3 Tricks to Build Suspense and Engage Your Readers

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I am addicted to novels I can’t put down, to TV shows I can’t watch just one episode of, to short stories I have to finish, and to movies that keep me guessing until the very end.

3 Tricks to Build Suspense and Engage Readers

I love stories that grip me and demand my attention. I am on an unending hunt for them and for the suspense they make me feel.

As a writer, these are the types of stories I hope to create—stories that pull the reader to the edge of his seat and keep him there until the last page.

3 Ways to Build Suspense and Engage Readers

I’m constantly on the lookout for tools I can use to build my readers' engagement in the story. I want them to become so engrossed in the plot they can’t walk away from it. I want my stories to be like that kid in third grade who refused to leave you alone until you realized that your only recourse was to become his best friend.

This has become increasingly difficult with my current project. I’m working on the second book in an urban fantasy series. The first book was published earlier this month.

For the second book, I’m trying not to use the suspense-building tools I did in the first book because I don’t want my readers to grow wise to my tricks. Few things are worse than figuring out what a story is going to do before it does it because the magic is gone.

Here are three suspense-building tools I’ve been playing with recently:

1. A Race Against the Clock

One method for building reader engagement is putting an artificial time limit on the story.

A cop needing to solve a case can be engaging an engaging story, but a cop needing to find an answer in three hours or the suspect walks is a story that carries with it a much deeper level of suspense.

A man trying to win the affection of his true love will draw readers in. A man who has only one week to win the affection of his true love before she leaves for Paris adds intense urgency to the story.

We can heighten the suspense of our stories by forcing our protagonists to race against the clock.

2. Hinting at Solutions

In this narrative-obsessed culture, readers are instinctively wise to storytelling tricks. As authors, we can use this knowledge against our readers to increase their engagement in a story. One way this can be accomplished is by dropping a hint of something early in the story that will be used to solve the mystery in the end.

If two characters have a conversation about a musket that is hanging on the wall, for the entire story, readers will watch diligently for the musket to be fired.

If a character with a special skill is introduced in chapter two, readers will wait for the opportunity for that skill to be needed.

Drawing attention to items or people early in the story and alluding to their connectedness in the future of the narrative can be used as a tool to draw readers in.

At the same time, we need to be careful with this tool. Readers will only tolerate so much of this. Additionally, if we show readers something early in the story, it better show back up later or readers will be unsatisfied.

3. Connecting Unconnected Things

Providing readers with a puzzle to solve will engage their mind in the narrative. Sometimes the best way to do that is to give them two things that seem unconnected and force the protagonist to figure out how they relate to one another.

This is often used in murder mysteries. The victim of the crime was an upstanding citizen who loved his wife and kids. He also enjoyed online gaming and occasionally went jogging late at night. Readers will naturally begin to hypothesize how all of these elements might have played into his murder.

This can tool can also be used in love stories. The college freshman see the man of her dreams across the room and wants to know more about him. By asking around, she discovers that he plays lacrosse and has a strong group of friends he likes to hang out with, but every Saturday he goes on long walks alone through a rough area.

Because this long walk is against his stereotype, readers will want to know how this revelation is connected to the rest of the story.

The Challenge of Writing a Page-Turner

Telling stories people can’t put down is a difficult feat. Racing against the clock, hinting at solutions, and connecting unconnected things are three methods we can use to increase reader engagement in what we are doing.

What other methods do you use to build engagement in your stories? How do you keep your readers on the edge of their seats? Let me know in the comments.

PRACTICE

Today, engage your readers with a fascinating story. Take fifteen minutes to write a scene using one of the three tools above: hinting at a future solution, connecting unconnected things, or putting a protagonist in a situation where he or she needs to race against the clock.

When you're done, share your scene in the comments below. Don't forget to read and comment on your fellow writers' scenes!

