Ciao, SEers. If you’re in the US, I hope you had a safe and wonderful Independence Day.
Today is part eight of the series: writing suspense. While this is important for the suspense genre, I maintain all fiction needs an element of suspense. Craig has written a great post introducing the concept, and he gives fabulous examples. This post will build on that.
This first point doesn’t require any writing at all. It does require work, though. Once you determine your genre, you need to read in it. Vociferously. Many people worry they’ll inadvertently plagiarize if they do so. But it’s necessary. First, this is your preferred genre, so you should enjoy this work rather than find it tedious. Second, if you want to write in this genre, you should learn the tropes that readers expect. And third, you should be familiar with what’s being written so you don’t write the same old story everyone else is. If everyone is writing X, you want to write Y. Your uniqueness will set you apart. (Just don’t write G. That’s too far from what’s being done.)
I’ve mentioned mystery boxes before. Introduce a lot of them. As you close one, open two more with questions. Let every answer lead to a new problem. This series of unknowns to solve is great at building suspense. And as these new issues arise, make sure they’re more difficult than the previous ones. If opening mystery boxes builds suspense, raising the stakes builds them even more.
Always keep the reader guessing. As long as you can work within the framework of “suspension of disbelief,” doing the unexpected is always better than doing something predictable. If your main character falls for the red herring or chases down a lead that results in a dead end, your reader will, too. Lay the proper clues so those mistakes seem like the only answer, but hide the real clues that they can find later. These surprises have great payoffs.
Never let the reader think anyone is safe. Not even the main character. If you present actual peril and make the hero suffer consequences early, it will keep the reader glued to the page. Nothing’s more suspenseful than not knowing if the protagonist will win.
- Research the genre, abide by its tropes, but differentiate yourself (a little) from the masses.
- Introduce mystery boxes. Don’t close them without opening more.
- Continually raise the stakes.
- Keep the reader guessing. Surprise them.
- Never let the reader think any character is safe.
Next time, we’ll discuss writing action. Until then, I’d love to know more about how you build suspense into your stories. Please leave a comment below. Grazie!
Links to the Whole Series:
January 7: Idea Generation
February 2: Story Bible
February 28: Character
March 25: Dialogue
April 20: Plot
May 16: Constructing Chapters
June 10: Pacing/Tension/Suspense
July 6: Writing Suspense
August 1: Writing Action
August 26: Macro-Level Self-Editing
September 21: Mid-Level Self-Editing
October 17: Micro-Level Self-Editing
December 7: Planning a Series
Note: Links will only work on and after the date the post goes live.