Author of 31 novels including the internationally bestselling Three Worlds epic fantasy sequence – over a million print copies sold.
This is the second of five articles on what I consider to be the essentials of successful storytelling – for popular fiction, at least. The essentials are external conflict, inner conflict, compelling characters and sustained suspense. The other articles are:
- The One-Page Guide to Storytelling
- 55 Ways to Make your Characters Compelling and Unforgettable
- 33 Ways to Create Inner Conflict in Fiction
- 60 Ways to Create and Heighten Conflict in Fiction
According to top New York literary agent Noah Lukeman (The Plot Thickens), if a writer can maintain suspense throughout the story, many readers will keep reading even if the characters are undeveloped and the plot is weak. Clearly, suspense is a vital tool, yet most books on writing only mention it in passing and few devote much space to its creation and development.
I’ve written 30 novels, and some of them have been rather successful, but Lukeman’s observation came as a revelation. Accordingly, I’ve scoured my writing notes for the past quarter century, and the books and articles I’ve read on storytelling, in order to compile a comprehensive list of ways to create suspense. Here it is. My sources are listed at the end.
At its simplest, a story consists of a character (the protagonist or hero) who wants something badly, and an adversary (the obstacle) who is trying equally hard to prevent the hero from getting what he wants. In each scene, the hero attacks his problem in a new way, the adversary fights back and the hero either fails or his initial success leads to a bigger problem.
Readers read to lose themselves in the story and, hopefully, to become the hero through identification (see Cleaver, Immediate Fiction). But before readers can identify with a character, he has to reveal his true inner self. Character is revealed most clearly through adversity and conflict, when the hero is desperate and has to give everything he has. When he’s forced to the limit, the reader will identify strongly with the hero. The reader’s hope that the hero will succeed, and fear that he will fail, creates rising suspense until the climax, where the hero’s goal or problem is resolved.
Suspense arises out of your readers’ anticipation of, and worry and fear about, what’s going to happen next. You create suspense by making your readers fear the worst for a character they care deeply about.
Start with action; explain it later (Garfield). “To encourage the reader to turn to page 2, give him drama on page 1 – conflict, trouble, fear, violence.” Necessary background can be established in Chapter 2.
To build suspense, make your readers worry about all the ways your hero’s plans could go wrong (see Klems). When readers say that your story starts slowly, or that not much is happening, they’re not (as a rule) talking about the action. They mean that you haven’t promised them bad things to come. So, instead of asking yourself What needs to happen? ask, What can I promise will go wrong? And make sure that the disasters are ones the reader can identify with. Make them emotionally wrenching; problems that could drive your hero to the limit – or even break him.
- Make such promises to your readers frequently, then pay every promise off before the end;
- When one worrying promise is paid off, make another – preferably promising a bigger disaster;
- The bigger the promise, the greater the payoff you have to provide. The biggest promise is paid off in the climax;
- If you fail to keep your promises, your readers will feel disappointed, if not betrayed – and they’ll never pick up another of your books.
- If the story falters or drags, it’s generally because of lack of tension and suspense – you haven’t made your readers worry enough. The solution isn’t more action or violence. Action doesn’t create suspense, it resolves it, and excessive violence quickly becomes numbing. The solution is to rack up the tension and suspense by making more and bigger promises about problems to come – disasters that will devastate the hero and his allies, shatter his plans and bring him so low that he might never recover.
Following Brown, I’ve grouped the suspense creation tools into these categories:
- The viewpoint characters;
- The problems these characters are facing;
- The plot of the story;
- The structure of the story.
For simplicity I refer to ‘the character’ or ‘the hero’, though many stories will have a number of viewpoint characters and more than one hero or heroine.
To create powerful suspense, make your hero face her greatest fear – and risk losing the thing that matters most to her.
For maximum suspense, you should not use any old character. Readers are only going to worry about, and identify with, characters they care about – ones who are both sympathetic and interesting.
- Sympathetic characters are (after Brown):
- In trouble, or suffering in some way;
- Underdogs. It’s difficult to empathise with a hero who is strong, powerful and has everything going for him, but everyone cheers when the underdog wins;
- Vulnerable, i.e. they can be killed, trapped, enslaved, destroyed politically or professionally, or ruined financially or socially. Vulnerability can come from the character’s own physical, mental or emotional shortcomings and conflicts as well as from the machinations of the adversary; and
- Deserving because of their positive character traits (optimism, courage, steadfastness, selflessness, compassion etc). A character can be in trouble, an underdog and vulnerable, but if he’s also lazy, selfish or a whining liar readers won’t identify with him or care what happens to him, and his troubles will create little suspense. This doesn’t mean the character can’t be a villain. If he’s acting for the best of reasons and the good outweighs the bad, readers will identify with him.
