Sunday, September 25, 2011

Heightening the Suspense, Part I

by Jodie Renner, editor & author

Whether you’re writing a thriller, romantic suspense, mainstream novel or any other genre of fiction, your story needs plenty of tension and conflict, and also a certain amount of suspense, to keep the readers turning the pages.

As Jack M. Bickham says, “In fiction, the best times for the writer — and reader — are when the story’s main character is in the worst trouble. Let your character relax, feel happy and content, and be worried about nothing, and your story dies.”

According to Jessica Page Morrell, “Suspense forces a reader to stay engaged and is part anxiety, part curiosity. Suspense unsettles the reader, plunges him into nail-biting angst.” And all this curiosity and worry keeps him turning the pages, of course.

What is suspense, anyway? Hallie Ephron relates this story: “Alfred Hitchcock was asked to define suspense. He told the interviewer to imagine two people sitting at a table at a café. Under the table is a bag. In the bag is a bomb. The characters don’t know that the bomb is there but the viewers do. That, he said, is suspense.”

And as Steven James said in his excellent workshop at Thrillerfest, “Suspense needs apprehension. Apprehension is suspense. And impending danger creates apprehension.” James says that suspense is about first “making a promise” (setting reader expectations that your characters and story are going to intrigue them) and then providing a payoff. “The bigger the promise, the bigger the payoff,” says James. “Give the reader what he wants or something better.”

What are the main elements of suspense?
Jessica Page Morrell likens writing suspense in fiction to dancing a striptease, because effective storytelling requires teasing the readers initially with a tantalizing opening, an intriguing story question and an inciting incident, followed by hints and foreshadowing of trouble to come, which creates a feeling of unease. Then add in some delay and subterfuge to keep readers on edge, waiting for the layers to be peeled off to find out what’s going to happen next, or what that deep, dark secret was.

Of course, you need to seduce the readers first by piquing their interest in your protagonist, so they’ll start identifying with him — otherwise, they won’t really care what happens to him. As William Bernhardt says, “If people don’t care about your characters, nothing else matters.”
Tantalize, but build slowly. This initial delay, according to Morrell, “creates unbearable suspense, and suspense manipulates readers’ emotions. Once the inciting incident threatens the protagonist, the writer’s job is to prolong this trepidation for as long as possible.” As a result, “suspense builds and satisfies when the reader desperately wants something to happen and it isn’t happening.”
Suspense is about exploiting the readers’ insecurities and basic fears of the unknown, their inner need to vicariously vanquish foes, thwart evil, and win over adversity. The readers, if you’ve presented your protagonist effectively, are in her head, fighting right in there with her against her cunning adversaries and other dire threats.
Hallie Ephron outlines a typical arc of suspense. As she says, “You can build it gradually, teasing the reader with possibilities. The climax and resolution should feel worth the anguish of getting there.”
Here are the stages of the suspense arc, according to Ephron (my comments in parentheses):
1.    Establishing and foreshadowing (set the stage, hint at danger to come)

2.    Suspense begins (conflict and action start)

3.    Tension escalates (danger looms), then loosens (slight reprieve, breather)

4.    Turning point (critical point — can increase or release tension)

5.    Sometimes a false payoff (false alarm)

6.    Payoff (good or bad: resolved, moves to the next level or “to be continued”)

Repeat as needed throughout the book, always providing some reprieve between these tense, nerve-wracking scenes.
As Ephron says, “Think of a suspenseful scene as if it were a pressure cooker. First you increase it a little, then release it a bit, giving your readers and characters a little breathing space, then tighten again, raising the pressure even higher. Repeat until cooked.”
Part II of this theme discusses a number of specific techniques for creating and heightening suspense in your novel.
Jack M. Bickham, The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes
Hallie Ephron, The Everything Guide to Writing Your First Novel
Steven James, "How to Write Thrillers That Actually Thrill", Craftfest, Thrillerfest 2011
Jessica Page Morrell, Thanks, But This Isn’t For Us

Jodie Renner, a freelance fiction editor specializing in thrillers and other fast-paced fiction, has published two books to date in her series, An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: WRITING A KILLER THRILLER and STYLE THAT SIZZLES & PACING FOR POWER. Both titles are available in e-book and paperback.
For more info, please visit Jodie’s author website or editor website, or find her on Facebook or Twitter.


  1. Great article, Jodie! I copied it to keep in mind as I write my next novel. It's always good to refer to the finer points of crafting suspense.

  2. Excellent points, Jodie. Thanks once again. My printer is warming up . . .

  3. Excellent points, Jodie, and important to keep in mind while writing suspense. I agree with all of your points, but I think most important, the key to keeping readers interested is to never give away too much, too soon, as well as keeping the tension constant. Lose those things, and we lose our readers.

    Thanks for posting this. Looking forward to the next installment,

  4. You're so right, Drew. I notice that when I'm reading bestselling thrillers, how the writers peel away the layers, one at a time, tantalizing the reader with new tidbits of information on things they've been wondering about. I'm reading a Lee Child novel right now, and he's a master at that!

    As a writer, that must be hard, as I'm sure you're eager to show the many facets of your story and characters, but need to hold back and just release them slowly and gradually.

    And yes, keep up that tension!

    Thanks for your insights - always spot-on.


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