Jeff Elkins is a writer who lives Baltimore with his wife and five kids. If you enjoy his writing, he'd be honored if you would subscribe to his free monthly newsletter. All subscribers receive a free copy of Jeff's urban fantasy novella "The Window Washing Boy."

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35 Comments

  1. LilianGardner

    I’m getting straight into the fifteen minutes’ practice, without editing. S here goes, Jeff.

    I gazed out of the dining room window, watching the ribbon of road winding over the hill, waiting for him to appear on his Harley.
    “Star gazing again, beautiful dreamer,” Mom said, coming up behing me.
    “I suppose,” I agreed with nonchalance.
    “I can’t believe it, Merry, You only met last week and, it seems, you’ve given him your heart.”
    “Huh,” I attemped a laugh, knowing well that I was madly in love with Mike. He was attractive, good-humored, intelligent, fun to be with, and decisive. Oh, yes, decisive, for sure.
    We were in each other’s arms yesterday, I reflected, but we would not meet today or ever again. Mike said he was leaving Sunny Side and asked me to go with him. I can hear him say, ‘I’ll take good care of you. Trust me, Merry.’
    ‘But I don’t really know you, or anything about you,’ I said.
    ‘What? We’ve been together a week, and you don’t know me? I know you, Merry, and that is why I’m asking you to come away with me.’
    ‘I’ll think about it,’ I replied.
    ‘I’ll come by tomorrow for your answer,’ he said, ‘but if you decide not to come with me, I’ll leave, all-the-same.Too bad if we give each other up, after a week of heaven.’ But, he added, ‘I might not come by, seeing as you can’t make up your mind.’
    His simple, straight forward words got under my skin.I wondered what to do at such short notice. I wanted to go away with him, but… I couldn’t leave Mom and my younger sister Sarah, and take off just like that.
    Now, tears filled my eyes as time went by and there was no Mike or the roar of his Harley. I should have told him I’d go with him. My fault that I’ll never see him again.
    Just then I picked up a faint sound of a motor. Mike’s Harley, I thought, not daring to look at the road.
    The roar increased. Soon he was on the street outsid my home, calling, ‘Merry, you coming?’
    I picked up my bag, ran down the steps and flew into his arms.
    I waved to Mom and Sarah, telling them I’d write and return soon.
    I straddled behind Mike and put my arms around him.
    I knew I couldn’t and I wouldn’t give him up.
    ‘That’s my girl,’ he said, ‘I knew you’d come if I made you wait.’
    ‘Rascal! You darned rascal,’ I shouted into the wind.

    Reply
    • Jeff Elkins

      I love the scene. The inner dialog is nice. I liked listening to her debate and replay. I really like the use of time too. Great suspense builder. Good work!

      Reply
      • LilianGardner

        Many thanks, Jeff, for your positive comments.

        Reply
    • Bruce Carroll

      Very, very good! You had me right through to the end. And I confess, I was surprised.

      Reply
      • LilianGardner

        Thanks, Bruce. I’m glad my piece worked out the way I wanted it to.

        Reply
  2. Carol Anne Olsen Malone

    I’d often heard the foreshadowing wasn’t necessarily a good thing in a story. How can you successfully “Hint at solutions” without seeming like you’re dropping the guilty party way before the end of the story?

    Reply
    • Jeff Elkins

      Good question. Part of this is probably about personal taste.

      While I wouldn’t reveal a killer in the first chapter, I do like it when future paths to clues or future characters that can later save the day are revealed early. For example, recently I read American Gods by Neil Gaiman. In the beginning of the book, Gaiman’s protagonist is teaching himself coin tricks. The character continues working on them throughout the book. Through the whole read I was waiting for these tricks to pay off. At the end of the book they finally do. That foreshadowing didn’t give away the ending, it just created something for me to anticipate. Does that make sense?

      Reply
      • Carol Anne Olsen Malone

        Yes. That makes sense. But I’m helping a first-time writer and she starts off her book with, “And what was about to happen to her changed her life forever.” Then she goes on to “explain” in a lot of words what happened, but didn’t show it in a scene. I wasn’t sure how I should tell her to just let the action happen. But it there is a way to foreshadow without the big tell, I’m all for it. Any thoughts of what to say to my friend?

