Do you remember how you felt while reading The Da Vinci Code or Gone Girl? The sweaty palms, the pleasant shiver, the jaw-clenching tension? Remember how those well-drawn elements of suspense held you in thrall, feathering along your skin, raising goosebumps?
Can you recall the delectable slow burn suspense of Du Maurier’s Rebecca, or the heart-thumping thrill of a Jack Reacher novel?
Or maybe the bookworm memory that burns brightest for you was lit from the shadowy, secret reaches of In a Dark, Dark Wood or Before I Go To Sleep.
Suspense fiction comes in a variety of flavors, all delicious, and if you have a yen for building suspense in your writing and learning how to create the same kind of reading experience for your own audience, this is the place for you.
For a special series of articles, I’ll be your guide as we dig deep into the elements of suspense that grab readers and don’t let go. These elements apply, regardless of the publishing route you choose for getting your stories out to your suspense readers.
Here, we will learn how you can craft suspense in your own books, so read on—and stay tuned!
Anticipation . . . Worth the Wait
Anticipation is a critical part of suspense, and I suffered/enjoyed a long period of anticipation before I started my writing career. I knew from the time I popped open my first Nancy Drew book that I’d “grow up” to write mysteries. But as I matured, I also came to realize that for me, those writing days would have to wait.
With young children at home and a husband often away, serving on US Navy submarines, I didn’t dare sit down to write. For me, storytelling is an all-immersive thing. I go into another world and everything around me fades away, forgotten. Neglected. So I chose to wait until my baby graduated from high school and flew the nest.
But my writing dream did not sit idle during those years.
I read just about every book on the craft of writing I could find, focusing my study on suspense fiction, and reveled in learning all I could. I tossed stories around in the back of my head and let them grow there, nourished by new ideas and influences.
Most of all, I read and read and read for the sheer and utter enjoyment of it as I anticipated the season of my life when I would begin writing my own mystery novels, thrillers, and suspense stories.
At the time, I didn’t realize how critical this would be to my success. Understanding what grips readers in the thrall of mystery and thriller stories is key. And knowing how to enjoy a book for pleasure—to be a reader—is essential to being a good storyteller.
All this helped make my writer’s journey well worth the wait.
Learning From Story Masters
While working for our local library system, I attended an all-staff training day that changed my life.
Orson Scott Card was the keynote speaker and since I was part of the entertainment for the event, I shared the stage with him. I had visions of the two of us striking up a terrific rapport and him taking me under his wing as I prepared to enter the writers’ world.
None of that happened.
Mr. Card gave an excellent presentation on the power of words, but we never spoke beyond a hello.
However, in a breakout session after the main event, I had the great good fortune to meet the renowned writer and editor Kristine Kathryn Rusch. She and her husband, the prolific author Dean Wesley Smith, have been my valued mentors for about the last ten years.
A good deal of what goes into my own work today sprang from the massive store of writerly wisdom they passed on to me, and it’s jumped my writing light years ahead, helping to make up for my late start.
I’m pleased to be able to share some of what I’ve learned from my years of preparation and experience with you!
Examining the Elements of Suspense (and Why This Matters)
What is suspense? What function does it serve and why is it so appealing to readers?
More importantly, how can you create it in your own work?
I’ve taken a deep dive into the subject over the years. I’ve studied, analyzed, practiced the principles, and written over sixteen published mysteries and thrillers utilizing what I’ve learned.
In this series of articles focused on the key elements of suspense, I’ll share insights and techniques to help you craft your own stories filled with satisfying thrill and tension.
Here’s some of what we’ll cover:
Suspense—what’s it all about?
We’ll take a stab at defining suspense and look at some important distinctions between suspense as a necessary ingredient in every story and suspense as a popular genre category. With a little help from the acknowledged master, Alfred Hitchcock, we’ll see how suspense is different from surprise and how they both function in a story.
We’ll examine why readers find the suspense genres so appealing and learn why such stories have become so popular and show every indication of continuing to attract a large audience.
We’ll also talk about the foundation you’ll need to build in order to use the elements of suspense to good effect in your own stories. For example, in order for readers to experience suspense in your stories, they need to be mindfully present and meaningfully invested.
Suspense depends on emotion. If the reader isn’t somewhere beneath the skin of your story’s world, caring about what happens to your protagonist, they cannot feel a satisfying level of suspense.
Give your reader that gift.
