As a writer, I have always had a difficult time committing to a genre. I enjoy trying out different voices and styles, tweaking the world building or altering the setting until I often wind up with a “cross-over” manuscript. No matter what genre I drift towards, however, my love of suspense always seems to leak through. While it can be difficult to master the art of creating suspense, a novel that maintains a decent amount of suspense throughout the story can keep a reader’s attention despite possible plot holes or underdeveloped characters. Human nature is a curious thing, making suspense vital to an engaging story.
So, how do you hook a reader on the edge of their seat? How do you keep them reading until the last page?
- A strong hero requires a strong antagonist. This doesn’t mean you must write in the toughest of tough guys or the evilest villain you can imagine. It means that the hero’s opposition must be at least equal to his strength. If the hero is very obviously stronger/smarter/more resourceful than the conflict, readers will lose interest. Give your villain strengths or resources the hero lacks. Make the struggle an internal one the hero might not be quite ready to confront. Whatever the problem is, make sure your character suffers a little. Your readers will bond with them during their struggle.
- Raise the Stakes. Maybe your hero initially just wanted to steal enough money to pay his rent. Raise the tension by raising the stakes on his success. Perhaps instead of stealing rent money, your character is stealing food to keep his family from starving. Perhaps your hero was spotted, and now must evade law enforcement while trying to fix his cluttered life. Much like the point above, make your character suffer a little. If the stakes of the conflict aren’t high enough, readers are unlikely to be invested in the outcome.
- Break Your Reader’s Expectations. Chances are, your book will not be the first one a reader has opened. Avid readers are often difficult to surprise, having studied the same tropes and common set ups we analyze as writers. While many readers might prefer the predictability of a formula (the romance genre comes to mind), there are no set rules to writing fiction. Who said your romance novel must end with a happily ever after? Does good always conquer evil? It’s your story; feel free to challenge the reader’s expectations of where it is going and what comes next.
- Use Time to Your Advantage. Few things put the rush on a character quite like a ticking clock. Use time to create a sense of urgency for your character. Give him a deadline, and consequences if it isn’t met. Perhaps your character will lose the man of her dreams if she doesn’t tell him how she feels in time, or her father will die if she can’t find the antidote. Time is often a cruel master in the “real world.” Why should fiction be any different?
- Cut Down on the Action. Suspense is not created in the action-packed scenes filled with violence or action. Suspense is created on the pages between. The action-packed murder scene is not where suspense is created; suspension occurs during the abduction, or the attempt to locate the missing person. Suspense is created with questions, while action scenes offer deliver answers.
- Evoke Your Reader’s Emotions. Don’t just give us the logical reasons to care about the outcome of the conflict. Make us care. There are a variety of ways to do this, from introducing more emotional language to internal monologues or revealing dialog with other characters. However you tackle it, make sure your readers can feel why it matters. Don’t just tell us he’s nervous, show us the sweating of his palms and knots in his stomach.
- Add Uncertainty. Your character has been struggling along the same conflict for the first half of the novel, and they’ve finally identified a solution. Want to keep the suspension going? Add uncertainty to that ‘solution.’ Maybe it’s an approach no one has tried before, or one that has failed others in the past. Perhaps the last person to try things this way didn’t live long to talk about it, or maybe your character is in a situation there is no historical precedence for. Give your characters uncertainty and anxiety to go along with their plan, and let it transfer onto the page.
- Don’t Give it All Away! This one is difficult, I know. When we’re first learning to write, many of us learn to “set the scene” by giving an overabundance of information in the first few chapters. Some writers will try to fill in the entire backstory of their fictional world within two chapters, making sure to explain exactly why the conflict at hand matters. While this is great, it often removes a lot of the suspense and questions from the plot. Instead of wondering why things are done differently in World Q, the reader feels as though they already know all the answers. What could be left to learn? While it can be tempting to flood your readers with information early on to ensure they “get it,” resist the urge! Readers are often savvy people who enjoy connecting the dots on their own. Instead of squishing your character’s entire life story into the first two chapters, play around with weaving in bits and pieces gradually throughout the story. Your pacing, and suspense lovers, will thank you.
- Kill Someone. But Ivy, you just said murder isn’t suspense! Well, that was true. It’s not. I am also certainly not advocating stabbing anyone with your pen. When I struggle with suspense, I love dragging my friends together for a game of Clue. Pay attention to how the game plays out; the more the murder mystery increases, the more you want to know who killed him! Aim for the same feeling in your literature, and your readers will be hooked until the end.
What are some of your favorite ways to introduce and maintain the suspense? If you’ve got any tips, be sure to leave them in the comments!