        Reply
        • Jeff Elkins

          I was doing something like this with a manuscript I was editing recently too. I would say that, if she wants to leave the opening sentence to set the tone, then the following action needs to be in a reflection. It can be something the protagonist is thinking back on or a story the protagonist is telling someone else.

          To pull those off well, she will need to take that opening sentence and turn it into a scene where the reader see the protagonist fully changed and formed.

          I can’t think of a book that’s done that well. TV shows do it all the time. For example, I was just watching season five of Teen Wolf (don’t judge me…it’s like eating chocolate – I know it’s terrible and I love it). The writers started the season in the middle of a scene that wouldn’t come back until episode 8 of the season. It was a good way to build mystery in that I wanted to know how the characters were going to evolve into what I’d been shown. In that sense, the remainder of the first episode and the next seven episodes were all reflections leading to what the writers had shown us.

          All that to say, if I were in your shoes, I’d probably tell her she is using the first sentence as a crutch and just needs to cut it. If the story doesn’t show that the characters life has changed, then opening with vague foreshadowing won’t help. If the story does show it, then there is no need for the first sentence.

          Reply
          • Jonathan Hutchison

            Thanks Carol and Jeff for this conversation that you have shared with us all. It certainly amplifies and explains your original article Jeff. Carol, you asked a great question.

        • Bruce Carroll

          I’m trying to put a lot of foreshadowing into my WIP, since I fear the big surprise at the end will seem like cheating if I don’t. But my hints are subtle; usually just the careful placement of a common phrase.

          Two hints lie in characters’ names: Akiko and Tommy. If you’re trying to figure out the mystery, only one of those names is significant because of it’s meaning. The other is a reference to a character from pop culture. As for which is which, I leave that to the reader to determine.

          Of course, if you haven’t been following my WIP (some of which is posted on The Write Practice) none of this makes much sense. I also posted my final chapter as a practice, so my surprise ending isn’t a surprise for some of you.

          Reply
  3. Carol Anne Olsen Malone

    I’m not sure if this is an example of Hinting at solution or not:

    Philpot had been a cop back in Chicago – a good Vice cop according to the chief and the captain. An advocate of cleaning up the sports betting scene in the L.A. City proper, he was on the task force to shut down illegal gambling, especially by the low-life gangster, Mickey Cohen’s group. A solid married man with two teenaged kids, Philpot flashed a photo of the kids if you happened to get to close.

    However, something about him rubbed Detective DeLuca the wrong way. He told his partner and the chief that he couldn’t abide boxing because the betting and corruption stunk to high heaven, yet on Friday evening, about the time the first fight card bout started, Detective Philpot disappeared and DeLuca has seen him driving down Grand Avenue toward the Auditorium a number of times.

    Reply
    • Jonathan Hutchison

      So did Philpot move from Chicago to LA? That’s what I assumed. I immediately wondered why he left Chicago? Great intro.

      Reply
    • Bruce Carroll

      You lost me; which probably says more about me than it does about your writing.

      Reply
  4. Jonathan Hutchison

    Jeff, thanks for this challenge. I can’t get to this till tomorrow, but I am intrigued with the challenge. Should be fun. Jon

    Reply
  5. James Noller

    My practice:

    My chest heaved. My throat constricted. My breathing became heavy. I didn’t have much time left before the entire tomb would be swimming in sand. I wanted to get to the coffin and be the first to prise it open and to find the unimaginable treasures inside, but more and more sand was trickling in from the roof. Every moment I delayed meant that it became harder to get through the sand to the ancient stone stairs back up to the land of the living.
    I thought about my family… still where I left them back in Europe. But then I thought about my job, my future, my mark on history. That was when I made my choice: come what may, I was going to open that coffin. My leather boots waded through the sand towards my goal. The sand falling in was causing the roof to start losing its stability, and bits of rock began to shower on top of me. I was not going to miss this opportunity. I was going to be immortalised in history by finally discovering what happened to the last Egyptian Pharaoh left undisturbed.
    The sand was beginning to rise up to my knees and I tried to stay on top as best I could. Finally, I reached the beautiful, carved, stone coffin, and wedged it open. I eagerly awaited what was inside. My heart shattered – it was empty. I looked around and saw the sand begin to engulf the top of the stairway. How long would I have to live with my poor decision?