- Characters are likely to be interesting if (see Brown for a detailed analysis) they’re important, unusual or extraordinary. One reason we love to read about such characters is wish-fulfilment – living our lives through the story, feeling the characters’ hopes and fears, and being awed by their achievements. Characters may be more interesting if they’re:
- Powerful – because of noble birth, wealth, high office, rank or position, intelligence or strength;
- Naturally gifted or highly skilled at something important or useful;
- Unusual (in appearance, a rare ability or an amazing life experience), extraordinary, strange, eccentric or downright weird;
- Physically attractive, funny, dangerous or mysterious; or
- Surprising (they don’t fit the stereotype of their character type).
Your characters should also be as different as possible, since they will often be working together. Having highly contrasting characters maintains reader interest, multiplies the potential for conflict with the hero and will suggest many new subplot possibilities.
To build suspense through your characters:
- They must have goals that really matter to them.
- Some goals: to survive, escape, win the contest or battle, become the leader, achieve a destiny, master the art, free the slaves or change the world;
- The moment your hero forms a goal, readers will hope she achieves it – and worry about what will happen if she doesn’t;
- Sometimes the goal (eg to survive or escape) will only appear after the character is confronted with the problem (being stalked by a killer, trapped in a bushfire).
Make clear, early on:
- What she wants;
- Why she wants it so desperately. Make her motivation primal, i.e., about things that matter to every human being – survival, protection of loved ones, hunger, love, sex, revenge, etc (Snyder);
- What’s stopping her from getting it, and;
- What the (bad) consequences will be if she fails.
- A strong hero needs a strong opponent. The opponent isn’t necessarily a villain. It can be a good person who strongly disagrees with the hero, a force of nature (flood, forest fire, epidemic), a beast or alien, or an uncaring society. The opponent:
- Should be at least as strong as the hero, and preferably stronger. You can’t make a strong story when the hero’s opponent is weak;
- Evil villains are a cliché, and pure evil is both boring and predictable, so make your opponent human. Reveal his admirable side, make his motivations clear, show why the bad things he does make perfect sense to him, and you’ll create a far more chilling antagonist;
- Show things from the opponent’s viewpoint, so your readers can see trouble coming while your hero is still unawares;
- If the opponent is largely in the background, strengthen him by revealing how much and why everyone fears him. Show his power growing via his victories, one after another;
- Give him advantages the hero lacks, fanatical supporters, and the power to lure away the hero’s allies.
- Tailor your characters to maximise suspense (for details, see Lukeman and the other refs):
- A cautious hero won’t go down the crumbling mine shaft, but an impulsive or reckless hero will plunge in. A coward won’t jump into the sea to rescue drowning passengers, a brave man will do so instinctively. If the hero has a phobia, such as a fear of rodents, send her into a ruin full of rats;
- Often the hero’s biggest limitation will be himself. Does he have the strength of will to confront the woman who betrayed him, or will he keep putting put it off? Is he plagued by self-doubt, or a cock-eyed optimist who believes things will come right in the end despite all evidence to the contrary?
- Does the hero have a destiny, eg to become the next lord, president of the company, or to be the catalyst for revolution? Is this destiny foretold in the story, or is it something he’s known since birth? Is it a positive destiny, an unbearable burden or a dark and dangerous threat? Will he achieve it, or fail? And either way, what are the consequences to him and to others?
- Create loose cannon characters. No one knows what they’ll do next and their unpredictability heightens suspense. Will the reformed drunk crack under pressure and start drinking again? Will the self-effacing heroine snap when pushed too far, and explode?
- Take away the hero’s ability to defend herself (or others) and you create intense suspense:
- She’s being stalked in the dark, but drops her only weapon and can’t find it; she’s injured and can’t escape her enemy; her foot is trapped in a crack and she can’t get it out; or she’s paralysed by terror or self-doubt;
- She sees her friend heading across the rotten bridge but is too far away to warn her; she rides to the rescue of an ally, knowing she’s going to arrive too late;
- He fails under pressure – he could save the day with a magic spell but forgets the words, or gets them wrong with disastrous consequences;
- His efforts are in vain – his son is suicidally depressed and he can’t get through to him;
- She believes that her fate (or a friend’s, or the country’s) is fixed by destiny and nothing can change it.
