This Business of Writing

How to Build Suspense in Your Novel

In The Craft of Writing on February 10, 2010 at 4:47 pm

Conflict, as we all know, is a critical component of a successful novel. In fact, without it, you probably don’t have a novel. One technique used by most successful authors to enhance conflict is to build suspense by judicious use of scenes.

What, you may ask, constitutes a scene? It’s a part of your novel that includes character interactions that moves your story forward. It places your reader in a position to “see” what is taking place. Therefore, a narrative of the landscape is not a scene as there are no characters speaking to each other. In contrast, two characters describing the landscape is a scene.

The purpose of your scenes is to:

•Move your story forward and toward its end

• Introduce and flesh out your characters

• Create a problem or heighten it

• Solve a problem • Set up the scenes to follow

• Create setting or atmosphere

Within the concept of scenes, you have what are called, “Master Scenes.” These portray the most critical moments in your manuscript, the turning points in the story. For example, two people describing the landscape as above is a scene, but isn’t a master scene. Include the enemy army charging over that landscape toward your speakers and you may well have a master scene.

By combining the critical elements of your story, characters, dialogue, conflict and setting into scenes, you create your novel. And these scenes should interlink like a chain – one linking to the next is logical order. (And yes, your story is only as strong as your weakest scene.)

How you connect these scenes together is another important aspect of your novel. You need to write your story so that the intensity of your story rises and falls in a rhythm intended to generate excitement. (I’ve designed a nice little chart, but it refused to upload into this blog, so you can see it by downloading my free eBook, “An Introduction to Writing a Novel,” HERE.)

Think of the way your scenes rise and fall from scenes to Master Scenes and back again as a roller coaster ride for your reader. The scenes build excitement, then release the tension, then build again, then fall again. By the end of the book, your story develops to its climactic crescendo before everyone is allowed their final sigh of relief. As you see from the graphic on page 22 of my eBook, your Master Scenes would have the most tension and interest for your reader and your hero. The other scenes build to these crescendos by always “setting up” the Master Scenes to come.

Must your story follow the exact graphical guideline I show in the eBook? Not really. In my example, I have three Master Scenes. Your story may have more, though it should have no less. Can you have more peaks and valleys than shown here? Absolutely! Just make sure your downs always lead to another up.

A secret for many writers, me included, is to create the climactic scene first. After that, create your other pivotal scenes, then fill in. This often makes the story much easier to write.

By employing this technique of ever-increasing tension followed by release then more tension, you’ll have a stronger story and a better chance of finding representation and publication.

Until we speak again, I wish you only best-sellers.

C. Patrick Schulze

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  1. Thanks, this will help me write my short horror story!

    mysteryofwriting.wordpress.com

  2. I love this and it helped me alot. 🙂

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