    Reply
    • LilianGardner

      Thanks for sharing, James.
      The suspense grips me. I’m longing to know of how your protagonist will survive.

      Reply
    • Jonathan Hutchison

      Good job James. I especially like your last exclamation – “How long would I have to live with my poor decision?” AS soon as I read that I said to myself, “not much longer” and you hooked me into wanting to read more.

      Reply
    • Jean Blanchard

      Crikey! This is one of my nightmares …

      Reply
    • Bruce Carroll

      I especially like that this is a ticking clock with no numbers. Your protagonist has little time, but exactly how little neither your protagonist nor the reader knows.

      Reply
  6. Barbara Abbott

    Jeff: I’m new here. Thought I would give this a try…..a very short scene out of a novel I’ve been sketching out.

    A print of Andre Masson’s ‘Battle of Fishes’ hung on the far wall of the living room, its surrealism mirroring the morass of Emma’s state of mind. She paused in front of it to absorb the images, taking in geometric fish skeletons oozing red blood. She took a few steps back from the picture and turned toward the terrace, intending to find a drink at the bar. But she had the distinct sense that the print wouldn’t let her go. She was scanning the painting while searching an internal database for similar images. Her brain told her there was something important she needed to remember, and the painting could help her retrieve it.

    Iwan’s voice interrupted her trance, and she was grateful to be forced to look away. He was standing at her elbow wearing a warm and welcoming smile.

    “It’s about time you made it! Let’s get you a cabernet!” And he put an arm around Emma’s waist to guide her toward the terrace. She stuttered to reply, as recesses her of her brain still clung to the painting.
    Emma smiled back at Iwan and turned toward the party in full swing on the terrace, but she couldn’t shake off the feeling that her recent panic attacks and anxiety were somehow connected to images in that picture.

    Reply
    • Jonathan Hutchison

      Barbara I am glad you found your way to this site. What a great beginning for your story. I think you got it right. You’ve offered your readers a bit of suspense and several questions to ponder. Nicely done.

      Reply
      • Barbara Abbott

        Thank you very much! Look forward to learning more here.

        Reply
  7. Jason Bougger

    I really like your point about “race against the clock.” It helps build that sense of urgency that is needed for increasing the suspense. I also try to continuously remind myself that suspense is created in fiction by what is happening at the moment, but what might be happening in the next.

    Reply
    • Jonathan Hutchison

      Does time have the same effect if the subject matter of the story is more whimsical or downright absurd as opposed to suspenseful and directed? Or does time only have an effect in a story when dire consequences are the end result of the shifting sands of time?

      Reply
      • Jason Bougger

        Good question. I’d say if there is no “ticking time bomb”, deadline, or sense of urgency, the passing of time doesn’t need to be brought out into the forefront of the story. It can still exist, but doesn’t need to play a major role in the pacing and plotting.

        Reply
      • Bruce Carroll

        You used a race against the clock very well in your whimsical story above.

        Reply
  8. Jonathan Hutchison

    OK, here’s my fifteen minute fun piece. I chose the first option – racing against the clock. This is a silly piece. Jon

    Fifteen more minutes – that’s all Sam had before the alarm clock went off and win or lose, when the time was up, he would have his answer.

    Sam had always wanted to write for a magazine. Unbeknownst to Sam, his dream was just about to become reality. The phone rang and Sam heard an unfamiliar voice say to him, “Sam, this is your chance. If you can submit a writing sample by 6:45 pm tomorrow night, there is a good chance that my editor will give your piece his undivided attention.”