Pulling the reader into your story
As part of the foundation you must lay for a suspense-filled tale, you’ll need to grip and pull the reader deep into your story. Superficial involvement is not enough to stir the necessary emotions.
With all the competition in today’s world—social media, online streaming, video games, to name just a few—it’s more important than ever to establish that enveloping depth.
Without it, it’s just too easy to lose your reader’s attention.
There are many writing techniques you can use to accomplish this throughout your entire story.
For example, when you solidly ground the reader inside the head of the point of view character, filtering every word through that viewpoint, your readers will forget they’re reading.
This is done through the use of specific types of details and avoidance of anything that will pop the reader to the surface, such as an abrupt shift in viewpoint or what my mentor describes as a fake detail.
This will also do a world of good for the rising action in your story, building stakes and smaller conflicts as they spiral into an intense, climactic moment. The Silence of the Lambs is a great example. As Clarice Starling grew closer to discovering the whereabouts and identity of Buffalo Bill, Hannibal Lector’s masterful escape plan followed a parallel spike.
We’ll explore techniques like these and learn how to capture your reader so effectively that she won’t be able to put your book down. More to come!
Making the reader care about your characters
You could craft a scene full of exciting action and surprising revelations, but if you haven’t first engaged your reader in caring about your main character, it won’t matter much.
Flash and fanfare might hold your audience for the short term, but you’ll need to make your reader invest emotionally in your hero’s fate if you want to sustain his attention and generate that all-important suspense.
Readers like strong characters, but also appreciate that your hero will have flaws. We’ll explore character development, and look at a variety of ways you can make your reader invest in your protagonist and care about what happens to her.
There are specific techniques, such as making sure your character is good at what she does and showing how she treats others, that generate sympathy and resonate with readers.
Think about characters that stop to help others in trouble, especially children, animals, and elderly people, at the risk of their own well-being. Readers love these selfless actions and rounded characters in suspenseful moments, like Dr. Richard Kimble in The Fugitive.
We’ll cover these most effective and important aspects of character development in a future post.
Writing action to add suspense
Once you’ve accomplished the prerequisite of making your reader care about your character, you’re ready to pour on the action and make it count. We’ll examine some of the best techniques for writing effective action in a scene—the kind of action that drives the story and keeps your reader turning pages.
Action often brings impending danger, and is one of those “go-to” elements of suspense, but you’ll see that you don’t have to rely on a high-speed car chase or hand-to-hand combat to get suspense out of action.
Ensuring that there is tension between the characters in a scene, using active setting, and making sure the pacing matches the content are some of the methods you can use to create action that will generate a feeling of suspense.
Delivering information to add suspense
How and when you impart information to your reader is a crucial factor in adding suspense to your stories. It’s all about giving your reader what she needs, when she needs it, so she’ll keep reading and stay deeply involved and actively participating in the story.
Think about how a good stand-up comic works.
They know how to set it up with all the right bits of information and then pay off with a spectacular punchline. For instance, a deft comic will set up audience expectations, start down a path, and then veer off in an unexpected direction to surprise a laugh out of his audience.
Consider this example from the September 2005 issue of Reader’s Digest:
Joe and Dave are hunting when Dave keels over. Frantic, Joe dials 911 on his cell phone and blurts, “My friend just dropped dead! What should I do?”
A soothing voice at the other end says, “Don’t worry, I can help. First, let’s make sure he’s really dead.”
After a brief silence, the operator hears a shot. Then Joe comes back to the phone.
“Okay,” he says nervously to the operator. “What do I do next?”
Proper information flow depends upon the same sort of idea—making sure you’ve given your readers all the relevant pieces so they can predict and anticipate outcomes. This way, they can feel a sense of accomplishment when they deduce correctly, and a sense of surprised delight when they guess wrong.
Creating cliffhangers to add suspense
Cliffhangers hark back to anticipation, like that old ketchup commercial—you know it’s coming, and you know it’s going to be good, and your hunger and eagerness grow as you wait for it to happen. Like information flow, the trick is in the timing.
You want to cut the scene in the right place for maximum effect, and build the anticipation without letting those french fries grow cold.
There are a number of cliffhanger techniques that deserve attention, and we’ll take a good look at several and learn how to craft them. Realizing that without the foundational setting of the stage these cliffhangers will lose some of their impact, I’ll share some examples.
Here’s a type of emotional cliffhanger from Dennis Lehane’s book Shutter Island. Spoiler alert!