- Use rapidly changing emotions to build suspense. By showing the hero’s emotions (her hopes, fears, worries and conflicts) changing rapidly in response to some threat or confrontation you can build suspense to a crescendo that will bring your readers to the edge of their seats, eg:
- Vague unease becomes fear becomes terror becomes shrieking hysteria;
- Irritation becomes annoyance becomes anger becomes murderous rage;
- See my article, How to Show Inner Conflict and Intense Emotion on the Page.
- Create anticipation and expectation.
- The more your hero dwells on or worries about some forthcoming event (good or bad) the more suspenseful it will be when the event is about to occur – a shy girl fretting about her wedding night; a young recruit marching to battle, sick with fear;
- Have the hero make a complicated plan and be rashly confident that it will succeed. This will worry your readers because they know it’s going to go wrong;
- Build up the hero’s anticipation (of winning the contest, gaining the prize, getting the girl) into expectation. Then, when he fails, the blow will be bitter. He hasn’t been beaten by the failure, but by his defeated expectation;
- Build tension through other characters’ expectations of the hero. If they expect more from him than he can possibly provide, the stress will rise for them, for him and for your readers.
- Employ romantic and sexual tension. For variety or to further the plot, action-related suspense can be alternated with suspense arising from romantic or sexual tension between characters. Heighten suspense by:
- Creating barriers to the relationship – love between enemies, between a human and an alien, a lover with a dark past or terrible secret;
- Or by using obstacles to keep the lovers apart.
- Use micro-tension – the moment-by-moment tension that keeps readers in suspense over what’ll happen in the next minute. (See Don Maass’s terrific book The Fire in Fiction for details). Micro-tension comes from the ‘emotional friction’ between characters as they try to defeat each other. The characters aren’t necessarily enemies, though. There should be tension between any two characters, whether they are opponents, servants, friends, allies or lovers. There should also be tension within the character due to inner conflicts.
- In dialogue, show: the hero’s doubt or disbelief about what the other character is saying; the disagreement about goals or plans; the disdain, dislike, contempt or concealed hatred; the power struggles, and ego and personality clashes; bring out inner conflicts in what each character says and does;
- Often action can be lacking in tension because we’ve seen it a thousand times before – there are only so many ways two people can have a sword fight. To make action suspenseful, get inside the head of the hero to show his conflicting feelings and emotions during the struggle. Then, break the action cliché by showing subtle visual details that give the reader a clear and vivid picture of this particular scene rather than any generic action scene;
- Use similar techniques when writing sex or violence. Show the key moments with a handful of striking visual images. Bring out the hero’s conflicting feelings and emotions at each moment, focusing on subtle emotions rather than the obvious ones such as (in sex scenes) passion, lust or tenderness;
- When the character is thinking or emoting, create suspense by (a) cutting restated thoughts, feelings & emotions and (b) making thoughts and emotions realistic. For instance, the hero may be outwardly happy, but is concealing or fighting some niggling worry. Or struggling with an inner conflict (justice versus vengeance, duty to an bad leader vs personal honour);
- In descriptive passages and quiet moments, show little details that make the setting vividly real and establish the mood of the place. Describe the hero’s conflicting feelings and emotions, focusing on subtle emotions rather than obvious ones.
The story begins when your character confronts a problem she has to solve, or forms a goal she’s determined to achieve. Problems can be of three kinds: a danger, a want or lack, or a puzzle or mystery. Dangers and lacks arouse suspense because the reader hopes the character will solve her problem, yet fears the consequences if she fails. Puzzles and mysteries create suspense through curiosity – the reader wants to know the answer.
- Put your characters (or their friends or allies) in danger (for details see the references, especially Brown, Lyon and Lukeman).
