Have you ever read a story that was good, as in, it had no discernible flaws, but it just wasn’t that…interesting? For example, you liked the protagonist and hoped they got what they wanted, but you also didn’t care that much. And sure, there were some cute moments, but you were easily able to put it down for long periods at a time. This kind of book is not destined to be a bestseller. It’s forgettable, which is the last thing you want to be. In order to write something readers enjoy reading, you must add suspense to your novel.
Ticking Clocks Build Suspense
The good old ticking clock is a timeless way to add tension. My parents-in-law have a wall clock with a loud “tick” that truly raises my cortisol levels when I hear it, even though we’re just watching TV! That said, this is what readers want in a book—a little tension. Tension causes suspense, and tension increases when there’s a time limit. Thrillers and mysteries regularly feature the clock, but any novel (every novel) benefits from the tension of a timeline. Will the couple fall in love before she has to go back home? Will the widow receive her benefits before the bank takes her house? If you have an exciting obstacle, see if it could become even more thrilling if your protagonists were racing against the clock.
Lies of Omission and Commission
Another way to add suspense to your novel is for your characters to lie—and for your reader to know it. The lie can be on purpose, which will make your reader wonder when, or if, they’ll be exposed. They can also hide information, feelings, or something else from other characters. This will make the reader wonder if and when what they’re concealing will come to light—and how they’ll deal with it. Making your reader wonder is a way of adding suspense.
Add a Cliffhanger
One of the best ways to add suspense is to do it regularly—ideally at the close of every chapter or scene. The stakes don’t have to be monumental. Not every cliffhanger will be about whether the bomb gets defused in time. However, your chapter could end with an unresolved conversation, a phone call not made, a lie told. Whatever it is, it should obviously matter to your characters. The point of doing this is to leave a little mystery in your reader’s head that makes them want to turn the next page and find out what happens.
Pose a Question…and Don’t Answer It (Right Away)
I’ve started to pay significantly more attention to structure and form as I read, and I find the best books, as in, the ones I enjoy the most, pose a question near the beginning of the story. This makes me turn pages to find the answer. And guess what? Most novels do this. I recently read Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda (YA, highly recommend), and the book opens with Simon corresponding with someone whose name he does not know. From then on, I kept wondering, who’s this dude he’s talking to on the DL? It propelled the book forward. Point being: the “question” doesn’t have to be life or death, but it should be interesting enough that a reader wants to discover the answer to it.
These are just a few ways to add suspense to your novel. Again, genre doesn’t matter. Whether you’re writing literary fiction, romance, or outright suspense, your job is to take your reader on a journey. It should be juicy enough that someone actually cares enough to turn a page. Adding suspense will help with that, and it’ll make the reader’s experience more enjoyable.