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5 Tips for Writing Gripping Suspense

You don’t have to write in the suspense genre to use the techniques to create suspense within your novel. These techniques capture your reader’s attention and holds it to the thrilling conclusion.

Suspense comes from the reader fearing what will happen next to a character they care about. The character must risk losing what matters most to them.

1. Characters

  • Protagonist: must be special is some way, for your reader to care. They may have character traits, eg. compassion, courage, that make them deserving of the reader’s concern. Do they have a quirk? A special skill? Are they in trouble? Or the underdog? 
  • Antagonist: have a good villain or worthy opponent, which can be a force of nature, or a wild or supernatural creature. 

2. Problem

  • Identify early on what the character wants, why they want it so badly (make it personal), and what will happen if they don’t achieve their goal. Then raise the stakes and pile on the pressure. Give the character a deadline, then cut it.

3. Anticipation, Expectation and Conflict

  • Foreshadow to enhance reader anticipation.
  • Include a reversal of the climactic scene, eg. a detective celebrates the capture of a villain, before the villain escapes. 
  • Isolate the protagonist, eg. she loses the gun, her only means of escape is destroyed.
  • Limit the point of view: have a character make discoveries at the same time as the reader
  • Dramatic irony: reveal key pieces of information to the reader, before the character is aware. 
  • Make the ordinary menacing, for instance a rose is blood red.
  • Break the tension to give the reader a chance to relax momentarily. Use comic relief. Reveal an object that first appeared menacing to be ordinary, for instances, the hand felt on the shoulder turns out to be the protagonist’s sidekick. Use pauses, such as the bark of a dog.
  • Heighten sensory detail on the approach to the final climax. Make your protagonist hyper-aware as she experiences the scene, for instance, of the tear on her cheek.

4. Climax and Resolution

  • Have a series of peaks and troughs throughout the story, increasing in size as they build to the climax, which is the highest point of tension.
  • Vary scene endings, from the dramatic, or twists, to emotional completion. Use cliffhangers sparingly. 

5. Style

  • Use appropriate imagery and setting.
  • Short, disjointed sentences give a sense of breathlessness.
  • Longer, complex sentences slow the pace. 
  • Further slow the pace by zooming up close, or with a moment of quiet.

If you enjoyed this blog, you might be interested in the Halloween episode of World to Write, in which Fiona Blakemore and I discuss the techniques for writing suspense. We are joined by writer friends to nominate our favourite suspense novels.


Irvine, Ian 41 Ways to Create Suspense

Klems, Brian (2013) 5 Ways to Make Your Novel More Suspenseful

Short, Mick (1996) Exploring the Language of Poems, Plays and Prose. Longman. Harlow, England.

Vandermeer, Jeff (2013) Wonderbook: the Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction. Abrams Image. New York, USA.

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