Knowing how to write suspense is a useful technique no matter the genre of your book.
Thrillers, horror, fantasy and even romance novels use the popular device to draw and hook readers to the page.
So, how do you master this secret writing method? Use these five tips to add suspense to your story and keep your readers captivated.
1. High stakes
Whether your protagonist might die at the hand of the evil antagonist or your main character is at risk of losing the love of her life if she doesn’t betray someone else she loves, the stakes must be high.
Suspense is achieved when the reader is nervous, worried and on edge. Something big must be at stake for your readers to care.
Remember, this can’t be done unless you have likeable characters. Your character can be at the edge of losing it all, but if the reader doesn’t like your character they won’t care what he loses.
Create sympathy, or better, empathy, between the reader and your main character. That way, they will care when the stakes are high.
2. Beat the clock
A great way to employ suspense is through use of time.
Have you ever been running late to work in the morning, willing the clock on the dashboard to slow down because this is the third time this week I’ll be late. If I catch this light, I might be okay. Why is everyone driving so slow this morning?! My boss cannot see me walking in late again. How have three more minutes already passed?
Whew! I’m stressed just thinking about it.
Give your protagonist a deadline before his/her world explodes, and make it a close call. However, be sure to kick up the stakes by making them late to save their loved one or something a bit more dramatic than being late to work.
Your readers will be holding their breath, unable to put the book down until they know they’ve made it.
3. Murphy’s Law
Whatever can happen, will.
If you find yourself writing a scene that feels a little stale and you want to kick up the suspense, make something go wrong. Ask yourself how a situation could go from bad to awful, and then make it happen.
Nothing drives up suspense like hurdles being thrown in front of your protagonist while he’s trying to get something important done.
Use outside forces, other characters and internal struggles to further complicate the life of your main character. No one likes a protagonist with no struggles!
Does your main character have an alcoholic father he left in his past? Have him show up plastered at his promotion celebration. Have your severely claustrophobic character get stuck in an elevator with her love interest.
Give your characters emotional scars and then make them face and conquer them.
4.Keep ‘em guessing
Suspense comes from the unknown.
Don’t you hate reading a story that you can already predict the ending of after the first chapter? We all do.
Keep your readers guessing. Will the protagonist abandon his obligations to follow his newest lead? Will the antagonist ditch his carefully concocted plan to seize the perfect opportunity to capture his newest victim?
Now, this is not your permission to go off the rails! Your twists and turns should be unpredictable, but not inconceivable. Don’t bring in a troublemaker character in the middle of the book that’s never been mentioned before, just for a scene that twists the book in a new direction. Your reader will feel mislead and confused.
Make sure everything ties together!
5.Don’t overdo it
Too much suspense can annoy even the biggest of thrill seekers.
If the tension and suspense never breaks, it will lose its effect.
That, or your reader will be so overwhelmed by the nonstop suspense that they’ll pass out. You can’t finish a book when you’re unconscious. And you want them to finish your book. So, let your reader breathe between the suspense heavy scenes.
Plus, without times of peace, your suspenseful moments won’t be impactful.
It’s important to avoid making readers feel like you’re getting them all riled up for no reason. Like every scene, suspense needs to advance the plot. You’re better than a cheap scare! Don’t get so caught up in stressing your reader out that you forget to give some page time to subplots.
You want to elicit an emotional response from your audience; it’s what makes your story memorable. Good suspense keeps your readers glued to the page, making them crave just one more page before bedtime.
And what better way to do that than to have them biting their nails in anticipation, waiting to see what will happen?
Do you have your own tricks for upping the suspense in your stories? I’d love to hear them!