Building Suspense

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Suspense is a wonderful tool to evoke a strong emotional response from readers. Who wouldn’t want to spike their reader’s adrenaline? Or, make a reader turn on the light behind them as they read–you know, just in case? The following tips are geared to help you crank up the anxiety level in your work.

Read on–I dare you.

Challenge your reader to sit in discomfort.

Your reader wants to go with you to places they would never go on their own–far from the safety and comfort of their cozy bed or couch. Consider tweaking the following elements of your story to develop an overall vibe of dread.

Alter your setting.

Manipulate your settings for maximum discomfort. Something as innocuous as a children’s playground can become a spine-tingling nightmare if done right.

Benign setting: In a children’s playground, children laugh, the sun shines, moms in pink coats gossip at nearby picnic tables.
Suspense Upgrade: Fog rolls in, the playground clears out. Creaking empty swings glide back and forth in an unseen breeze, a small shoe–just one–left behind on the ground scream to the reader go home, right now!

But you don’t let the reader walk out of that playground. You give them the tour of all the goose-pimple-inducing sights. Then you whack them over the head with something unexpected because you have built the suspense!

Already have a creepy setting? Consider giving it an upgrade by turning up the fear-factor.

Spooky setting: Your setting is an old, dark mill filled with cobwebs and abandoned factory equipment.
Suspense Upgrade: Your setting is an old mill where children died 150 years ago in a tragic fire.

Alter your character’s actions.

You’ve heard the saying, Kill your darlings. Well, in this case, don’t kill them–before you torture the hell out of them. Keep throwing obstacles at them and then see how they react. There are three different possible outcomes for your character:

1. They rock the challenge but further their path to chaos.

Your character defeats a killer mermaid. Yay! Now the dead mermaid’s kinfolk seek revenge and actively pursue your main character and her family. Oh no. Suspense!

2. They sort of rock the challenge.

Your character discovers a secret, but the secret unravels them.

3. They fail. They fail miserably.

The main character breaks into a crypt to discover family secrets–then the door shuts behind her, locking her in.

Alter your pacing.

By varying the pacing in your story, you can build suspense. Here are a few techniques to consider. 

Use misdirection.

Use your god-like abilities as a world-builder to perform the shell game with your reader. Lead them in the wrong direction. Show them what they want to see, but leave tiny breadcrumbs (foreshadowing!) of what’s to come. Then, bam! reveal something unexpected. Be careful with this technique. Your reader won’t like it if you don’t play fair, so play fair. In the end, they should read the passage, get to the end and feel like, I knew something was coming but I wasn’t sure what it was …

Build a crescendo.

Have your action build slowly. You know where you want to go with your big reveal, but take your time getting there in the beginning. Allow the tension to build to a frenetic pace until the ultimate shock is revealed. Then end your chapter with a cliffhanger.

Switch storylines.

End one chapter with a cliffhanger, but don’t start the next chapter with the cliffhanger’s answer. Keep anxiety levels high by switching to a parallel storyline. You need to be masterful with this or you will irritate your audience.

George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones series is an excellent example of this technique. I can’t tell you how many times I would be dying to find out what happened to Tyrion, but would turn the page and be forced to read about Daenerys. Sighing, I would read on, get so into her storyline only to be hit again with another cliffhanger. Then, agonizingly, I would turn to the next chapter and find myself flung into the far North with Jon Snow. And so on, and so.

Try a few of these techniques and see which ones work, and which ones drive your readers to switch on that extra light–you know, just in case. If this happens, you’ve arrived at suspense-building mastery.

Do you have a topic you would like us to cover? Let us know about your suggestion. 


About Author

Heather Rigney is a fiction writer, blogger, journalist, and art teacher based in Rhode Island. Author of The Merrow Trilogy--a dark, historical fantasy novel that deals with homicidal mermaids, the colonial suppression of women, and a present-day alcoholic funeral director trying to make sense of it all. Her writing has been featured in Motif Magazine and Stone Crowns Magazine. By day she teaches art at an all-girls Quaker school and at night she tries to be creative while avoiding too many sweets. You can read more about Ms. Rigney on her website:

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