    “Who is this?” asked Sam. “How did you get my number and how did you know that if by 7:00 pm tomorrow night I hadn’t received any feedback about my writing, I planned to return to my old job, training monkeys at the zoo?”

    “Sam, your submission must respond to the theme, ‘a writer’s life’. The piece must be between 500-1000 words, no more. If you think you can do it, have it ready tomorrow and I will call you at 6:45 pm sharp.” Then the voice hung up. What a coincidence!

    All that night and into the next day, Sam racked his brain, digging deep, trying to find that one source of passion that would be his Muse.

    He looked up – it was noon – plenty of time, even though he still had no real subject matter. Sam ate lunch, a bologna sandwich on white bread with mustard. This wasn’t his favorite sandwich but it was all he had in the refrigerator.

    It dawned on Sam that if he ran quickly to the corner store to get some real food or at least some kind of veggies to go with the half-eaten bologna sandwich, that perhaps he’d find his inspiration on his walk to the store. He hadn’t been out of his apartment in three days.

    While he was paying Mr. Sherman, the green grocer, for his avocado to add to his lunch time snack, Sam asked, “Mr. Sherman, I seem to have misplaced my watch. Can you tell me what time it is?”

    “Gladly, it’s 1:45. Got someplace special to go, now that you’ve escaped your apartment?”

    “I am a writer, Mr. Sherman, and I have a deadline to meet. If I can just finish my story by 6:45 tonight, I have a chance that a real editor will take a look at my work. This could be the break I have been waiting for.”

    Sam offered a perfunctory goodbye to Mr. Sherman and started home. In the hallway of his apartment, his neighbor Alice poked her head out of her apartment door just as Sam was passing by.

    “Sam I haven’t seen you in three days. I was beginning to get worried. I know you said you’d be busy for a couple of days, but Sam, three days without a word is just too much for me to bear.” A week ago, Sam had invited Alice to dinner and they were both amazed to find themselves in Alice’s bedroom that next morning after their dinner time date.

    “I’m sorry Alice, but I have a project due at 6:45 tonight and I have been working on it for at least a week, on and off.” This if course was a bold-faced lie, but Alice was too sweet and naïve to know when she was being lied to.

    “What are you writing about, Sam? Us?”

    “Yes that’s exactly what I am writing about. How I wished that I had met your parents when they stopped by the other day and how I wished I had told them just how I feel about you. Maybe the next time they come over we can all get together.”

    “That would be great fun Sam. I’m glad you’re ready to meet my mother and father.”

    With that Sam blew Alice a kiss down the hallway as he escaped into his apartment. Alice could wait, the avocado not so much, especially with the intense heat in his apartment building. It must be 80 degrees. He had about 30 minutes before that green avocado cut open on the kitchen sink turned an ugly brown.

    Sam looked around his apartment for the watch he had misplaced and while not finding that timepiece handy, he found a wind up alarm clock. Sam tuned on the radio just in time to hear. “It’s 3:25 pm on WLS.”

    Sam settled down to work once again, hoping that his stomach would also settle down after that bologna sandwich and avocado. He had washed it down with some skim milk and the taste of the milk had not pleased him. The taste was sour, and now, so was his stomach.

    Sam ran to the bathroom and threw up. He felt light-headed. He decided he better lay down for a few moments till the nausea left him.

    The alarm clock rang somewhere in Sam’s unconscious and Sam, realizing he had fallen asleep, jumped up from his bed and ran back to his desk. “Oh my God, it’s 6:30. I’ve only got 15 minutes left. I’ve got nothing on paper.”

    Just then, there was a knock at his door. He got up quickly, ready to dismiss the unwanted person at the door.

    “Sam, isn’t it amazing. My parents had a premonition that they should come here tonight. Mom and dad, you remember Sam. Sam invite us in. Let’s all talk.”