- Dangers can be: physical (a threat to life, health or vital functions such as eyesight, mobility or intellect); sexual (assault, pregnancy, disease); psychological (abuse, bullying, brainwashing); emotional; or moral (being led into crime, corruption or depravity);
- Dangers can also threaten: the character’s relationships (love, friendship, family, clan, group or society); her profession, trade, career or art; her property, possessions or prospects; her sanity; her freedom;
- Alternatively, your character could be a danger to others (he’s violent, a rapist, a psychopath or just reckless), or to himself (depressed, suicidal or reckless);
- Expose the hero to his darkest fear or his worst nightmare – if he’s claustrophobic, trap him in a lift or a dungeon. Alternatively, make the imaginary seem vividly real (eg someone who is paranoid or psychotic).
- Injure or wound an important character early in the story. Hurt them badly. Or even kill off a likeable character. This heightens tension because it shows your readers that no one is safe in this story.
- Give your character a want or lack that she’s desperate to fulfil.
- To find love or romance, support or friendship;
- To escape from a blighted community or life;
- To master a skill, disciple or art, or realise a dream.
- Pose a mystery or puzzle. In some kinds of stories, particularly crime and mystery, suspense mainly comes from the puzzle the author has set, and readers’ curiosity about how the hero will solve it and what the answer is (see (26 and (27)).
- Force the hero to face the problem. Either:
- She has no choice because she can’t get away. She’s trapped in a locked building, slave camp, spacecraft or bureaucratic maze;
- She has a choice but walking away would violate her own moral or ethical code. Eg, she’s on the run but sees a child in danger and has to help, no matter the risk to herself;
- He has a choice but walking away would violate his professional duty to act – a munitions expert who has to defuse a bomb; a priest who must exorcise a demon;
- He initially refuses but is talked (or talks himself) into it.
- Raise the stakes. Readers won’t be involved with the story until they know what the stakes are for your hero. Initially, the stakes were established when your hero formed her story goal. To heighten suspense, progressively raise the stakes through the story. You can either raise the prize for succeeding, or raise the price of failure – or, preferably, both at the same time.
- These consequences can either apply to the hero, to people he cares for, or those he has a duty to (eg a doctor looking after a critically ill patient);
- Remember that both the prize and the price are relative – if the emperor wins or loses a skirmish it may be trivial, whereas winning or losing his first battle will change the life of a young lieutenant.
- Make the problem more difficult to solve.
- Increase the likelihood that the character will lose, then show what the specific personal consequences will be;
- Threats to the viewpoint character and his friends and family will arouse far more reader anxiety, and create more suspense, than problems facing people he doesn’t know, or people in another province or country.
- Shorten the deadline.
- Constantly remind your hero of the time limit;
- Then cut it in half;
- Slow down key scenes to heighten suspense. Show them in greater than normal detail to bring readers right into the moment.
- Break reader expectations.
- Readers are constantly guessing what’s going to happen next, based on stories they’ve read before, but if they know what’s going to happen, suspense dies;
- Analyse the hero’s problem and come up with unusual twists and reversals, new problems and difficult conflicts that will confound reader expectations of what’s going to happen.
Plot is made up of the hero’s successive actions get what he wants (i.e. to solve the story problem) and the opponent’s corresponding actions to stop him. To build suspense to an explosive pitch at the climax of the story, each new action by the hero needs to be blocked by his opponent, and either fails or leads to an even bigger problem – until the climactic scene where the story problem is finally resolved one way or another.
- Make the story problem clear. A surprising number of manuscripts fail to set out either:
- What the hero’s real problem or goal is;
- Or the nature of the obstacle or antagonist that’s trying to stop him achieving this goal;
- Or only do so many pages into the story.
The real story doesn’t begin until the hero formulates a goal and takes action to get it (see Cleaver, Immediate Fiction). Until this happens there can be little suspense or story interest, so make the hero’s goal clear as early as possible.
- Put the hero at a disadvantage. Examples:
- At the beginning, the hero may not know how to solve her problem; or may not understand what the real problem is (eg, she’s mistaken about her real enemy);
- She lacks the skills to solve her problem (eg needs magic but doesn’t have any; has a gift for magic but doesn’t know how to use it);
- She has critical personality flaws, eg her obsession with gaining justice for her murdered mother blinds her to vital friendships; his violent past leaves him paralysed with guilt; his racism leads him to refuse the aid of the one person who can help him;
- She’s handicapped physically, mentally, emotionally or socially.
