Building Suspense in Fiction: Seven ways to do it

Building suspense in your stories is key to reader engagement. I have continued to watch many poorly written TV movies, and have read many trashy novels, all because the building suspense held my interest.  

So how to create suspense in fiction? I've found the following techniques most useful. 

Building Suspense Through Character Purpose    

Without a strong purpose, goal, or driving need, your characters raise no anticipatory response in the reader. 

Give a character a goal, and readers become engaged. They want to know whether or not the character will achieve what he or she sets out to accomplish. Does your character want to win an important race? This is the sort of goal that requires steps to achieve, so with building suspense, and character setbacks, it can sustain reader interest throughout an entire novel. 

Any strong character goal will do the same: 

  • A friend disappeared without a word. Can anyone learn why?
  • A coworker is threatening to jump. Will she?
  • A missing child returns. But who took him?
  • Their marriage is failing, but can they save it?

In addition to the overriding story goal—to understand what happened, to save a coworker, to find the culprit, to repair a marriage—successfully building suspense requires smaller scene goals:  

  • Can the character learn anything from her friend’s apartment?
  • What does the coworker want?
  • Do the police know something they’re not sharing yet?
  • What sort of “date night” will the character plan, and how does it go awry?

Each of these smaller scene goals gives purpose to the parts of the novel, and purposeful attempts to accomplish the overall goal keeps readers interested in the character’s success or failure.

Building Suspense with Dramatic Irony    

When readers know something the character does not, readers will want the character to learn more.

If readers know that the handsome man taking the protagonist on a date has a knife under the seat of his car, the reader anticipates trouble, even if the character does not.

The reader will feel tense and worry for the protagonist. The smallest piece of information can take on importance if handled correctly. 

Whether the character is pregnant, has a new job, or has confided something he shouldn’t to a friend, if the information is something another character should know, but doesn’t, readers will want to know how it all turns out. 

Building Suspense with Danger    

Readers know that walking down an isolated, dark alley is not a good idea. They know it is not smart to swim in an area of the beach with a strong undertow, or drive a treacherous highway, or walk in the woods after a cougar has been sighted. Anytime you put your character in a dangerous situation you increase tension for readers.    

Building Suspense Through Elevated Importance    

When you set up a situation where an ordinary event takes on elevated importance you create suspense. For example, a cane is of no importance to most of us, but when you give one to a character who cannot get around without it, the necessary object builds suspense. 

In the television series House, the central character, Gregory House, depends on his cane. When he falls and the cane skitters off into the street, or when his friend withholds his cane to get an answer, writers are building suspense. 

A lost earring would normally mean little, and would be easily replaced, but as soon as you elevate the importance of the earring—it is an irreplaceable heirloom, or a borrowed diamond—you create suspense. 

Building Suspense by Creating a Sense of Powerlessness    

In the novel Saturday, by Ian McEwan, a father, mother, and grandfather all watch powerlessly as a home intruder forces their daughter/granddaughter to undress. This builds tension on two levels—readers worry that the daughter will be raped, and they also empathize with the powerlessness of those forced to sit by and do nothing at gunpoint.  

My previous example about Gregory House losing his cane creates tension through his handicapped and powerless state without it. 

A sighted character who suddenly becomes blind feels powerless, as does a character who has missed an important flight. All of these situations put characters in tough spots from which they must extricate themselves, and that creates suspense as readers wait to learn how the situation will be resolved.     

Building Suspense with Sexual Tension

Most people have experienced the heightened suspense of sexual tension, and if you put characters in situations where sex is a possibility, you raise those same powerful emotions in readers. 

Note that the tension needs to be uncertain. As soon as the characters actually have sex, the tension releases. That’s why the “boy meets girl” love story almost always contains the corresponding “boy loses girl.” 

The suspense of uncertainty ends when “boy gets girl,” and so the author must do something to raise the level of uncertainty again. 

Building Suspense with Time Constraints    

Finally, one of the most common techniques for increasing tension and suspense is to create a time constraint. Many movies and television series use this method. 

The television series NCIS and CSI often have a bomb that will go off in X minutes. The film 48 Hours gives Nick Nolte and Eddie Murphy 48 hours to find the real criminal. 

A character might have a plane or train to catch. He might have only a few days to put a deal together, or lose it. 

Wedding films often have the bride or groom get waylaid just before the wedding. 

John Cleese, in the old British film Clockwise, is meant to give a speech at a Headmaster’s conference. On the drive to the conference, he encounters one delay after another. 

These sorts of incidents, hinged on timing, can create building suspense to the point that readers or viewers can barely contain their anxiety—and of course cannot wait to find out how it all turns out.

Use any of these techniques to heighten tension throughout your novel. Use all of them and you will be building suspense that keeps readers turning pages from beginning to end.

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