The genre, medium or topic doesn’t limit how writers can create suspense. A funny story can encapsulate your reader while a scary story can fall flat. That drive of suspense can carry your audience effortlessly from beginning to end—when created effectively.
Anxiety. Confusion. Doubt. Insecurity. Tension. Uncertainty. Thrill. These are the feelings you want to create as a writer and the feelings your audience wants to feel as the reader. And with the right strategies in place, writers (like you) can create suspense in a way that brings more value to the story.
So, How Can Writers Create Suspense?
Creating suspense in your writing is all about achieving these four goals:
- Increase reader empathy
- Intensify reader concern
- Heighten impending danger
- Escalate tension
It’s all about building pressure within the plot and making your characters worth a damn to increase reader interest in your story. Here’s how writers can create suspense within any kind of story.
Let Readers See All Sides of the Story
Don’t hide the big picture from your readers. Instead, provide them the opportunity to experience the viewpoints of both the protagonist and the antagonist.
This bird’s eye view of the story queues readers to see any upcoming danger before the protagonist is aware. Tension builds within the reader, knowing that the protagonist is about to collide with disaster set forth by the antagonist.
How can writers create suspense from a first-person point of view? Is third-person narration the only way to successfully create suspense?
Of course not. You just have to get creative. For example, have your first-person narrator speak about the situation without realizing who the antagonist really is or what they’re really up to.
Hide a Character’s Identity
Not every character needs a full introduction. Create a character with a hidden identity, someone whose presence is known but remains unidentifiable for a significant part the story. This can be a mastermind who controls all strange behavior from behind the scenes or a character that intrigues your protagonist from a distant but maintains mystery.
Add a Suspenseful Setting
Treat your scene surroundings like a character. If your readers can’t clearly picture where the characters are, then they are not drawn into the story enough to care about its plot.
How can writers create suspense through the setting? A suspenseful scene can be heightened through details about the environment that encloses the action. What can the characters see, smell, hear, touch, taste? Allow the setting to offer clues about the impending danger ahead, be it imposed by the antagonist or by circumstance itself.
Limit the Time
Add more pressure to the situation by forcing your protagonist or your characters to work against the clock. Reversely, allow this restriction of time to be an advantage to the antagonist. Every minute stolen from your protagonist heightens the tension within your reader and intensifies their interest in your story.
How can writers create suspense with time? First, present a time limitation that’s already not reasonable. As the story progresses, allow circumstances to cut that timetable in half, if not more. This rattles your characters and encourages your reader to keep turning those pages.
Present the Question, Promise the Answer
What’s making noise in the basement? Who shot the gun? How will the protagonist escape from the moving train?
From chapter to chapter, there should always be a question on the reader’s mind. And because humans are natural problem-solvers, your readers will yearn for the answer—that is, if the question is enticing enough.
How can writers create suspense through questions? Present a question that receives an answer by the end of the chapter. This presents an opportunity to introduce another enticing question.
The push and pull of question and answer draws the reader to continue reading on to the next chapter where that question will be (or soon be) answered. The reader also commits more to the story, knowing that these questions will always receive an answer.
Complicate Every Situation
Pile on the problems. No scene should have an easy solution. Every situation the protagonist encounters should be impossible for almost anyone to handle.
Think of your protagonist like a juggler of five glass vases. Three is already enough to juggle, so five starts to complicate matters. But then either the antagonist or circumstance (or both!) throw more glass vases into the circle for the protagonist to juggle. By the end of the story, your protagonist should be barely preventing any of these glass vases from smashing into smithereens.
End Each Chapter with a Cliffhanger
As writers, it’s natural for us to write the scene down from start to finish. Once we get going, the rhythm of writing is hard to halt. After all, it’s no easy feat to stop the speed of the train once it gets going on the tracks.
This is how your reader feels when reading your story. And this is why ending every chapter on a cliffhanger works. The reader wants to know what happens next and will continue onto the next chapter.
To write this, continue to write the scene from beginning to end. Then, insert the next chapter marker right when the scene reaches its most suspenseful moment. That way, you don’t have to stop writing when you still have ideas for the scene and readers can enjoy the intensity of the moment in the way it was meant to be experienced.
Did I miss one? How can writers create suspense in their stories? Share your strategies in the comments section below.