- Increase the pressure in unpredictable ways (for details, see the references, especially Lyon):
- Test the hero’s abilities to breaking point. Take away her friends and supporters, undermine her assets and any options she’s relying on, block her escape routes, cut the deadline in half, devalue her strongest beliefs or the things she most cares about. Anything that can go wrong, should go wrong – not just for her, but for everyone;
- Give her more simultaneous problems than anyone can handle, so she makes damaging mistakes. Distract her with an unexpected sexual attraction. Have disagreements escalate out of control. Give her an impossible dilemma that will trouble her for ages.;
- Thwart her at every turn. If she’s relying on aid, information or some object or talisman, have it fail to appear, or be stolen, lost or destroyed when it’s almost within her grasp. If she has a vital talent or skill, rob her of the ability to use it when she needs it most;
- Arouse suspicion about some of her friends or allies, or use dramatic irony (see (23), below) to make readers suspect them even if the hero does not. Have a trusted ally betray her, desert her or go over to the enemy;
- Foreshadow her fate or peril, to the audience and other characters even if not to herself. Use mysterious documents or eerie settings or symbols to create uneasiness, or show that things are not as they seem;
- Have the hero do something dumb that brings readers to the edge of their seats, because they know it’s going to turn out badly;
- Have the antagonist do something terrible that is really going to hurt the hero;
- Make something seem out of place in its surroundings – worryingly so;
- Have an important character act in a way that is disturbingly out of character;
- Withhold information from your hero, so he doesn’t see that he’s being lured into the trap. But your readers know it’s there;
- Have other characters withhold vital information from the hero, or refuse to divulge what he needs to know. Why? Whose side are they on, and what are their hidden motives?
- Put a great distance between the hero and her goal. How will she ever get there?
- Have the characters explain their plans – in a way that readers know it’s all going to go pear-shaped;
- When things are going well, create a subtle sense of foreboding or dread – bad things have happened and even worse things are possible (Pattison);
- And anticipation – something bad could happen unless …
- Have the hero lose contact with her mentor; injure the hero; use forces of nature (weather, fire, flood, difficult terrain) to block her;
- Plant red herrings. Have the hero jump to false conclusions that lead her in the wrong direction or to make disastrous blunders, or to fall into a trap. Have failures caused by misunderstandings or poor communication;
- Set the action within some greater conflict (cultural renaissance, political drama, social upheaval, war, religious persecution) or tailor social institutions to make everything more difficult (paranoid government, martial law, police state, secret society);
- Create an emotional time bomb (something vitally important to the hero) then, at some critical time, have it destroyed or lost;
- Lull the hero (and readers) into a false sense of security by having things go too well for a scene or two, then create a disaster;
- Show the hero thinking over past events and seeing something she missed that’s worrying or ominous. Or, when it’s too late, coming to a dreadful realisation.
- Create conflict with everyone and everything.
- With the opponent – see (4) above;
- With family, friends and allies – see (10) above;
- With people the hero meets on the way – they may be hostile, unreliable, treacherous, incompetent or give false or incorrect information;
- With the setting (see 25) below, including landscape, weather, culture, politics, bureaucracy, religion;
- Inner conflict – see (22) below.
- Create inner conflicts and dilemmas.
- Give the hero impossible challenges or agonising choices that test his courage, skill & moral fibre;
- Force a good man to make invidious choices, eg between informing on his corrupt mother or betraying his country;
- A girl sees two friends in danger and can only save one. How does she decide whom to save and whom to let die?
- Make the hero choose between strongly held ideals (duty/honour, family/justice). Force a pacifist to fight. Require a reformed drunk to drink.
- Use dramatic irony (i.e., your readers know something vital that the characters aren’t aware of), such as Hitchcock’s famous bomb under the table – when will it go off:
- The heroine is enjoying a glass of wine by the fire, unaware that the killer is looking in through the window. She’s not anxious, but readers are on the edge of their seats;
- The hero doesn’t realise that he’s got things disastrously wrong, but it’s obvious to the reader (and perhaps to other characters, too);
- Write some scenes from the villain’s viewpoint so readers can worry about the trap closing on the unsuspecting hero;
- A character bears vital or troubling news but events conspire to delay (or prevent) its delivery to those who need to know.
- Use the unknown to create anxiety.
- Set a scene where some terrible disaster or tragedy once occurred. The place need not necessarily be dangerous, but fear of the unknown or the past will make it seem so;
- Arouse fear of some danger the character has to face – this could be a real-life danger (fighting a monster, swimming a flooded river) or an uncanny one (spending the night in a ghost-ridden graveyard);
- Or an everyday ordeal (a daunting interview; meeting the girlfriend’s parents; sitting a difficult exam).
