Monday, October 10, 2011

Heightening the Suspense, Part II

by Jodie Renner, editor & author 

Techniques for Building Suspense

As I mentioned in Part I of this article, all genres of fiction need some suspense, to keep the reader interested and turning the pages. And of course, you’ll need to amp up the suspense a lot more if you’re writing a fast-paced, nail-biting page-turner.
After revealing your intriguing story question and showing your inciting incident, you can continue to build suspense throughout your story by using a number of techniques, such as:

-      building the sense of danger slowly

-      sprinkling in some foreshadowing (teasing) as you go along

-      withholding information (revealing critical info bit by bit)

-      using a tense mood and fast pacing

-      adding ominous details to your setting (environment, weather, etc.)

-      using compelling, vivid sensory imagery to bring your story world alive

-      adding time pressures (a ticking clock) for your protagonist

-      piling on new obstacles and complications that get in his/her way

-      narrating the story through several different viewpoints

-      giving the protagonist some inner conflict and tough decisions

-      introducing a few surprise plot twists

-      writing in some cliff-hanger scene and chapter endings

-      creating a riveting, “close call” ending

Some “big-picture” techniques for writing suspense

-      First, make your readers care about your protagonist, by creating a likeable, appealing, strong, smart and resourceful but vulnerable character. If readers haven’t bonded with your main character, they won’t become emotionally invested in what happens to him or her.

-      Start gradually, and let it build. When writing suspense, start slowly and subtly — give yourself somewhere to build. As Hallie Ephron says, “If you pull out all the stops at the beginning, you’ll have nowhere to go; worse still, your reader will turn numb to the nuance you are trying to create.”

-      Create a mood of unease, by showing the main character feeling tense or uneasy, or by showing some of the bad guy’s thoughts and intentions. Maybe, instead of anxious, your heroine is oblivious, but because we’ve just been in the viewpoint of the villain, we know the danger that’s about to threaten her.

-      Use the setting to create suspense. To describe the surroundings of the character in jeopardy, use vivid details and sensory imagery that reflect or add to his angst or fears, and bring to life the dangerous situations he’s confronting. (More specifics on this in Part III.) 

-      Foreshadow trouble to come. To pique the reader’s interest and keep her reading, drop hints here and there about dangers lurking ahead.

-      Pile on the problems and continue to raise the stakes. A complacent hero is a boring hero. Keep challenging him, to amp up the plot and build a character arc in which circumstances force him to be stronger, cleverer, and more resourceful, in order to survive and vanquish evil.

-      Use delay and subterfuge: Either we know something the hero doesn’t, or the narrator-protagonist has crucial info he’s revealing little by little, doling out to others gradually — the clever author’s way of keeping us on our toes, anxious and questioning, eager to keep reading to find out more.

-      Use multiple viewpoints, especially that of the villain. This way the reader finds out critical information the protagonist doesn’t know, things we want to warn her about! And getting into the head of the bad guy(s) always enriches the story. 

-      Write in cliff-hangers.  Jessica Page Morrell advises us, “To amp up suspense, orchestrate your scene and chapter endings so they don’t wind down, but instead keep the reader hanging. …endings are the perfect places to create cliff-hangers, revelations, and surprises.” But do vary your chapter endings. 

-      Create a few plot twists. Readers are surprised and delighted when the events take a turn they never expected. 

-      Add in difficult decisions and inner conflict. These will not only make your plot more suspenseful, they will also make your protagonist more complex, vulnerable, and interesting.

Part III of this series covers some specific techniques for ratcheting up the suspense in your thriller or other crime fiction.

Hallie Ephron, The Everything Guide to Writing Your First Novel Jack M. Bickham, The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes
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. Excellent advice as always, Jodie. Another one to copy and keep on hand for referral. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Printing out another one, Jodie. Thank you. Each one of these points are things we know, but sometimes forget to incorporate.

  3. Great comments Jodie, really a great reminder!

  4. Once again, Jodie, you're hitting on some very important points. Every one of these are excellent suggestions for keeping the reader inside the story, rather than out. Things every suspense author should think about at all times. One of the devices I like best is the withholding of information. This takes a degree of skill--letting a little out at a time, then using the reveal at just the right moment. It's all about timing.

  5. Thanks, LJ, Peg, Tom and Drew.

    Drew, you're absolutely right about the power of withholding information and teasing the readers with it little by little. That is such an excellent suspense-building technique! And yes, it's obvious it takes a lot of skill, planning, work and revising to get it just right. You thriller writers have all of my admiration!


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