Suspense may have its own genre, but all writers should practice adding it to our plots. Whether you’re writing a plot- or character-driven story, commercial fiction or literary, there’s plenty of room for suspense.
However, suspense is hard to quantify. The elements that make a book feel suspenseful are varied and subtle. Plot, structure, even writing style can all increase tension.
Wondering how to add a little suspense to your story? Here are a few places to begin:
Give your characters a deadline
A time crunch automatically adds uncertainty and urgency to your plot. It introduces the real possibility that your characters may run out of time to do what they need to do.
Deadlines can vary in scale and nature, from racing to the supermarket for eggs before it closes to stopping a house from going into foreclosure. A character might have a heavy deadline like flying home to say goodbye to a dying parent or a happy one like road tripping to a best friend’s wedding. Whatever the occasion, a timeline gives you natural tension.
Use this tension to your advantage by putting obstacles in your protagonist’s way: maybe the car breaks down or a bad storm grounds all flights in the region. Dangle the danger of your protagonist missing their goal alongside the hope that it’ll all work out. This uncertainty will increase suspense as the deadline creeps closer.
Introduce an ultimatum
Ultimatums are a kind of deadline, but they often carry an extra emotional dimension because they spring from character conflict.
Does one of your characters have a moment of growth and decide to assert themselves? Has your protagonist run out someone’s patience? These are good opportunities to introduce an emotionally complex deadline and show your characters under stress.
Get creative with your ultimatums. They can take the form of a neighbor threatening to make a report to the HOA over unmowed grass or a spouse demanding accommodations if they are to stay in the marriage. In addition to giving a deadline, your ultimatum will complicate the relationship between two or more of your characters.
Switch point of view
If you’re writing a single-point-of-view story, I don’t suggest you add POVs to increase tension. Some stories ask to be told from one perspective, others multiple. If you have a multiple-POV story, be intentional about where you switch.
A POV switch at a critical moment ramps up tension by keeping readers in the dark about what happens next. In a single-POV story, we see the fallout/consequences of a dramatic scene immediately. A multi-POV story can spend some time in a different perspective — perhaps even revealing information that raises the stakes on those consequences — before bringing readers back to the original character.
Many television shows employ this technique to excellent effect. Look for it next time you’re binge-watching your favorite series.
Shorten your sentences
Varied sentence structure makes for strong writing, but your scene’s mood also informs the rhythm of your prose. Your protagonist’s thoughts may become choppier when they’re under stress. Reflect that on the page. A suspenseful moment is no time for languid prose.
Shorter sentences also speed the pace. They’re easier to read and let readers indulge their desire for that one more page (followed by one more page) before they have to put the book down. And really, that’s what you’re after: the sort of pace and tension that keeps the pages turning.