Suspense Writing Techniques

These suspense writing techniques will add tension to your fiction and keep readers turning pages! For more writing tips, be sure to join our free email group.

cat hiding in closet

Delaying information

One easy way to create suspense is by delaying information.

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 shoe box, 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.

When you raise a question in the reader's mind, the reader will want the answer. By delaying the delivery of that answer, you can create suspense.

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).

(So what IS in the box? What IS the Third Sign? I'm going to leave that up to your imagination -- if you want, you can write your own story about this scenario.

But in your own story, you'll want to provide actual answers by the end. If you raise a question in the reader's mind, you should eventually answer it.)

Your readers will turn pages eagerly to get to the answers, and they'll enjoy a feeling of satisfaction when they do.

cat ears

Character development and suspense writing

A key 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 lovable.

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?

Narrative point of view and suspense writing

Narrative point of view is the perspective used to tell a story. Often, stories are told from the point of view of one character. It's as if the reader's inside this character's head, sharing their thoughts and seeing everything through their eyes.

Many thrillers create suspense by telling the story from multiple points of view.

For example, imagine a character named Sheila, who doesn't realize that a serial killer has just broken into her house...

The story might begin from the killer's point of view. He picks the lock on Sheila's back door and walks into her dark kitchen, where he pauses to take a knife from the knife rack...

Then, the story switches to Sheila's point of view. She's upstairs in the bedroom, talking on the phone with her mother. They're discussing what they're going to wear to Sheila's cousin's wedding. After ending the call, Sheila turns down the covers on her bed, then goes into the bathroom to brush her teeth.

Watching Sheila's activities, the reader's in suspense because they know something Sheila doesn't—the killer's downstairs. If the whole story were written from Sheila's point of view, her actions would just be mundane.

Description and suspense writing

You can use description to create suspense by slowing down the story at key moments, increasing the reader's tension.

Let's say Sheila'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 Sheila'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 Sheila.

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 Sheila 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.

young girl covering eyes


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.

Here's a story prompt that you can use to try this technique yourself...

Last summer, on a dare, two of your teenage character's friends spent the 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 the night in the house, he refuses to speak at all and is currently under psychiatric care. Anxious to help her brother, your character decides that the only way to know what really happened is to spend a night in the house herself...

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