Narrative 101: 6 Powerful Ways to Build Suspense



Engaging your readers from page one is the goal of any novel. Whether you are writing mystery, thriller or fiction, the key to captivating your audience is suspense. How you choose to use this narrative tool determines how well you're able to lead your readers to where they are supposed to be while maintaining their attention.


If you fail to hook your readers, they won't continue reading. This is where suspense comes in. The ultimate goal is to make the reader care about your main character. The best way to do this is to make sure that they are worried for their well-being. Worry equals expense. Here are 6 powerful tips for how to build suspense within your own work.


1. Put your characters in harm's way


There are four necessary components for suspense: reader empathy, reader concern, impending danger, and escalating tension.


Empathy: Reader empathy is the result of giving your main character a desire, a wound, or internal struggle that they can relate to. By pulling at their heart-strings, you ensure that they will want to stick around to find out whether or not your character achieves their goal. This is the emotional connection that ties initial interest with long-term curiosity. You must be crystal clear about what your character desires (love, justice, truth, freedom, adventure, forgiveness, etc) so that your reader knows what they will be fighting for.


Concern: To build off of empathy, concern is the device that drives readers to continue reading once they are initially hooked. By putting some kind of obstacle in your character's way, you guarantee their struggle to achieve their goal will be a difficult one. This creates concern in the reader who is emotionally invested in seeing your character achieve their goal. Your reader must understand what is keeping your character from attaining their prize and what will happen should they fail.


Danger: Next, the stakes need to be raised. It's not enough to have an obstacle, you need to find a way to raise the level of danger involved. Your threat does not have to be life or death. It can be the physical, psychological, emotional, spiritual, or relational well-being of your character that is at stake. Your character must then lose or sacrifice something as the price of their goal. This could be themselves, a person, their values, etc. By making the obstacles riskier to accomplish, you leave your reader biting their nails in apprehension to see their favorite make it out alive.


Tension: From the point of danger, you need to elevate the level of tension till it builds into a satisfying climax. You can do this by making the danger more imminent, intimate, personal, and devastating. If the queen dies in the first half, then by the end the well-being of the entire kingdom better at risk. If the tension is not properly built, the suspense will fall flat.


Be wary of certain types of scenes that can take some of the air out of your sails, for instance, sex scenes. By releasing all of the romantic tension you've been cultivating you give your readers instant gratification but it won't be enough to keep them reading till the end. A good rule of thumb is if you're looking to excite, add sex. If you want to build suspense, delay the main event.


2. Add promises and delay action


Suspense lurks in the quiet gaps in between action sequences. It comes with the foreboding feeling that something awful is about to happen and the anticipation of said event. If you're looking to add suspense to your story, you have to allow an accurate amount of downtime to occur in between events. While some novels benefit from a tight timeline, it can actually keep you from building suspense. You should never assume that a short turnover equals tension. Rather it is the endless promise and payoff cycle that provides the added emotion.


When readers complain that "nothing is happening" they aren't referring to a lack of action. They are telling us that there is a distinct lack of promises being made and not enough payoffs as a result. The solution to this isn't adding more action, it's in adding more suspense. Suspense is the precursor to the action. Without it there is no desire to see the story's conclusion. When going back and reviewing your work, don't ask yourself what needs to happen. Ask yourself what you can promise will go wrong.


Stories aren't cut and dry cause and effect. They are transitional and transformational. By the end of the story something is going to change, whether it is a person, a relationship, or a situation. Promises are part of that change. They can be romantic, comedic, horrifying, or dramatic.


Example: If a man (let's call him John) is out to avenge the wrongful death of his brother, that is a promise. But when his cousin sets out to stop him from exacting his revenge because he knows who really killed John's brother, he decides to wait in the shadows alongside John's known designated path...that's the danger. When John comes walking past, he gets the feeling that he is being followed and he starts expecting that he will be ambushed by his enemies...


This is the exact moment where suspense occurs. Drag this moment out and make the most of it. Then show us what happens and the consequences that follow.


3. Keep your promises


It seems like a matter of common sense, but writers make the mistake of not following through on their promises all the time. Leaving these promises unaddressed, even if it is only one, can leave readers frustrated and feeling as though their time has been wasted. Likewise, the bigger the promise that you make, the bigger the payoff has to be. Leaving a promise without a satisfying payout is as much a problem as not addressing it at all. It leaves readers feeling disappointed and then the likelihood of them returning for any sequels are slim to none.


Consider every detail of your story with this in mind. If you choose to include or describe something, make sure it is relevant to your novel as a whole. Sometimes writers will spend several paragraphs describing a mundane fact- like what someone ate for dinner- when it serves no purpose to the plot. Unless the meal is poisoned, symbolic, or has some other reason for being the sole focus of the narrative, you don't need to waste a reader's time describing it to such lengths.