- 26. Put your hero in a perilous place. Analyse your scene settings and work out how you can change them to heighten tension:
- Move the scene to a dangerous or unpredictable place. Instead of a park, use a derelict factory, a minefield or a sinking ship;
- Make an everyday place seem dangerous, eg the hero must race across a rugged landscape in a fog;
- Change the scene from day to night, good weather to bad, peace to riot or war, or put the hero in the middle of a plague epidemic.
- Create mysteries. As noted above, mysteries and puzzles create suspense both because the hero has to work them out and because the reader wants to know the answer.
- How did the disaster occur?
- How did a good man (or company, or nation) take this fatal step into crime, addiction, insanity or war?
- Is this document true, or a despicable lie?
- What do these clues mean?
- Why is this device or talisman here and how is it used?
- Design puzzles. These can either be intellectual or physical:
- Intellectual – riddles, conundrums, paradoxes, illusions etc;
- Physical – how do I get in or out? Locked room mysteries. Puzzles requiring dexterity.
- Leave issues and crises unresolved (especially at chapter or scene endings) and tension will rise because readers long for the resolution. Uncertainty and anticipation are interlinked and create suspense:
- Uncertainty can be heightened with unexpected twists, sudden reversals and shocking disasters;
- Foster anticipation by having the characters set out their goals, then by using omens, portents and foreshadowing to arouse unease about the goals being met;
- Within scenes, heighten reader anticipation by using distractions and interruptions to delay longed-for meetings, confrontations, resolution of an important event, delivery of vital news etc.
- Use reversals. Reversals of the expected are used to break expectations, clichés and repetition.
- Lead your readers in a particular direction in order to create expectations about the outcome, then throw in a reversal that breaks the expectation. This heightens readers’ anticipation, and thus suspense, because they have no idea what’s going to happen now.
- Scour your story for clichéd character types, plot elements, emotions, dialogue, action and reactions, then use reversals where appropriate to break the cliché.
- Do the same where you find repetition of character types, plot elements, emotions, dialogue, action and reactions.
- Secrets. The existence of a secret creates suspense because readers want to know the answer:
- Rarely, a big secret can form the suspense backbone for a whole novel, such as: Who was the traitor? What happened to the money? The secret has to be developed throughout the story by drip-feeding clues that heighten the secret rather than revealing it;
- Smaller secrets can be used to heighten suspense within scenes, eg the Hogwarts letter withheld from Harry Potter in the first book of the series, and the mysterious event (the Triwizard Tournament) which people keep alluding to early in the fourth book.
- Use subtext (see Lyon for details). Subtext is ‘everything hidden from the awareness or observation of non-viewpoint characters’. Subtext based on rising tension will create suspense. Some sources are:
- The hero’s physical state, feelings and emotions: eg, tears forming, sexual attraction or lust, concealed hatred, a need to throw up;
- Hidden agendas, i.e. the character’s private thoughts, intentions and plans;
- In the natural environment: a red glow over the forest, the ground shaking, the call of a wild beast;
- In the built environment: a patch of oil on the stair, a pram on the edge of the railway platform;
- Other characters’ behaviour or body language: man sharpening a dagger, child playing near a cliff edge.
- Turn a dramatic event into a question. Beware of having the event completely answer a question or resolve a problem, as this undercuts suspense. Instead, have the event raise more questions, which draws out the suspense:
- For small events, draw out the answer over a few sentences or paragraphs. Eg, policeman knocks on the door late at night. Instead of revealing upfront that the man’s wife is dead, draw out the mystery about how the crash occurred and what’s happened to her;
- For major events, the resolution can be drawn out over pages or even chapters;
- Scour the story for questions that deflate suspense because they’re answered too soon, and draw out the answer.
- Make it worse.
- There’s no problem so bad that you can’t make it worse, and you should take every opportunity to do so. But why would you want to?
- Because character is revealed not in good times but in adversity. The worse you can make it for the hero, the more his true character will be revealed by what he does, the more the reader will worry about him and the greater the suspense.