Teddy knew what he was seeing, but he also knew it wasn’t possible.
“No? Can’t grasp that one either?”
“It can’t be.”
“It is,” Cawley said. “The same letters again. Anagrams for each other. You came here for the truth? Here’s your truth, Andrew.”
“Teddy,” Teddy said.
Cawley stared down at him, his face once again filling with lies of empathy.
“Your name is Andrew Laeddis,” Cawley said. “The sixty-seventh patient at Ashecliffe Hospital? He’s you, Andrew.”
And consider this cliffhanger from Stephen King’s book, The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon:
More checkerberry bushes, the woods were full of em, yuck-yuck. And the bugs had found her again. They were reforming their cloud, hundreds of tiny black spots dancing around her eyes, only this time the spots were bigger and seemed to be bursting open like the blooms of black roses. Trisha had just time enough to think, I’m fainting, this is fainting, and then she went down on her back in the bushes, her eyes rolled up to whites, the bugs hanging in a shimmering cloud above her small pallid face. After a moment or two the first mosquitoes alit on her eyelids and began to feed.
This is an example of a blackout, a type of physical cliffhanger. Incidentally, it also makes good use of pacing principles, in that form follows content. But we’ll talk about that later.
For now, take note that there’s a lot more to an effective cliffhanger than just leaving your reader hanging.
Identifying what’s at stake to add suspense
Knowing what the hero stands to lose (or gain) always adds tension as the reader turns pages to discover the outcome. Without that knowledge, the story can hold little suspense. It doesn’t always have to be a high stakes game, however, to make sure your reader feels suspense. This will depend on the genre and sub-genre you’re writing.
We’ll examine some trouble areas where a lot of writers fumble. For example, information flow and identifiable stakes go hand in hand. If you don’t follow through with providing good information for your reader, how will she know what’s at stake?
I remember reading in Lisa Cron’s book Wired for Story about an experience she had editing a story from a beginning writer. She said it was a real slog to get through and when she discussed this with the writer, he explained how he’d deliberately held back the very information that would have made the story interesting because that was his big reveal for the end of the story.
That doesn’t work. Readers need to be able to identify what’s at stake early on so they can feel the weight of it and keep score throughout the book.
In a future article, we’ll learn how to do a bang-up job of providing stakes your reader can identify and cheer for.
How to pace the story to add suspense
Pacing is perhaps the most advanced of the elements of suspense, but since it can have a massive impact on the suspense level of your story, it’s well worth the investment of your time and effort.
Remember the Stephen King example from the cliffhanger section above? One of the guiding principles of pacing is making sure that your form follows content, creating a compelling congruency that will keep your reader plunging forward, immersed in your story.
What do I mean by form following content? Ask yourself what’s happening in your story.
In The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, Trisha McFarland is passing out.
Everything is blurring together, slowing down, dimming. This is not the time to break up the page with short, perky paragraphs surrounded by plenty of white space.
King used a block of text, forming a dense, dark passage as Trisha’s vision narrowed into a black unconsciousness.
This is just one type of signal proper pacing sends to a reader’s subconscious, instructing them how quickly to move through the story. We’ll examine more examples from the masters as we learn about the techniques of effective pacing.
Stirring emotions to add suspense
In the years after your reader has finished your book, she may not remember every plot point, but she’ll remember how she felt while immersed in your story. Without engaged emotions, there can be no suspense.
Why? Because, in the end, it’s all about the emotion. What’s your protagonist’s objective? To find the treasure and become rich? To what end?
Because she imagines having the treasure will make her feel a certain way—powerful, secure, free. It’s not about the pieces of gold, but how she thinks having them will make her feel.
And if you’ve done an effective job making your character feel something, your reader will too, although not necessarily the same emotion.
The real goal is to stir the waters of your reader’s own emotional well, allowing them to draw on their own experiences, their hopes, fears, pains, and disappointments.
This is when you’ve created a connection with your reader and achieved a genuine emotional investment in your story. A great way to increase the suspense.
In a future article, we’ll cover an array of effective techniques you can use to pump up the emotions—and the suspense—in your stories.
Using Reader Hooks to add suspense
Hooks are tools used to engage and maintain a reader’s involvement in your story. The job of a hook is to raise small and increasing increments of curiosity in the reader, heightening the suspense.
This is done through word choice and placement.
There are a variety of hooks you should have in your tool box.
