Writing Suspense

Craig here again, and the topic this time is writing suspense. Staci posted a wonderful piece about horror back in October. This inspired a great friend of ours, Sue Coletta, to write some suspense techniques over at her blog. I encourage you to check it out here. I mentioned that I was considering this for my next post here. Sue encouraged me to do it, because my techniques are different than hers are. And here we are.

So how do you go about writing suspense into your stories? I’ll tell you next month. Thank you, thank you, I’m here all week.

Bad jokes aside, that is actually one way to include suspense. It’s a process of baiting the reader, but withholding the information. To write this, I’m going to refer to a living document I have on the very topic. Like many of you, I’m a writing student as well as a writer. Here are some notes from my document.

Have a character ask a simple question, but the other character dodges the answer. Leave the question unanswered for a time and make the readers sweat it out. It might look something like this:

“Grandpa, why can’t we go in the basement?”

“It’s so nice out today. I’ll bet Grandma would like some strawberries from the garden. Let’s go pick her some.”

This is a form of plants and payoffs, but it uses the plant (the basement) to build suspense. It will payoff sometime later, but for now the reader has to wonder the same thing. This is a good technique to use when you have to do something less exciting, like world building, or getting all the players introduced. The suspense will carry the story while you get that accomplished.

Add suspicious characters to the story. It’s ingrained in our psyche’s to be wary of strangers. Leave the stranger in town as a stranger for a while. Make the reader worry along with the characters. Your stranger might be the hero, but the reader doesn’t need that information for a chapter or so. Don’t forget to make the stranger act suspicious while you’re at it. The stranger lowers his hat over his face while some kids are taking selfies across the room, that kind of thing.

Make the reader wait for answers. I believe it was Grisham who had a package delivered to a law firm. The characters moved it out of the way, worked around it and more for three chapters. Only then did the package get opened.

Maybe you have a theft ring who grabs packages from doorsteps at Christmas. Have a suspicious non-UPS person deliver one. The theives steal it and warehouse it in a garage. They can open them all later, right now they have to keep working while the season is hot. Is it a mail-bomb? Anthrax? Head in a box? Up to you.

The pebbles in boots theory: Keep your readers uncomfortable by keeping your character uncomfortable. This helps bridge a space between tension points. I wrote a scene in Will O’ the Wisp where my main character gets a huge sliver in her foot. This happened during a research break-in. It carried the transition to a high school dance until I could introduce a different kind of tension.

Lies are golden: Make your character tell a lie. Make sure the readers and the other character know it is a lie. Then don’t call them on it. Make the conversation go on without bringing the lie up again.

If lies are golden, temptation is silver: Lure your character with temptations. Struggling with temptations is always suspenseful. Will she? Won’t she? Doesn’t matter, your story wins.

Don’t be afraid to layer this stuff in some scenes. Your married heroine goes blocks out of her way to visit a certain coffee shop, because the barista is hot. When she walks in, have her take off her wedding ring, and let the barista see it. (The lie.) He says nothing, but he is oh so willing to do whatever she has in mind. (Her temptation.)

Water and sex can both relax a reader in a story. You’ve built up suspense and tension, and now it’s time to give your reader a break. This is when the monster shows up. In the case of our characters above, this is when the aggrieved husband shows up. Think about the shower scene in Psycho. Water, ahhh.

The Pavlov Effect: Train your readers what to expect, then change the game. It works like this, Jaws ate two people in rapid brutal succession. In the film we were trained to clench up when we heard that music. The next encounter was just kids swimming under a fake fin. (Get this, it involved water and we relaxed.) It was that very moment when Jaws decided to eat someone in whatever the pond was.

The example above used a false scare. It’s a good technique, but don’t use it too often. I’d suggest no more than once per novel.

I layered the Pavlov Effect with lying in The Playground. My character Clovis lied all the time. When he did the right thing it gave more of a surprise.

After you have everyone introduced, place evil as close as possible to your characters. Think about sharing an elevator with Hannibal Lechter and you’ll have the idea. Nothing happens, but it increases suspense. Something can happen later on, but make the readers wait. The Hitchcock film, Rope, is a wonderful example of this.

I suppose this is as good a time as any to tell you why I like film for examples. We don’t all read the same things, but most of us have seen the popular and classic films. I increase my odds of an example resonating with someone by referencing films.

Isolation is one of your strongest tools. Think about the midnight parking garage. Readers will already be on edge even if nothing happens. Use this one frequently. Make sure that help is hours away. Blow those power lines down, drop that cellphone accidentally, place them deep in the forest.

This works in speculative genres too. Just because your fantasy world doesn’t have telephones isn’t a cop out. Make the big bad show up when the character is far from the City Guard. Trains, ships, and even spaceships are wonderful for this technique. In The Martian, rescue was only about six years away.

Notice that Deliverance didn’t happen at Times Square, and The Edge didn’t happen at the Bear Country Jamboree. Help was a long ways off, and there was no phone service. Look back at that picture at the top of the post. Where is everyone?

