivering a life-saving organ. In that scenario, you could raise the stakes by increasing awareness of the consequences for other people (the patient, the patient’s family, etc.) if the protagonist doesn’t achieve the goal.
- Add danger: Adding danger automatically creates suspense, but it has to be real danger. You have to be willing to put your characters in terrible situations. You have to be willing to tap into the reader’s worst fears by making your characters suffer. There are a couple of nuances to remember here. First, the danger doesn’t have to be physical. It can be emotional, psychological, spiritual, or moral. The danger might be grounded in medical issues, sexual politics, or some other tense and uncomfortable situation. Second, the protagonist does not need to know she’s in danger. Only the reader needs to know. This can actually heighten suspense because the reader will then be doing that talking-at-the-screen thing we do when watching horror movies: “Don’t go down in the basement. The bad guy is down there!”
- Add a ticking clock: There are few things more nerve wracking than a countdown. Adding a time constraint can really amp up the suspense by applying that much more pressure to an already tense situation. Think of any story with a deadline, and you’ll know what I mean. A couple of things that will help ensure that you do this successfully: a) keep checking in on the time so that your reader stays aware of the time limit, and b) you can also choose to slow time down to real time in order to draw out the action and build anticipation.
- Afflict your protagonist with an inability to act: This is kind of like throwing one more roadblock between your hero and his goal. Think about ways you can impede the protagonist’s progress toward his objective. What can hold him back – physical ability, skill level, age, parental consent, distance, etc? How can you make him vulnerable?
These are just a few ways to heighten the suspense in your story and keep your reader hooked and turning pages. For more ideas, check out these posts from Writer’s Digest:
- 5 Simple Steps on Creating Suspense in Fiction [using backstory]
- 6 Secrets to Creating and Sustaining Suspense
I also found this article by Mark Billingham to be helpful.
Jamie Lee Wallace Hi. I’m Jamie. I am a content marketer and branding consultant, columnist, sometime feature writer, prolific blogger, and aspiring fiction writer. I’m a mom, a student of equestrian and aerial arts (not at the same time), and a nature lover. I believe in small kindnesses, daily chocolate, and happy endings. Join me each Saturday for the Weekend Edition (a fun post and great community of commenters on the writing life, random musings, writing tips, and good reads), or introduce yourself on Facebook, twitter, Instagram, or Pinterest. I don’t bite … usually.
Note: The image above was sourced from Pinterest, but there was no artist attribution. I did a reverse search on the image, but came up empty – mostly wallpaper and stock image sites. If anyone can identify the artist, I’d be grateful. Tks!