When books fail, it's usually due to not enough promises being made, promises not being fulfilled when readers want them to be, or promises being forgotten entirely.


Another way to break a promise is by being too predictable. Don't set up a scene and then have the obvious thing happen. There's no fun in that and the reader knows it. They are reading to see what you've done differently, and feel letdown when you haven't delivered a bit of excitement.


4. Let plans be known


To be clear, you should not give away your secrets, your twists, or your ending, but you should let your readers know what's on the agenda. By establishing what is supposed to happen, you are promising your readers that something will happen to disrupt the "plan".


An easy way to set this into motion is have your character state it. Phrases like "I'll see you for dinner at 5" or "I have a staff meeting at 10 but after that I'm free" are an easy way to establish a timeline that will later be altered. You can also list out what your character's day will look like, such as "Okay, you go to the crime scene and then the victim's house, and I'll cover the bank witness and then the morgue". With statements like these we can clearly see where your character intends to end up. Now it's time to shake things up for them and your readers.


Plotlines swing from events to the moments that follow where your characters process what has happened, to planning what they will do next. We experience the same process in real life. Things happen, we process, and we react. In these moments of reflection, tension can lag. During each in-between moments there needs to be a promise made or kept.


5. Don't overdose on violence


Violence, like curse words are most impactful when used in moderation. When it comes to thriller and mysteries especially, violence is inevitable. When you're writing about a serial killer you may be tempted to write about all of his dastardly exploits. While showing a few is necessary to establish background and your villain's personality, your readers don't need to see every gory moment.


Gore does not build suspense. The threat of a murder is much more impactful than the murder itself. The possibility of escape is what makes things exciting. It gives the reader a reason to hope and a reason to fear. It makes the grief all the more real when things don't end well, and the joy much more celebratory when they do.


Think back on the last excellent horror movie you saw. Why did it terrify you? Chances are it wasn't because of the violence. It may have contained little to none. The reason for this is probably because the suspense is what kept you on the edge of your seat. The fear of what could happen was scarier than any actual violent act.


The amount of violence that you need in your manuscript depends on what type of genre you're writing. Genre also dictates how you build suspense. In mysteries death occurs and you know everything about it. Working backwards to find out who the murderer is and solving the crime is the goal. If you're writing a horror story, the actual act of violence should be highlighted as well as the threat of violence. If you're writing a thriller, the anticipation of violence and the need to stop it are the focus.


6. Anticipate your audience's needs


At some point during your writing, you need to anticipate the wants and needs of your audience. Remember that while we write for ourselves, our job as writers is to give the readers what they want. By fulfilling and exceeding their needs you automatically create a readership that will keep coming back for more. Here are 5 more ways to raise the bar:


1. Know your audience's fears and phobias: Recognizing what people fear is a powerful tool to help build suspense. Most are afraid of feeling helpless, of heights, spiders, needles, drowning, snakes, etc. All of these things can be used to help build tension in your story. By knowing that your character will have to face their deepest fears, you add apprehension as the emotional stakes reach their peak.


2. Describe the setting of your climax before your ending: Allow your final setting to be known before you even get close to the end of your story. Have someone visit earlier to foreshadow events to come. This will ensure that you don't break your suspense or pacing with setting descriptions when you're trying to wrap things up. The most important thing about the ending is to keep the momentum going and this will help you do it.


3. Don't use countdowns and deadlines if they don't add to the tension: A common mistake is to use countdowns because it's assumed that having less or measured time will help build the suspense. This isn't the case. Actually, it's fair to say that this technique has been used so much that it now feels overused. Its repetitiveness and predictability work against the goal it is trying to meet simply because we've seen it many times before. To circumvent this, start your timeline in the middle of your book rather than the beginning. To escalate the situation, shorten the time available to solve the problem.


4. As you build towards the climax, isolate your protagonist: Another great tip to keep in mind is that the closer you get to your final scene, the more your protagonist needs to feel that they are alone in their quest. Whether or not they actually are is another story, but they at the very least need to feel as though they are running out of options. By the end they should be unable to use their tools/abilities that they planned to use, escape routes should be blocked, and their support system needs to be removed via death, diversion, or other unavoidable circumstances. By stripping your protagonist of their resources, you open them up to be vulnerable enough for the final showdown. It is now possible for the antagonist to manipulate the situation in their favor, making the struggle for supremacy all the more dire.


5. Make it personal: No matter what you decide is at risk in your story, you should make sure that it is showcased in a personal manner. For example: Instead of having a random child abducted, make it the main character's sister. Don't just let the bank be robbed, have the main character's father work there and he's one of the hostages in need of rescue. Don't just have the city be at risk, have their best friend live there.


Suspense is a powerful narrative tool. When used correctly it can help accelerate your novel into the hands of readers and onto the New York Times Best-Sellers List. With these 6 tips you'll be able to implement these techniques and improve the overall quality of your work.


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