Readers read to identify with the characters and live their stories, suffering the ordeals the characters go through, worrying about them and dreading that they’ll fail to achieve their goals, yet hoping and praying that they’ll succeed. At the end, readers want to see the characters resolve their problems, and long for that tidal wave of relief when all the dramatic tension and suspense built up through the story is finally released. To build suspense, the novel needs careful structuring to:
- Clearly present the hero and his goal to the reader in the beginning;
- Portray the hero’s increasingly difficult struggle to defeat the adversary and achieve the goal;
- End scenes and chapters in ways that create reader uncertainty and anticipation (see (28) above; and
- Show how the hero achieves his goal (or not) at the climax, then satisfyingly release all the built-up tension.
- Structure the beginning to create suspense (see Brown for details):
- Create a hero who is both sympathetic and interesting (see (1) and (2) above);
- Set out the story problem (i.e. the hero’s goal) clearly, and why he must pursue this goal;
- Reveal the obstacle (the adversary or force that’s trying to prevent the hero from achieving his goal);
- Twist both the characters and the goal to break stereotypes, freshen the story and surprise the reader.
- Tailor the hero’s actions to heighten suspense: In each scene, the hero faces some problem related to her goal. The actions she takes to solve the problem should either:
- Partially succeed, though worryingly (she finds a clue to the murder, but following it will lead her into greater danger);
- Succeed but lead to a bigger problem (he kills the giant spider but now another hundred are hunting him); or
- Fail and make the problem worse (she breaks into the enemy’s fortress to steal the documents, but they’re not there and now she’s trapped).
- Vary the hero’s fortunes to maintain and heighten suspense throughout the story.
- If every scene runs at fever pitch and ends disastrously, the law of diminishing returns sets in – the reader becomes desensitised to the drama, and suspense dies;
- Instead, alternate tense action or drama scenes with calmer ones, and end a few scenes with the hero succeeding, and with moments of peace, happiness or hope. Variety in endings maintains suspense because the reader knows the success is only temporary; the opponent will never give up trying to defeat the hero;
- Let your hero think he’s won – then tear victory from his grasp and turn it into absolute, crushing defeat;
- To heighten suspense, make the hero’s failures progressively worse, and his dark moments bleaker, towards the climax.
- Sequence the antagonist’s reactions to progressively heighten the hero’s troubles.
- Look at each scene from the antagonist’s point of view and ask how he can make things worse for the hero. What action will cause the hero the most trouble, and what’s the worst time it can occur?
- To heighten suspense, make these troubles progressively worse towards the climax, until it seems impossible that the hero can win.
- Heighten critical scenes. Identify the key events in the story (those moments of intense drama that are also turning points) because they need to be carefully set up and treated differently (see Lyon). Key events can be positive (love scenes, celebrations at war’s end, the award of prizes or honours) or crises (murders, defeat in battle, guilty verdicts, terrible realisations). Build suspense by:
- Foreshadowing the coming event to raise worrying questions and create reader anticipation. This can be done via characters thinking about or debating the possibility (eg of war), and making plans and preparations for the worst, as well as by omens, foretellings, signs and symbols. Repeat this worrying sign several times, then make sure it’s paid off at the climax;
- Writing a small scene or moment which hints at the coming critical scene (a burning house hints at the violence and ruin of war); a shouting match foreshadows the murder to come;
- Then a reversal – a moment that’s the opposite of the coming critical scene. Eg, in a trial, the overconfident defence lawyer has a lavish lunch with friends before returning to hear a shattering guilty verdict; immediately before the joyous wedding, the couple have a furious argument; the soldier relaxes with his family before going to bloody war. This contrast makes the critical scene far more powerful;
- Show the setting where the climax will take place before the climax begins, so you don’t have to stall the story with description at the climax (Klems);
- In the critical scene, use all the dramatic techniques at your disposal to raise the scene to a higher peak of suspense than anything that has gone before:
- Heighten the sense of menace in everyday objects by focusing on sensory detail (Klems)
- Isolate your hero, rob him of his weapons, his allies and his means of escape, or injure him;
- Insert one or two pauses – eg the cry of a night-bird, or something that seems menacing turns out to be everyday – that allow the reader to relax momentarily. This makes the real confrontation much more powerful, when it finally comes;
- Make the stakes more personal: it’s not just his country that’s in mortal danger – it’s his little sister.
