by Jodie Renner, editor & author
All genres of fiction, not just thrillers and action-adventures, need tension, suspense, and intrigue to keep readers eagerly turning the pages. And of course, you’ll need to ratchet up the tension and suspense a lot more if you’re writing a fast-paced, nail-biting page-turner.
Some “Big-Picture” Techniques for Adding Suspense:
~ First, make your readers care about your protagonist by creating a likeable, appealing, strong, smart and resourceful but vulnerable character, with some inner conflict. If readers haven’t bonded with your main character, they won’t care what happens to him or her.
~ Create a cunning, frightening villain. Your villain needs to be as clever, determined and resourceful as your protagonist – or even more so. Make him a serious force to be reckoned with!
~ Threaten your protagonist. Now that your readers care about your main character, insert a major threat or dilemma within the first chapter that won’t be resolved until the end. Create an over-riding sentence about this to keep in mind as you’re writing your story: Will (name) survive/stop/find/overcome (difficulty/threat)?
~ Establish a sense of urgency, a tense mood, and generally fast pacing. Unlike cozy mysteries and other more leisurely genres, thrillers and other suspense fiction generally need a tense mood and fast pacing throughout most of the novel, with short “breathers” in between the tensest scenes.
~ Show, don’t tell. Show all your critical scenes in real time, with action, reaction, and dialogue. Show your character’s inner feelings and physical and emotional reactions. Don’t have one character tell another about an important event or scene.
~ Use multiple viewpoints, especially that of the villain. For increased anxiety and suspense, get us into the head of your antagonist from time to time. This way the readers find out critical information the heroine doesn’t know, things we want to warn her about!
~ Keep the story momentum moving forward. Don’t get bogged down in backstory or exposition. Keep the action moving ahead, especially in the first chapter. Then work in background details and other info little by little, on an “as-needed” basis only, through dialogue or flashbacks.
~ Create a mood of unease by showing the main character feeling apprehensive about something or someone or by showing some of the bad guy’s thoughts and intentions.
~ Add in tough choices and moral dilemmas. Devise ongoing difficult decisions and inner conflict for your lead character. Besides making your plot more suspenseful, this will also make your protagonist more complex, vulnerable, and interesting.
~ Withhold information. Don’t tell your readers too much too soon. Dole out information little by little, to tantalize readers and keep them wondering. Keep details of the past of both your protagonist and antagonist hidden, and hint at critical, life-altering experiences they’ve had that are impacting their present goals, desires, fears, etc. Add one tiny detail after another as you go along, or maybe a short flashback here and there.
~ Delay answers to critical plot questions. Look for places in your story where you’ve answered readers’ questions too soon, so have missed a prime spot to increase tension and suspense. Draw out the time before answering that question. In the meantime, hint at it from time to time to remind readers of its importance.
~ Use dramatic irony. This is where your readers know something critical and scary that the protagonist is not aware of. For example, your heroine is relaxing after a stressful day, unaware that the killer is prying open her basement window.
~ Add a ticking clock. Adding time pressure is another excellent way to increase suspense.
~ Use the setting to establish the mood and create suspense. This is the equivalent of ominous music, harsh lighting, strange camera angles, or nasty weather in a scary movie.
~ Use compelling, vivid sensory imagery to take us right there, with the protagonist, vividly experiencing and reacting to whoever/whatever is challenging or threatening her. And appeal to all five senses, not just the visual.
~ Put some tension in every scene. There should be something unresolved in every scene. Your character enters the scene with an objective and encounters obstacles in the scene, so she is unable to reach her goals.
~ Vary the tension. But of course, you can’t keep up tension nonstop, as it’s tiring for readers and will eventually numb them. It’s best to intersperse tense, nail-biting scenes with a few more leisurely, relaxed scenes that provide a bit of reprieve before the next tense, harrowing scene starts.
~ Use brief flashbacks at key moments to reveal your main character’s childhood traumas, unpleasant events, secrets, emotional baggage, hangups, dysfunctional family, etc.
~ Keep raising the stakes. Keep asking yourself, “How can I make things worse for the protagonist?” As the challenges get more difficult and the obstacles more insurmountable, readers worry more and suspense grows.
~ Plan a few plot twists. Readers are surprised and delighted when the events take a turn they never expected. Don’t let your readers become complacent, thinking it’s easy to figure out the ending, or they may stop reading.
Do you have any other techniques for building suspense to add to this list?
Jodie Renner, a freelance fiction editor specializing in thrillers, has published two books to date in her series, An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: WRITING A KILLER THRILLER, with the updated, expanded edition now available in e-book and paperback on Amazon; and STYLE THAT SIZZLES & PACING FOR POWER, available in paperback, for Kindle, and in other e-book formats.