For instance, a certain type of hook is used to raise questions in the reader’s mind and keep him turning pages to find the answers. Here’s the opening from Decider, by Dick Francis, one of my all-time favorite writers:
Ok, so here I am, Lee Morris, opening doors and windows to gusts of life and early death.
Some immediate questions that arise: In what form will this early death arrive? What has led up to this moment? Why did he open his door or window to admit it?
There are other questions, and the following paragraphs will answer a lot of them, while inserting yet others to keep the reader moving forward through the story.
Another kind of hook involves throwing your reader a curveball in the form of a surprising situation. Here’s an example from the opening of my story “The Carson Effect.”
Adam Carson woke from an anesthetized sleep and stared down the long barrel of a gun.
We’ll look more closely at these and other types of hooks and learn how to craft them to catch and hold your reader.
Using subtext, foreshadowing, and situational irony to add suspense
Have you ever read Hemingway’s story “Hills Like White Elephants”? Dripping with subtext, it masterfully raises questions and builds suspense.
You can learn to do that, too.
Using subtext lets you add nuance to a scene by giving it an underlying meaning implied by the surface action and dialogue. A striking example comes from an early scene in the Billy Wilder movie Double Indemnity, based on a James M. Cain story. The two principal characters speak of cars and speed limits as euphemisms to cover their budding interest in each other.
Foreshadowing is the weaving of hints into your story so that future events feel natural and inevitable instead of contrived. It also allows the reader to predict and anticipate those events, adding suspense.
As an example, I recently rewatched the second Tom Cruise Mission Impossible movie, M:I-2. It opens with Cruise rock climbing high above the canyon floor, without a safety harness, illustrating his prowess and foreshadowing that this skill will come into play later in the movie.
The addition of situational irony can also heighten the suspense of any story.This is when you put the reader wise to something your protagonist doesn’t know, thereby letting them sweat for the unaware hero.
You see this all the time in horror movies and you shout, “No! Don’t open the door to that monster!” or “No! Don’t get in the car with that serial killer!”
Of course, they never listen.
Seasoned writers use these literary devices to weave suspense throughout their stories, and you can learn to use them in your own work.
Using euphonics and atmosphere to add suspense
Atmosphere is the texture of the story, created by the careful selection of details, that provides the sensory palette through which the reader will experience story events.
I pulled this example from Mary Stewart’s book Nine Coaches Waiting. It evokes for the reader an atmosphere of the alpine region of France:
It was a warm afternoon, and the little town through which we drove was gay in the sun. Pollarded trees lined the streets, linking trained branches where buds were already bursting into green. Shops had spilled their goods onto the pavements; racks of brightly printed dresses swung in the warm breeze; red and green peppers shone glossy among last season’s withered apples . . .
Euphonics deals with the sounds of the words you use, their rhythm and resonance. For example, words riffing on the letter F tend to bring to mind the flighty and frivolous, things that are fluffy, ruffly, flirtatious, and so on.
Using these words imparts a certain feel to the writing. You can use other phonetic sounds to produce a variety of euphonic effects.
There’s a reason suspense starts with S.
These techniques are enhancers, like the seasoning that brings out the best flavors in a well-prepared meal. Judicially sprinkled, they can boost the level of suspense in a well-told story.
Using genre expectations to satisfy your reader
Readers are drawn to the suspense genres—mysteries, thrillers, and suspense—because that’s the flavor they crave. When you sit down to write such a book, you’re making big promises to your reader, and you’d better follow through.
If you’re anything like me, when you go into a Baskin Robbins, you try a few samples and sometimes opt for a new flavor. But in the end, you always go back to your tried-and-true favorites because you know they will satisfy your desire.
It’s the same with books.
Readers want a certain type of reading experience, and my target readers have learned they can find it in the pages of a well-written mystery, thriller, or suspense novel.
It’s my job, as a writer, to make sure they get what they came for, and you’ll want to do the same for your readers.
One way to make this happen is to give them what they expect, but not in the way they expected it. For instance, readers of detective fiction expect there will be a scene toward the end of the book when the detective explains how he reached the solution.
When you write a detective mystery, you must somehow include this scene. It’s indispensable if you want to please your reader.
Of course, you can opt to put a fresh twist on how you deliver this essential scene, but it must be there. Mystery readers will be disappointed in the story if it’s not.
Later, in this elements of suspense series, we’ll look at some of the other expectations reader have, like the introduction of the crime scene and the final confrontation between hero and villain.
