Every book, regardless of genre, needs suspense. Suspense is what makes your readers turn those pages and recommend your book to friends. While creating suspense is a technique that requires more than 800 words to cover, here are some of the best tricks to get you started.
High stakes don’t have to be life or death, but they do have to be world-shattering for your characters.
If Melanie’s car gets stolen, I’m probably going to feel sorry for her, but it’s not going to keep me on the edge of my seat. She’ll call the insurance agent and get a new one. I’m probably not even going to care if the police ever find out what happened to it. The search for her car isn’t going to create suspense.
But what if her two-year-old was in the back? What if the gun she used to kill her abusive boyfriend was in the glove box and she needs to find the car before the police do? What if she was on the way to church to stop the man she loves from marrying someone else? What if she’d withdrawn her entire life savings to pay the ransom on her father and the money was hidden under the seat?
We’re now holding our breath to see if she finds the car or gets where she’s going in time.
Use What a Character Fears and Values
To create suspense in fiction, you need to know two things about your main character: their greatest fear and the one thing that matters most to them. Make them face the first and risk losing the second and you’ve instantly created suspense.
In Brandilyn Collins’ novel Exposure, Kaycee Raye’s biggest fear is that she’s being watched. Her snoopy neighbor’s tendency to spy ignites a fear that Kaycee knows is irrational . . . until it turns out that it isn’t.
Here’s how the first chapter ends:
Onto the screen jumped the close-up gruesome face of a dead man. Eyes half open, dark red holes in his jaw and forehead. Blood matted his hair. Printed in bold in the bottom left corner of the picture, across his neck: WE SEE YOU.
How could you not read on?
A trap works best when the reader knows about it and the character doesn’t. You’ll create suspense that lasts even after they fall into the trap as your reader wonders if they’ll emerge unscathed.
Traps are probably the most difficult item on this list to do well. You need to be a bit diabolical to write a great trap.
- Use their greatest weakness against them.
- Find a plausible way to remove all the reasons your character would avoid the trap or realize it’s a trap before it’s too late.
- Let the reader know about the trap a few chapters before it’s sprung.
- Don’t let your character out of the trap on their first attempt.
A good example of removing the reasons your character might avoid the trap is found in Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones. When Susie meets her neighbor walking home after dark, you’re screaming at her to run. But of course, she doesn’t.
If she’s uncomfortable with adults and cold, why doesn’t she leave?
The natural authority of his age, and the added fact that he was a neighbor and talked to my father about fertilizer, rooted me to the spot.
As an excuse to leave, she tells him her mom likes her home before dark.
“It’s after dark, Susie,” he said.
He tells her that it will only take a minute to show her the “hiding place” he’s built in the cornfield. Why, though, does she go into the underground structure he’d built when he’s been looking at her lustfully?
“What is it?” I asked. I was no longer cold or weirded out by the look he’d given me. I was like I was in science class: I was curious.
And once she was in, there was no way out.
When creating suspense in fiction, a cliffhanger can be anything that makes it impossible for your reader to put the book down when the chapter ends. It can be a situation where you’re not sure your character will escape unharmed or it could be an intriguing last line.
I became a fan of romantic suspense thanks to Dee Henderson’s O’Malley series. In The Truth Seeker, you’ll find examples of both types of cliffhangers.
At the end of Chapter Two, Quinn (the love interest) asks Lisa (the protagonist) a question:
“Where are we going?”
“To ask a man to exhume a cat.”
Because we’re in Quinn’s POV, we don’t know why Lisa, a forensic pathologist, wants to dig up the cat, but we know it has something to do with the murder she’s trying to solve. If you’re like me, you’ll turn to the next chapter to find the answer.
Chapter Three ends with Lisa and Quinn in a fire-damaged house. The floor gives way beneath them, and Lisa is impaled on something:
In the wavering light, she saw him flinch, and she tried to offer a reassuring smile. He yanked off his shirt, the buttons flying, “Hold on.”
She couldn’t get enough air to answer; she had to know. “What . . . land on?”
He didn’t answer her.
It must be bad.
She shivered and felt a warm flood rush across her hand as her vision went black.
I first read this one back when I was in university, and those lines almost made me late for class.
A ticking clock is the classic way to create suspense in fiction. Give your character a deadline by which they must solve their problem or suffer the consequences. It immediately amps up the tension.
What are your favorite suspense-filled novels?