How to Write Suspense
Find out how to write suspense using character development, narrative viewpoint, description, pacing, as well as special tricks and techniques!
At the bottom of the page, you'll find ideas for stories where you can apply your suspense-writing skills.
How to write suspense - character development
The first step to writing suspenseful fiction is to develop characters who feel vivid and real.
You can start your story with a ticking bomb or a car chase or a zombie attack, but unless there's a character that readers care about, they're probably not going to feel a lot of suspense. They don't have any skin in the game.
Stephen King once said: "I try to create sympathy for my characters, then turn the monsters loose."
Three quick tricks for creating sympathy for a character:
1) You can show the character doing something kind for someone else. They might comfort someone who's upset or help someone who's in trouble or simply handle a situation in a way that shows sensitivity to other people's feelings.
2) You can make them an underdog. Readers are likely to root for a character who's undergone hardships or seems to have the odds stacked against them -- especially if the character shows spunk and courage (but not self-pity -- readers might not like the character if they seem like a whiner).
3) You can make them care about someone else. Your character might deeply love a younger sibling, a child, a best friend, a pet. Showing your character's capacity for love will make them seem more loveable.
Above all, you want to imagine your main character as fully as you can, then bring them to life on the page. If readers feel like they know your character, they'll be invested in what happens to them.
Another way to create suspense through character development is to give your character a secret.
- You can keep the secret from the reader at first, dropping hints that provoke curiosity.
- Or, you can let the reader in on the character's secret, but create suspense around whether other people will find out. Will Bob's mother guess that he's selling drugs? Will Maria's boss sense that she's fallen in love with him? And, if so, what will happen next?
How to write suspense - narrative viewpoint
Narrative point of view, or narrative viewpoint, is the perspective you use to tell a story.
A scene can be told from a particular character's point of view, as if the reader's inside that character's head, sharing the character's thoughts and experiences.
Many thrillers use mulitple points of view as a tool for creating suspense.
For example, maybe Bertha hasn't realized that there's an intruder in her house.
The story starts from the point of view of the man who has just murdered Bertha's boyfriend and is now climbing in her attic window. Standing in the dark attic, he takes his knife out of his jacket pocket. Then he heads down the attic stairs.
Now the story switches to Bertha's point of view. Bertha sits in bed with her laptop, writing an email to her boyfriend. "I've been trying to call you all day, but your phone's turned off," she writes. "I hope everything's fine. I've been thinking -- we should spend a weekend in Paris together."
She sends the email, then goes onto Google to search for medical advice about her itchy elbow. Will the itching go away on its own, or should she see a doctor? She tries unsuccessfully to get a good look at her own elbow, then goes to the mirror on her closet door to check it there.
Because readers have information that Bertha doesn't -- there's a killer in her house -- they're likely to be feeling very nervous as she goes about these activities. If the whole story were written from Bertha's point of view, her actions would just seem mundane.
How to write suspense - description and pacing
You can use description to create suspense by slowing down the story at key moments, increasing the reader's tension.
Let's say Bertha's hiding in her basement from the killer. Readers are eager to know what's going to happen, so you drag out the moment a little to keep them on the edge of their seats.
You can describe her surroundings, the moldy boxes she's hiding behind, the cobwebs, the limestone wall. You can describe the ache in her thighs as she crouches there and the rasp of her nervous breathing. You describe the creak of the killer's footsteps upstairs. At first they fade as if he's walking away, and then they come back. Then his silhouette blocks the light in the basement doorway.
You can also drag out this moment by cutting away to a new scene or chapter, creating a cliffhanger.
Maybe Bertha's basement has an interesting history that will become important later in the story (i.e., when the secret room is discovered!). This might be a good moment to fill readers in on this background information, making them wait, breathlessly, to find out what happens to Bertha.
Another way to create suspense with description is by controlling the reader's attention. You describe the lumpy tarp in the corner of the basement where Bertha is hiding from the killer. If you mention the tarp briefly and move on, the reader might not think twice about it. If you start elaborating on the shape of this tarp, the reader will start to wonder what's under there. Isn't it funny how the tarp looks almost human-shaped, as if there's a person underneath it?
The amount of detail or description you give to a particular element in the scene can send a signal to the reader about what's important.
