The key to writing suspense is to keep your reader on her toes and nervous that things won’t work out in the end. In order to write a book that keeps readers up at night, and ready to buy your next one, follow these tips for writing suspense.
Know Thy Genre
Suspense and mystery are related genres, but they are different in important ways. I think it’s useful to understand how they’re different because knowing this will illuminate the goals of suspense. Once you’re clear about how suspense works, it’ll make your job pulling it off easier.
In mystery, the reader wonders who did “it” and why for the whole book. Usually it opens with a dead body or the aftermath of a crime. The author then slowly reveals whodunit. The reader continues turning pages to find out who was the mastermind and what their motivation was. Here’s more on writing mysteries: Write a Great Mystery.
Suspense is different. In suspense, the reader knows what crime *might* occur *if* the hero doesn’t stop it. Unlike a mystery when the big moment has already happened (or happens right away), readers of suspense are left biting their nails and trying to warn their beloved protagonist that they’re in danger. The key difference between genres is perspective.
Keep the Stakes High
Another major difference between mystery and suspense is the way an author tells the story. With mystery, the author must hold his cards close to the chest, revealing little because of course, the payoff is the big reveal at the end. That limits how many POVs he can use. Since the question in mystery is who did it, the author obviously can’t get into the head of the criminal.
Contrast this with suspense. In suspense, the antagonist’s motivation is paramount, as are the stakes of what he wants to pull off. We need to know who this person is and why he wants to commit the crime in order to be scared that he might actually do it. We also need to intimately know the hero and what the consequences will be if the villain is successful.
When structuring your suspense story, be sure to make it clear to your reader what the stakes are in the beginning. The first chapters are to show what is at risk. This needs to be obvious, emotional, and big enough to carry the story.
Give a 360-View
Don’t forget that the villain is the hero of her own story. That means she must have a lot at stake too. Why does she want to pull off this crime? What kind of insight into the motivation, plans, etc, can you share so that the reader knows your hero is up against a mighty force? Ensuring that your antagonist is smart and motivated will naturally increase suspense because the reader knows this person will not be easy to defeat.
The more you give your reader a 360-view of what this crime means to the villain, what it would mean to the hero if it happens, and how both the antagonist and protagonists’ stories are about to collide, the more suspense you will build.
Ticking Clocks Increase Suspense
The “time” honored use of a ticking clock naturally increases suspense. If the hero (or villain) need to complete their task by a certain time, the reader will feel the pressure. Keeping your foot is on the peddle to ensure you’re moving the story forward in a way that feels increasingly nerve-wracking is your goal as the writer.
Create Dilemmas and Roadblocks
As your antagonist gets closer to her goal, your hero will have to try harder and harder to fight her off. Make sure the stakes get increasingly high. What will your hero have to sacrifice in order to move forward? Make the dilemma difficult and real. These roadblocks will make the reader keep reading, and it’s a great way to illustrate character in the midst of a plot-heavy genre.
Utilizing these techniques will increase the suspense in your story. Once you’re clear on how the genre works, you can employ them all!