It’s October, which means it’s that spooky time of year when many of us are ready for a mystery, fright, or suspense novel to pair with our hot cider. If you’re looking to switch it up genre-wise or if you’re a perennial fan of breathless, hand-wringing page turners, here are two secrets to writing suspense.
Set the Tone by Crafting the Mood
World building is essential because suspense is about being on the edge of your seat, wondering what’s going to happen next. Often setting is essential to this. Maybe it’s the classic dark and stormy night. Or maybe the bad stuff happens as a bolt from the blue. Either way, where, when, and under what circumstances the events take place matter.
Here is an example of an author crafting his setting in a way that will pay off in the end. It’s an excerpt from Christopher Bollen’s novel, A Beautiful Crime. In it, a young man named Nick dumps his former lover, an antiques dealer, to hook up with a hustler named Clay. They rendezvous in Venice to pull a con, but the reader doesn’t know what it’s going to be or how it’s going to work. We know from the prologue that it ends in a murder, but we don’t know the manner or who ends up dead (or who the killer is). Thus, we’re in suspense, waiting to find out how this whole thing’s going to come together. But first: the setting.
The green-black waters of the canal lapped against rotted wood doors. The motoscafo passed through shotgun-thin alleys, under arched bridges so low Nick’s head almost skimmed their underbellies, through a parade route of tourists loitering on all sides, half like neon angels in cheap plastic rain ponchos, the other half dressed for heat that hadn’t yet arrived. Far above dangled balustrades and flowerpots and the exquisite embroidery of diamonds and crosses set in ancient, bloodshot marble. Every building was a new discover. They stood silent on the boat, struck silent in the religion of looking.
This passage is evocative not only of Venice itself—canals, low bridges, tourists, architecture, building materials, etc, but also of a newcomer’s wonder at it all. Nick is a bit of a naïf, and his status as a newbie in the city plays an important role in whether his con will succeed. Setting is not just the backdrop of this story, it is part and parcel of it. This novel, this con, this suspense plot could not exist anywhere but Venice, and therefore, setting that scene is crucial.
As you craft your manuscript, ask yourself why you chose to set it where you did. Why that place and not another? Why that time? Could it be elsewhere? If not, why not? Make sure you are intentional about your setting because that will help enhance your suspense.
Characters Have Secrets
Like in romance, all books benefit from a touch of mystery. In suspense especially, they must have secrets. Secrets and the fear of them being revealed is what makes suspense suspenseful. Here is another excerpt from A Beautiful Crime:
The scheme that he and Clay had devised…involved a single deceitful act on Nick’s part. All that was required of him, really, was the gentlest of lies, a mere nod of the head and a few rehearsed sentences delivered with a reassuring smile. The problem with the plan was obvious to Nick: he was not a gifted liar.
What we discover in this passage is characterization, foreshadowing, secrets, and a hint about how Nick’s best laid plans could go awry. We can see that Nick is a hesitant criminal—unsure but willing to be convinced by Clay. He’s a bit of an innocent (though not guiltless), which is information we’ll keep in the back of our minds as we see the story unfold. Will he be a successful con? What will be Nick’s tell? What will potentially give him away? And what will that result be?
There are plenty of other ingredients to baking a deliciously suspenseful cake like red herrings, foreshadowing, etc. However, if you nail the setup, you’ll be well on your way to writing a great suspense!