    Sam thought to himself, “I can’t believe she took me seriously about talking with her parents. Oh God.” Just then the phone rang. Sam knew a strange voice was waiting for him at the other end of the line. What was it to be – Alice’s parents or the unknown editor?

    Since Sam had nothing to show for his attempt at writing, the phone continued to ring. Sam reluctantly sat down with Alice and her parents. His deadline had come and gone. Other deadlines would face Sam and Alice. Sam looked at the three strangers sitting on his sofa, who were expecting to hear great words of hope and young love. He thought to himself, “if I hadn’t gone out for that avocado, imagine how different things might turned out?”

    Reply
    • Bruce Carroll

      Fun, funny, and ironic! I love that Sam does not see the wealth of material he has to write on the theme “a writer’s life.”

      Reply
      • Jonathan Hutchison

        That thought did occur to me. Thanks for the feedback Bruce. I appreciate your thoughts not just on my work but your taking time to provide feedback for so many.
        Jon

        Reply
        • Bruce Carroll

          Just trying to be helpful. I want a lot of help with my writing. Only fair if I give a lot in return.

          Reply
  9. TerriblyTerrific

    Okay, taking my notes. Thank you.

    Reply
  10. Bruce Carroll

    Dreams
    An Akiko Story by Bruce Carroll

    Akiko woke. She wanted to scream in frustration, but she didn’t dare risk waking the others. Unlike the other girls, Akiko had managed to keep on the staff’s good side. No need to risk ruining that over a silly dream.

    But they weren’t silly, none of them. They meant something. Akiko was certain of that. And the man in the dream was – grr! She couldn’t remember his name or how she had known him. But he was someone from her past. Someone important.

    Being fully awake now, she decided to try and piece together her dreams; to compare them with each other and see if she could figure out who the man was and where he might be.

    Her first dream had been about trying to snatch the coin from his hand. He always managed to close his fist before she could grab the coin. She had cried in the dream, but he told her not to give up. “It seems impossible now,” he had said, “but one day it will be mushin.”

    That word bothered her. She had thought of it as she exited the school bus back in San Francisco. She had no idea what it meant. Nevertheless, she had the peculiar feeling she could use it properly in a sentence.

    In a later dream, she had succeeded in grabbing the coin. Then she had another dream about the man. He put a blindfold on her and made her walk around an empty room. Later he put furniture in the room, and after that, people. He told her to find the furniture and identify it. He had her play hide-and-seek with the people. Strange, they were all adults.

    She remembered, quite suddenly, fighting the man. She couldn’t remember him posing a threat to her. She couldn’t remember being angry with him. Why would she fight him?

    Reply
  11. Jesse Leigh Brackstone

    Callahan had an East Coast face, wore a navy blue trench coat, carried a black umbrella, and he walked behind the rain. His brown leather brogues splashed through oil-tinged puddles, soaking the upturned cuffs of his tweeds as he trudged homeward, expressionless, oblivious to the cold city chaos all around him; the quintessential internal man.

    His thoughts hadn’t strayed from her bed all day, her wispy frame, the greenish sputum, the blood; the torturous, hacking cough that shook her every limb, stole away her breath and left her gasping for one more lungful. Her golden hair, drenched with perspiration, lay strewn unkempt across her down-filled pillows. The sparkle in her blue eyes was eclipsed by a cloud of pain and a silent plea begging him to release her.
    His beautiful bride….
    He wondered if the nurse had left yet.
    He hadn’t meant to be late and felt no undue obligation to the endless stream of jealous husbands and suspicious wives that kept his private detective’s office buzzing, but a missing child…. His stomach churned, as the memory of her mother’s tears chilled him. Three years old and four days gone does not usually portend good news.

    Reply

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  2. 3 Tricks to Build Suspense and Engage Your Readers – John Lowell, author - […] out a link today that helped me solve a problem. It’s an article by Jeff Elkins at The Write…
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