Writing Suspense: Five Pressure Points to Keep Readers on the Edge of Their Seat

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Ah, suspense! Musicians call that a chord that needs resolution. Readers call it a spine-tingling, sweat-inducing escape from the monotony of the everyday grind. But as writers, how do we manage to think up those stories that produce that desired effect? You want there to be plot-twists, sure. But the emphasis is less on the shock factor, and more on the slow burn. Your job is to stoke the flames.

Below, I’ll outline these, as well as the things you should avoid doing so that your story isn’t too saturated either. Like any good chef knows, even the best soup can be spoiled if too many spices are added.

But of course, even that is a subjective concept. At the end of the day, you’ll have to defer to what feels good to you. These are merely guidelines for writing suspense and creative suggestions to get your ideas flowing.

1: Up the ante.

What does your protagonist want or need, and why does it matter? Make the reader see it through your character’s eyes. Bring them into that feeling of familial obligation or personal vendetta. First person POV works especially well for this, because it allows your reader to crawl around inside the protagonist’s brain.

2: Keep moving the goal post just out of reach.

This is infuriating, but in the best way. Whenever I read a book where the character is about to achieve the thing, or, even a significant step toward the thing, and then it’s stripped away, I instantly find myself frustrated and irritated. But after all, isn’t that what we sign up for when we read certain books anyway? The reader wants to feel emotion. So, make them feel the burn of “so close, but so far” at the mercy of your keyboard. I promise, they won’t hate you (forever).

That being said, don’t do this too much without a good plot reason. Although it can be interesting if done right, too many setbacks could tempt your reader to quit your book for good. For best results, sprinkle in some small victories in between the gut-wrenching setbacks. This way, the reader still has something to look forward to, even if the victory is short-lived.

3: Add in a surprising limitation.

Maybe your character is about to qualify in a tournament but then injured moments before the match is finished. Or they’re about to land a massive business merger, but suddenly an old fling with the boss’s daughter makes things infinitely more complicated and awkward. Your options are endless! Bonus points for adding in a good dose of romantic feelings and the confusion that often accompanies them. *Starts humming “Ironic” by Alanis Morisette*

4: Crank up the fear.

Reveal what could happen should things not work out. Sometimes a quick detour into hypotheticals can be a tangible way to scare the reader into sympathizing with the protagonist. This can be especially fun if the protagonist is actually quite awful, but you force the reader to like them anyway.

5: When in doubt, bring on the cognitive dissonance.

Give your protagonist a potential solution, but make it an unfavorable option. Maybe it costs them far too much, or they’d gain everything they’d want – but at the cost of a life. Morality is a tricky subject, so my best advice for this particular angle would be to research to have a framework for your character’s (potentially flawed) logic.

If research isn’t your cup of tea, at least invest some time surveying family and friends to ask what their knee-jerk reaction would be in a given situation. It can be as simple as a would-you-rather kind of nonsense conversation, but the benefits you will glean from it are priceless.

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