All novels require suspense. Whether you’re writing romance, historical fiction, Sci-Fi, or any manner of book out there, you want to create the what-will-happen-next thrill for your reader. This is why the advice here could be broadly applicable to any genre. However, I’ll share specific tips for writing suspense—apply as needed.
Suspense means anticipation. It makes viewers or readers want to know what will happen, and they watch or read on to find out. Suspense as a genre differs from mystery, for example, because with mystery, the crime is usually presented in the first chapter and then the plot works backward to find out whodunit. If you’re thinking of writing a mystery, here’s more: Write a Great Mystery. With suspense, the reader will spend the length of the book stressed about whether the crime will happen. Remember, the key word with suspense is anticipation.
Creating an atmospheric setting will literally set the scene for your suspense novel. Be sure to use all the senses. It is spooky? Why? What does it smell like, what does it feel like, what memories are conjured? Or, maybe, it’s the juxtaposition of the setting that matters. Nobody expects disaster on a crystal clear, beautiful day. Wherever you set the novel, be sure to give your reader the feels.
Everyone has Secrets
Memorable protagonists, especially a good villain, are key to suspense (and to any novel). However, one of the best ways to build suspense is to give your characters secrets. The best secrets are the ones known to the reader but unknown to the other characters. This will make your reader want to scream out warnings, only…the characters won’t be able to hear. Secrets, the potentially revealing of them, and the subsequent fall out from those lies put readers on edge of their seats.
Suspense mounts when the stakes are high and getting higher. Whatever is about to happen should be something absolutely no one wants to occur. The consequences of the Bad Thing happening must be clear to the reader. Whether it’s a terrorist attack or the loss of a relationship, the key to creating suspense is to make the reader actually give a damn about what happens. Once the stakes are high, keep applying pressure. Take away the protagonist’s power, squeeze them, make it harder. The tools that worked last time aren’t replicable this time. Create dilemmas. Whatever the main character could do to win will be difficult because it will mean pain.
For instance, my husband and I have been rewatching Homeland. It’s about a brilliant, bipolar CIA agent named Carrie. In Season 6, she must stop a terrorist attack, but to do it, she needs to keep her daughter safe, which means she must send her to another country. Pushing forward with the mission is not simple because it means abandoning her young child. This is an example of a dilemma. The terrorist attack isn’t simple either. The likelihood of it, its imminence, and its size keep pushing the stakes higher. Likewise in your own book, constantly apply more pressure to the situation, and where possible, be unpredictable. Homeland excels in all tricks and tips for writing suspense. It’s a great sample of what to do.
Speaking of time, use those constraints. The idea that something bad might happen not just in the distant future, but soon—now—makes it worse.
Obviously clues are an important part of suspense. You need anticipation, so you need to sprinkle those clues around. One breadcrumb makes the reader wonder if there will be another and another. This makes them want to turn the page, and it involves them in the story. However, you also want to keep them guessing, which is why some of those clues should be red herrings. A red herring is a clue that seems real but leads to a dead end. It could be a false sense of security, sending the protagonists in the wrong direction, or implicating an innocent. These will keep your reader on her toes—anticipating what’s next. If you manage that, you’ll have written a great suspense story.