- Run the peak of the scene in slow motion to prolong the hero’s agony. From her viewpoint, show every step of the killer’s approach as he breaks in and forces his way down to the cellar where she’s hiding. Show it through all her senses. You can slow it down further by using long, complex sentences, camera close-ups, quietness, stillness and darkness;
- Alternatively, or additionally, get inside your hero’s head as she waits to show her heightened emotions in this desperate moment: make her hyper-aware; show how she experiences the scene in detail – the sweat running down her face, the ticking clock, the shake in her hand, the chills – and expose her terror as she anticipates what the killer is going to do to her;
- See my article, How to Show Inner Conflict and Intense Emotion on the Page.
- Afterwards, make sure the hero emotes about all that has happened, reviews how the event has made his problems worse, and reformulates his plans.
- Climax, Resolution and Endings.
- Vary your scene endings to maximise suspense. Some scenes should end at moments of high drama, many with unanswered questions, several with shocking twists, a few with emotional completion, and some with no more than a wry observation or pithy phrase.
- The climax of the story, where the greatest obstacle is overcome and the hero’s story problem is finally resolved one way or another, is the biggest of all the critical scenes and must coincide with the highest point of tension and suspense.
- If the greatest tension occurs in a scene before the climax, the ending of the story will be anticlimactic and the reader will feel let down.
- If the story’s resolution is weak, contrived, over too quickly or in any other way fails to match the build-up of suspense to the climax, readers will be bitterly disappointed;
- In most novels, all the key questions will be answered by the end, and the resolution provides a sense of completion plus the blissful release from suspense that readers are waiting for. Some stories may end with a dilemma, however – the main story has been resolved but there’s still a question raised in the reader’s mind about what choice the hero will make.
- Stories which are part of a series should resolve most of the story questions at the end, but the overarching series question (eg will Harry Potter defeat Lord Voldemort) remains and creates ongoing suspense until the series ends.
- In editing.
- Review the story scene by scene, rate each scene out of 10 for its level of suspense, then plot the sequence of suspense ratings. Ideally the graph should be a zigzagging line rising progressively to the climax of the story, then falling away in the resolution.
- Does the story have flat periods with little suspense? Insufficient breaks from high suspense? The highest suspense occurring before the climax? Suspenseful moments that are too quickly resolved? Critical scenes where the suspense is too low, too brief or too similar to other scenes? A powerful climax ruined by a weak resolution? Work out how to fix these problems.
- Common scene problems that lower suspense include: lack of a clear goal for the scene; stakes too low; lack of an obstacle or weak obstacle; too little conflict; too much thought or talk and not enough action; too much action and not enough thought, emotion or reflection; no twist or disaster at the end (see Lyon for a detailed analysis).
- Analyse your characters (see (2) above). Can you modify or change certain character traits to vary the kinds of suspense in the story, and to heighten it in key scenes?
Bell, James Scott (2004). Plot and Structure. Writer’s Digest. Probably the best book on the topic of plot and structure.
Bell, James Scott (2008). Revision and Self-Editing. Writer’s Digest. Also a great book; a wealth of practical info and examples.
John D Brown (2011). Key Conditions for Reader Suspense (27-part article). http://www.sfwa.org/2010/12/key-conditions-for-suspense/ An excellent series of articles.
Cleaver, Jerry (2002). Immediate Fiction. St Martin’s Griffin. No one has ever explained the craft of storytelling more clearly or simply.
Garfield, Brian, Ten Rules for Thriller Writers. http://visage.bravepages.com/suspense.html
Kress, Nancy (2005). Characters, Emotion and Viewpoint. Writer’s Digest. Excellent book on these topics.
Lukeman, Noah (2002). The Plot Thickens. St Martin’s Griffin, New York. Terrific chapters on characterisation, suspense and conflict, a lot of stuff I’ve never thought of before.
Lyon, Elizabeth (2008). Manuscript Makeover, Revision Techniques no Fiction Writer can Afford to Ignore. Perigee Trade. In my view, the best book on revision and self-editing.
Maass, Donald (2009). The Fire in Fiction. Writer’s Digest. He identifies the problems his agency sees over and over again in manuscripts and tells you how to fix them. A fantastic book.
Pattison, Darcy. http://www.darcypattison.com/revision/suspense/
Snyder, Blake (2005). Save the Cat – the Last Book on Screenwriting That You’ll Ever Need. Michael Wise Productions.
Truby, John (2007). The Anatomy of Story – 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller. Faber and Faber. A fascinating and insightful book.
Vorhaus, John (1994). The Comic Toolbox. Silman James Press. Not just the best book on comic writing, but better than all the others put together.