Monday, October 24, 2011

Heightening the Suspense, Part III

by Jodie Renner, editor & author                 

In Part I of this series, I discussed the definition, elements and stages of suspense in fiction. In Part II, I listed some general, "big-picture" techniques for creating and heightening suspense in your novel. Here, in part III, you'll find some

Specific Techniques to Ratchet up the Suspense:

-      Use the setting to create anxiety and suspense. This is the equivalent of ominous music, harsh lighting, strange camera angles, or nasty weather in a scary movie. This applies to both indoor and outdoor settings, of course. Also, appeal to all senses, not just the visual… breaking glass, a dripping faucet, footsteps on the stairs, a crash in the basement, rumbling of thunder, a sudden cold draft, an animal brushing the skin in the dark, a freezing cold, blinding blizzard, a putrid smell coming from the basement…

-      Create a tense mood, with fast pacing: Thrillers and other suspense fiction generally need an ominous mood, tight writing, and breathless pacing throughout most of the novel, with “breathers” in between the tensest scenes.

-      Use compelling, vivid sensory imagery. “Show, don’t tell.” Invoke all five senses to take us right there with the protagonist, vividly experiencing and reacting to whoever/whatever is challenging or threatening her.

-      Raise the stakes. As the author of a thriller or other crime fiction, keep asking yourself, “How can I make things worse for the protagonist?” As the challenges get more difficult and the difficulties more insurmountable, we worry more and more about whether he can beat the ever-increasing odds against him, and suspense grows. And as a bonus, “Increasing pressure leads to increasing insight into the character.” (Wm. Bernhardt)

-      Add a ticking clock. Adding time pressure is another excellent way to increase suspense. Lee Child is a master at this, a great example being his thriller 61 Hours. Or how about those great MacGyver shows, where he had to devise ways to defuse the bomb before it exploded and killed all kinds of innocent people? Or the TV series, 24, with agent Jack Bauer?

-      Create obstacles and complications. The hero’s plans get thwarted; his gun jams or falls into a river during a scuffle; he’s stuck in traffic on a bridge; he’s kicked off the case; her car breaks down; her cell phone battery dies just when she needs it most; the power goes out, leaving the room in total darkness; a truck blocks the only way out of the alley… You get the picture. Think Jack Reacher, Lucy Kincaid, Elvis Cole or Stephanie Plum in any number of escapades. The character has to use inner resources to find a way around these obstacles or out of this dilemma.

-      Incapacitate your hero. Your heroine is given a drug that makes her dizzy and hallucinating; your hero breaks his leg and can’t escape or give chase; she’s bound and gagged; he’s blinded by sand in his eyes…

-      Create a critical turning point. Which way did the bad guys go? Should she open that door or not? Who to believe? Go up the stairs or down? Answer the phone or let it ring?

-      Make the ordinary seem ominous. Zoom in on an otherwise benign object, like that half-empty glass on the previously spotless kitchen counter or the fresh mud on those boots in the hallway, and imbue it with extra meaning. Who was here? When? Why?

-      Plant something out of place in a scene. Or even something just slightly off, just enough to create a niggling doubt in the mind of the reader. An address book with pages torn out, a whimpering dog, a phone off the hook, an open window, wet footprints on the entranceway floor, an overturned lamp, a half-eaten breakfast in an empty house, etc.
But of course, you can’t keep up tension nonstop, as it’s tiring for readers and will eventually numb them. You need to intersperse tense, nail-biting scenes with more leisurely, relaxed scenes that provide a bit of reprieve before the next sensory onslaught begins. 

Copyright Jodie Renner 2011
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 (Silver Medalist in the FAPA Book Awards, 2013). 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. Wow. Another great post to copy and keep on hand. Thanks for the reminder about senses and setting. It's easy for me to get caught up in the plot and forget these enriching least on the first draft.

  2. Great post, great ideas. But for those of us who like mysteries, the "throw in an omniscient pov" is a turnoff. They pull me out of the story every time, because I want to identify with the protagonist and if he doesn't know something, I don't want to know it.

    But, as I've mentioned before, that's the difference between straight mystery and true suspense, and there's nothing" "wrong" about either.

    Terry's Place

  3. I love these reminders, Jodie . . . all in one neat little place for me to copy. Thanks!

  4. Thanks, LJ, Terry and Peg,

    Terry, if you follow my craft articles, you'll know I don't like the omniscient POV, either. I much prefer close third-person POV, which sucks the reader in to the story and the character's head much more effectively.

    As I said, you can use the occasional tip-off, but very sparingly, as it's kind of like "cheating."

  5. Jodie, I agree if you're a mystery reader, it feels like cheating. But suspense is a different sub-genre, and there it DOES heighten the suspense. Just my personal preference as both a reader and a writer.

    Terry's Place

  6. Terry, there are so many other effective ways to heighten the suspense in a thriller, that I still caution writers to use the omniscient POV very sparingly, if at all.

  7. ... by that I mean the more obvious "author intrusions," where the author steps out of the story to address the reader directly or explain something. Breaks the illusion of being firmly entrenched in the story world and (mostly) in the protagonist's head.

  8. Well, you knew I was going to chime in on this one, Jodie, because you and I have discussed this subject at length. But I still maintain that an omniscient POV is only as good as the author who uses it, and there are ones who do it extremely well; Stephen King is one of them. He does it in a manner that is so seamless, the reader hardly even notices and certainly doesn't get bumped out of the story. It's a technique that can be effective when done well. It's just that few know how to do that.

    As for the other elements you've discussed--you're right on the money once again. Don't be afraid to create complications or push the envelope. This is what makes a story move and shake. Create as many roadblocks for your characters as you can. This is why they call it suspense. A character who sales through a story with no resistance is a very dull one, and guaranteed, so is the novel.

  9. Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Drew! Always appreciated!


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