How to write suspense - delaying information
In general, you can create suspense by raising a question in the reader's mind and then making them wait before you answer it.
The question is like an itch that the reader wants to scratch, and they'll turn pages to try to get to the answer.
Let's say that your character, John, has just found a package on his doorstep. It is a small package, a bit smaller than a shoebox, with a hard bulge on one side. When John sees what's inside, his whole body goes cold because it seems that his greatest fear is coming true.
In the next sentence, you might tell the reader what's in the box, but then there wouldn't be much suspense. So, instead, you can make the reader wait.
If there's some background information the reader needs about John, this might be a good time to provide it.
Or, you could skip right to the next scene: John in his car, racing across the city to warn his sister that it's happening. He's received the Third Sign.
What's happening? What's the Third Sign? You might tell the reader now. Or, you might make the reader wait for this information too.
You WON'T waffle. You WON'T pad your story out with filler. Those are the wrong ways to delay information.
But you can leave certain things unsaid for a while. You can put off answering questions by cutting between scenes or by reorganizing your story (for example, by moving a descriptive passage to the place where you want to create a delay).
How to write suspense - foreshadowing
Foreshadowing is when you suggest what's going to happen ahead of time. By hinting at something ominous or dramatic, you can create suspense.
In horror movies, this is often accomplished with mood music. In fiction, it's sometimes done with creepy details. A wolf howls, distant thunder rumbles (these are clichés, but you can find a subtler details to create a sinister atmosphere).
Or the character might have a prickling at the back of her neck, a strange feeling that she's being watched...
A more direct approach is just to tell or show the reader what's going to happen later in the story.
Many suspense novels begin with a prologue that shows an exciting point in the action. The character lies on floor of the basement dungeon, trying desperately to loosen the rope binding her before her captor returns...
Then the author goes back in time and shows the events leading up to that moment. The reader knows what's going to happen. And when the character knocks on the door of that lonely farmhouse, the reader's tension rises...
Another way to set the reader's expectations is to establish a pattern.
For example, a serial killer in your book has been targeting very tall women. If your blond female detective is six feet/1.83 meters tall, the reader is going to worry about her.
Ira Levin's The Stepford Wives is an example of a whole novel constructed to create this kind of suspense.
When his main character, Joanna, moves to the town of Stepford, she notices that something seems wrong with most of the women in the town, who act almost if they've been hypnotized.
She befriends the two other "normal" women in the town, Charmaine and Bobbie, and the three compare notes about how strange the other women there are.
But when one of these friends, Charmaine, returns from a romantic getaway with her husband, she seems transformed, hypnotized like the others.
Then, Bobbie's husband proposes a romantic getaway, and when she returns, she also seems hypnotized.
Now the main character, Joanna, makes plans for a romantic weekend alone with her husband. Since Levin has already established a pattern -- the women go away with their husbands and come back transformed -- the reader is extremely curious, and concerned, about what is about to happen.
How to write suspense - story prompts
Ready to put some of these techniques into practice? Here are some ideas you can turn into suspenseful stories.
1) Last summer, on a dare, two of your teenaged character's friends spent a night in an abandoned house. They came out traumatized and refuse to say what happened to them. A few days ago, your character's brother decided to investigate the incident in order to write a piece for the school newspaper. After spending a night in the house, he refuses to speak at all and is currently under psychiatric care. Anxious to help their brother, your character decides that the only way to know what really happened is to spend a night in the house themselves...
2) Your character receives a mysterious phone call telling them to go to a particular location "if you ever want to see Jason again." Your character doesn't know anyone named Jason, but they decide to follow the caller's instructions...
3) Twice in the last week, your character has found snakes in their house. On both occasions, your character fled and called the local animal control service, which was able to capture the snakes and remove them. According to Animal Control, the snakes were of a highly poisonous variety that is not native to the area. When the third snake appears, your character becomes convinced that someone is planting them there intentionally. And your character is determined to learn who, and why.
4) Your character is traveling by train through a foreign country. The train stops in a little town, and the man who is sharing her compartment gets off. Suddenly, your character realizes that their bag is missing. That man must have taken it! Your character gets off the train to look for him, but the train station appears to be empty. While your character is still looking, the train pulls away, leaving them with no money and no passport in an unknown town where they don't speak the language. And night is falling...
How to write suspense - next steps
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