Use Setups and Payoffs to Create Suspense in Fiction

On this page, I'll talk about a technique for creating suspense in fiction. For more creative writing tips, be sure to join our free email group.

Occasionally, I hear shrill noises through the walls of my apartment. I'll tell you about them in a minute.

First, I want to tell you about the dog that lives upstairs. It's a beautiful dog, but the other day, it did something that was a little bit insulting.

Before I get to that, I'm going to talk about a technique you can use in your fiction writing to keep readers interested.

The first step is to set up an expectation...

For example, your character mentions that she's had a fear of dark spaces ever since what happened last summer. (Now the reader expects her to say what happened last summer.)

Or your character throws a drink in her best friend's face. (Now the reader is waiting for the friend's reaction.)

Or a phone rings in the middle of the night. (So the reader waits to find out who's calling.)

Then, once you've set up an expectation, you delay the payoff. You end the chapter, or you change the scene, or you change the subject.

You leave the reader hanging.

This bothers readers, but in a good way. The unfinished business is like an itch they want to scratch.

So they feel compelled to keep turning pages to try to get some closure.

You don't need to be writing a suspense story to use this technique. It's an easy way to create suspense in any kind of story.

A few caveats, though. You don't want the delays to feel artificial or manipulative. Make sure they fit naturally into the flow of your story.

And remember that eventually, you must provide the payoff you've promised the reader. You have to scratch that itch...

The way that I tried to scratch the head of the beautiful dog that lives in the apartment above mine.

But the dog wouldn't let me touch it. In fact, it refused to get into the elevator with me, and its owner had to chase it around the hallway.

But I didn't really mind. At least the dog is always quiet, unlike my next-door neighbor who sings opera while I am trying to write website articles. Have fun experimenting with setups and payoffs in your fiction.

Join our 8-week online course Irresistible Fiction to learn more ways to create suspense in fiction.

Suspense Writing - Next steps

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