Whether you’re crafting a thriller or just want to keep readers on the edge of their seats, incorporating a bit of suspense into your writing can go a long way. After all, nothing drags readers in quite like a strong emotional reaction, and the anxiety that suspense creates certainly qualifies!
If you’re struggling to produce the nail-biting reactions you want to see from readers, here are a few tips for how to create suspense in your writing.
How to Create Suspense in Your Writing (7 Professional Tips)
There are many different ways to make your writing more suspenseful. You can use any of the tips below that work with your story to keep readers hooked and eager to find out what happens next.
1. Pay Attention to Character Development
Strong character development is important to any work of fiction. Readers are more inclined to root for and feel invested in characters who feel real and have dimension than flat characters who don’t jump off the page.
When your readers feel invested in your characters and want them to succeed, it naturally creates more suspense. Here are some important aspects of character development that you can use to round out your main players:
- Goals and desires. Your primary and secondary characters should have some kind of motivation, such as a goal they want to reach or a desire they want to fulfill. Not only can this tell readers a lot about who your character is, but it will also help keep the plot moving.
- Strengths and flaws. It’s fairly easy to showcase what your characters are good at, but it’s also important to demonstrate what they’re bad at. Whether it’s a hands-on skill or a lack of morality, your character’s shortcomings will make them feel more human and relatable to your readers.
- Backstory. Your character’s backstory includes important events that have shaped their personality and brought them to the point where your story begins. Sharing key scenes from your protagonist’s backstory can help enlighten readers and explain why they are they way they are.
- Internal conflict. Most stories have some kind of external conflict that involves obstacles the protagonist is trying to overcome. Incorporating internal conflict provides more depth to your story and your characters as readers have the chance to see them struggle against themselves in some way.
When character development is given priority, it will naturally enhance all of the other suspense-boosting techniques in this list.
2. Utilize Dramatic Irony
Dramatic irony is a literary device in which the reader knows information that the main character does not. The most classic example of dramatic irony is when the audience yells at the horror movie protagonist not to go into the basement because they know the killer is hiding there.
To create dramatic irony in your novel or short story, you need to think about point of view. A close first person narration doesn’t lend itself well to dramatic irony because the reader only sees through the narrator’s eyes. However, you can use close first person and still create dramatic irony by alternating which character’s perspective you’re in.
Third person omniscient point of view offers the most leniency when it comes to creating dramatic irony. The narrator has access to unlimited information about all of the characters, and even things that are happening far away from the main action of the story. There are plenty of opportunities to feed information to the reader without having to reveal that information to the protagonist.
3. Create a High Stakes Plot
Every novel or short story has stakes. This is what the protagonist stands to lose if they don’t achieve their goal by the end of the narrative.
The higher the stakes, the more suspense you create in your writing. A life-or-death scenario will almost always be more gripping than if the stakes are very low—a minor disappointment or embarrassment, for example.
That said, not every story can (or should) have life-or-death stakes. The trick to making sure the stakes remain high goes back to character development.
If your protagonist is going in for a job interview and it goes poorly, it may not be that big of a deal. However, if you’ve shown how deeply this particular job means to your character and your readers are rooting for them to succeed, then watching them flubbing the interview suddenly creates much more tension. Will the protagonist get the job anyway, or are their career prospects in their highly competitive field now ruined?
4. Give Your Protagonist a (Tight) Deadline
A ticking clock provides a natural obstacle for your protagonist to overcome. If you think about the most suspenseful part of, say, the classic fairy tale Cinderella, your mind probably goes straight to the moment the clock strikes twelve and she has to rush home from the ball.
There are so many examples of how to use deadlines to add constraints to your story that it would be just about impossible to list them all here. But keep in mind that deadlines don’t always have to feel like homework assignments.
Your protagonist is moving away from her hometown. Will she or won’t she fall in love with the boy next door before summer ends and she has to leave?
Your protagonist has one last chance to reconnect with his father, who has a terminal illness. Will he decide to reach out, or leave their last fight unresolved?
If you’re not sure about incorporating a deadline into your story, take a step back and consider the role of time as a whole. Does it play an important part in the protagonist’s journey? If not, could incorporating more of a focus on time improve the story in any way?
5. Incorporate Foreshadowing
Foreshadowing is a technique where you give hints of what’s to come throughout your story, right up until the climax. Astute readers may pick up on your clues, raising the suspense as they read on to figure out if their hunch is right.
Even if some readers don’t catch on, they’ll likely realize all the ways you led up to the big dramatic turn of your tale once they reach it. This can still create excitement in your readers and even encourage them to go back and look at places where you foreshadowed the ending.
How do you use foreshadowing in your writing? There are many different ways to disperse hints about what’s to come in the plot ahead. Having a thorough outline is helpful, as you can more easily plan out where to place your clues. It’s also smart to complete a detailed revision and look for places where you can create stronger references to upcoming events.
6. Throw Your Protagonist a Curve Ball
Everyone loves a good plot twist. Keeping your readers on their toes with unexpected events is a surefire way to immediately turn up the suspense in your novel.
The trick to creating a good plot twist is to make sure it makes sense with the rest of the story. If you change up the ending but haven’t laid a foundation for your new climax, it can make your story feel disjointed.
You can mislead readers with red herrings and distract them with subplots, but you have to include some small clues as to the true ending for the payoff to feel satisfying. Plot twists pair perfectly with foreshadowing for this reason.
7. End on a Cliffhanger
Cliffhangers leave readers wanting more, making them perfect for building suspense. If you’re writing a book series, you can end each installment on a cliffhanger, but you can use them at the ends of chapters to keep readers on the hook as well.
Overusing cliffhangers may begin to exhaust your readers, so make sure to use them strategically. Pausing in the middle of an already tense moment will have greater impact if you haven’t been ending chapters in the middle of the action all throughout the novel.
Cliffhangers are harder to work into shorter pieces, since you don’t want to leave readers with no sense of resolution at all. Open endings, where just enough loose ends are tied up but a few questions are left open to interpretation, can be a middle-of-the-road option that still leaves your writing lingers in readers’ minds after they’ve put down your story.
Suspense is one of many ways to keep readers invested in your story. It’s essential to some genres, like thrillers and horror novels, but it can come into play across genres and styles of writing.
Here are a few different ways to up the suspense in your writing:
- Pay attention to character development
- Utilize dramatic irony
- Create a high stakes plot
- Give your protagonist a (tight) deadline
- Incorporate foreshadowing
- Throw your protagonist a curve ball with a plot twist
- End on a cliffhanger
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