Vulnerability is isolations kid brother. Think about times you can make your character vulnerable. Psychologically, we are vulnerable when we’re naked. I doubt a tee-shirt and pair of boxers will do anything against a knife murderer, but we feel so much more vulnerable without them. We’re vulnerable when we’re having sex. How many movies use that opportunity to have the monster attack? Think about your character being injured, naked, compromised somehow and try to use it to build suspense. Think about blood in the water, the damaged spacesuit, a leg full of rattlesnake venom, etc.

Sneaking is always good. Have your characters sneak even if they don’t have to, it’s suspenseful. It can be as simple as trying to sneak into the house after a night of drinking with friends. You know the spouses are going to argue. Why waste the opportunity by having him bash the front door open and start laughing. Coming in on tip-toes gives you a chance for more suspense. Maybe he thinks he got away with it. Don’t let him (or the readers) find out until tomorrow.

How about Bob wants a cigarette at a party. Why bum one when he can steal one from someone’s purse? Make sure he looks over his shoulder before acting. Make it last.

Suspense works in all genres. A cute romance can allow the female lead to sneak a peek at his cellphone. Maybe the male lead sees her out with another man. Withhold the fact that it’s her brother for a few chapters. In a Western, maybe the characters wonder why the birds are calling after dark. Could something else be out there? Try it, you’ll like it.

These are some of my favorite techniques for writing suspense. Let’s go back to the cheating wife and the barista. Maybe he knows he has a communicable disease. Maybe he waits for her to freshen up, then sneaks a twenty from her purse. There are all kinds of ways to include suspense, and they don’t all have to be turning points in the story. The slow smoldering kind of tension will carry many pages of your novel between the turning points.

Let me know if you have any more. I love your comments, and maybe I can learn a new trick myself.


34 thoughts on “Writing Suspense

  1. Pingback: Story Development and Execution Part 8: Writing Suspense | Story Empire

  2. Great article! I often think in terms of one through-line of suspense that builds throughout the story but this post offers great ideas on how to drop little bits of suspense here and there. Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: Mystery, Horror, Suspense | Story Empire

  4. Pingback: 9 Ways To Build Suspense ~ Fiction Writing - Crime Writer Sue Coletta

  5. Great post Craig with very good examples. Using the movies as examples is very good for “visual” people. I would like to add suspense at the end of the book as a possibility, especially when writing a series. Not exactly a blatant cliffhanger, but some little thing that makes the reader think there may be more, or wonder if a newly introduced character or item will be important some time in the future.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Loved your opening joke, Craig. That kind of humor resonates with my family (I’m almost embarrassed to say).

    I wrote a similar post once about mystery writing. One of the things I covered was the red herring. Your UPS box made me think about it. In some cases, readers won’t remember the box, and when it’s opened, the surprise is unleashed. But depending on how the author treats the box, even if the characters forget about it for a while, the readers might obsess over it. When the box finally comes into play in the story, it really was nothing. But that gives the author a chance to unleash a surprise on the readers—they were all worried about the box, when really it was the table it was sitting on that was the issue the whole time. Classic misdirect.

    Anyway, great post!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Wonderful comment, and I’m glad you liked the joke. There is a recurring character at the writing cabin, he is a travelling salesman named Red Herring. Maybe it’s time for him to come back around. I used up most of my supply of twist endings in the last Notebook.


  7. I’m a huge fan of suspense novels. These are awesome tips, Craig, and nice to have assembled all in one place. I’m also a fan of cliffhanger chapter (or scene) endings, which keep me eagerly reading to find out what happens next. And I love when an author drops in a small clue (like your UPS package) and doesn’t address it for a while. The idea of what it could be keeps nagging at the back of my head as my worry builds for the characters in the book.

    Liked by 4 people

  8. Brilliant! I bookmarked the page. Thank you for sharing these ideas!
    Suspense authors can employ multiple point-of-view characters, presenting the bad guy and his motivations as such giving the reader insight into their character. (A techinique that mystery authors can’t use as they keep the antagonist’s identity hidden to maintain the mystery.)

    Another thing I have in mind regarding building suspense is ending the chapter in a cliffhanger. Put your POV character in a dangerous situation, describe her/his situation using the senses. End the scene there.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Suspense can still work in mystery though. You have to use some of the other things, like “why can’t we go in the basement?” Be careful with cliffhangers. They are frequently overused. It’s a good technique, but it’s similar to the false scare in that way.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Love these, Craig! Great reminders and tips to create suspense. Cliffhangers at the ends of chapters are also good ways to pull readers through the book, though they’re not necessarily suspense. They’re something I’ve been trying to be aware of in my book. Thanks!

    Liked by 2 people

  10. Great post, Craig. And I’m so glad you didn’t make us wait a week, lols! Suspense is one of my favourite genres, and I love a good plot twist that you just don’t see coming. Thanks for sharing! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

Comments are closed.