Building a team to satisfy your reader
One particularly pleasing aspect of most well-loved stories is the team.
While it’s not usually marked out and blatantly labeled as a team, most popular protagonists surround themselves with a support structure. The members of that structure serve important functions and provide points of interest for the reader.
For example, if you’re a fan of the TV show NCIS, you’re well acquainted with Gibbs’s crack team of crime solvers. James Patterson has created for his character, Alex Cross, a team of colleagues and family members that his readers adore.
We’ll learn how to build a team to help drive the story, deliver pertinent information, and populate the type of secondary plotlines that add dimension and support the main storyline.
Strengthening your story idea
Every story has been written before.
Your chances of formulating a completely new story idea are about the same as your chances of getting hit by a meteor. Don’t let that discourage you, though. No one else can deliver your unique voice and perspective.
There may be nothing new under the sun, but you might be able to tweak and twist your story idea into something fresh and compelling.
For example, the writers of The Lion King took Shakespeare’s Hamlet and placed it in the African savanna, altering the setting and transforming the human characters into animal counterparts.
Or you could change up the genre, like the writers of Throw Mama from The Train did when they vamped on the Alfred Hitchcock film Strangers on a Train, turning the thriller classic into a comedy.
We’ll look at a variety of methods you might use to innovate your idea for a mystery or thriller novel or short story.
Plotting for suspense
After studying the elements of suspense and learning how to use them in crafting a suspenseful story, we’ll focus on plotting, creating the underlying structure that will support and give shape to the story.
Understanding the elements of suspense will help you construct a plot optimized for suspense.
Plot diagrams are a good way to study these elements in plotting and structure. A favorite of mine, and the one I use in conjunction with Scrivener to write each scene of my novels, is what Shawn Coyne calls the Five Commandments of Storytelling.
It incorporates (1) an inciting incident, (2) progressive complications, (3) a crisis, (4) a climax, and (5) a resolution to create a scene that includes a turning point on the axis of a critical scene value.
This structure ensures that I cover all the necessary elements to make my scene work, giving readers what they need to progress through the story in a satisfactory way.
Another structure similar to this one is the six Elements of Plot, which Joe Bunting covers in his book The Write Structure.
We’ll take a closer look at this structure and examine some of the other plot diagrams best suited for the suspense genres, like the Lester Dent Seven-Point plot structure and the Brooks model.
You’ll learn how to use these plot structures in this series.
This is where the rubber hits the road!
What comes after you write your suspense novel
At some point—after the writing, polishing, and proofreading—it will be time to package your work and release it into the world. But where will you send it? What exactly have you created, anyway?
Your book will appeal to a certain set of readers.
The trick is to make sure they can find it. If you market it incorrectly, placing it on the wrong “shelf,” no one will buy it and those who do probably won’t like it. You need to make sure it shows up where the readers who will like it shop for books.
We’ll examine a series of questions you can apply to your book to help determine genre and sub-genre. A lot of this depends on how much weight you’ve given each of these five story elements: character, setting, plot, voice, and style.
And we’ll look at additional paths you can use to figure out what you’ve written and how to reach those who will appreciate it.
Get Empowered by Becoming Knowledgeable, Then Write!
The reason I write, the driving force behind my continuing efforts, is my desire to create for readers of suspense what other writers have done for me. I want to bring that gift, that same kind of thrill and zest, to someone, somewhere, curled up with one of my books.
If you have that same kind of desire, stick with me through this series of articles. We’ll dive into the elements of suspense, examine them, learn how to craft them, and discover how to go deeper and learn more.
Bookmark this spot. Watch for the upcoming articles, read them, put them into practice, and get empowered!
You can learn how to write a gripping mystery or thriller that readers will love.
Until then, I hope this introduction to the elements of suspense has got your wheels turning. Take that story idea that’s been harvesting in your head, and let it loose.
How about you? What elements of suspense do you look for in the stories that thrill you? Tell us about it in the comments.
In this series, I’ll challenge you to build your own suspenseful mystery or thriller story as you learn.
Today, take fifteen minutes to write a premise for a mystery or thriller book that will apply elements of suspense. Describe the story in one to two sentences (and if you’re feeling inspired, turn those sentences into a paragraph or two of synopsis!).
As we work our way through the series, keep that idea on hand—we’ll be building it into a book as we go!
When you’re done, share your idea in the comments. Be sure to provide feedback for your fellow writers!