This Business of Writing

How to Build Suspense in a Novel

In The Craft of Writing on April 28, 2010 at 11:15 am

by C. Patrick Schulze

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Writing about suspense in a NOVEL is all about building anticipation for your readers. To do this you offer hints at what is to come, but you give them no answers until the very end of your novel. The purpose in writing suspense is to give your reader something about which to worry, to encourage them to read more of your novel. It also gives them a puzzle to unravel, which is a fun thing to many readers.

The secret to suspense? It’s sort of like a magic act. You give them first one clue, then another and another, yet all the while you have them look in the wrong direction. When you do finally deliver your solution, or the Prestige as they say in the illusion industry, you do so with a flourish and fanfare. “Ta-da!” It’s at this point the reader realizes they’ve been watching the wrong hand the entire time.

Here are some techniques to establish and build suspense in your novel.

1. Build suspense from the very start of your novel. Get your reader hooked and wanting more right away.

2. Pose an intriguing question. Is this character insane or a master artist of disguise? Did the character really die or has he simply planned an elaborate hoax to sidestep his child support payments?

3. Place your characters in unusual situations. Maybe your character finds a large hole in their yard where none existed yesterday.

4. You can create a sense of impending doom. Might your character run across a field as one lightening strike after another closes on him?

5. Vary the pace of your novel. As the suspense builds, you might wish to speed up the pace of your story. (Read this for more on PACE IN YOUR NOVEL.)

6. The use of deception is another wonderful tool to increase the suspense in your novel. In effect, have your characters lie to throw off your reader as to the true nature of things.

7. Deadlines or immediacy is another valuable tool you can use to increase the suspense. How many times have you seen the character glance at the ticking clock on the atomic bomb as he attempts to dismantle it?

8. It’s often beneficial to have a second character involved in the suspenseful situation. You can have the two characters ricochet off of each other for added suspense. your reader  will never know which one is going to die when there are no red-shirts in the cast?

9. Play up to people’s natural fears. If you focus on universal fears such as arachnophobia, (spiders), Musophobia (mice), Coulrophobia (clowns), or Glossophobia, (speaking in public), you’ll capture the imagination of a wider range of readers. If you focus on things that don’t concern most people, Motorphobia (automobiles) for example, as you might suspect, fewer people will get emotionally involved in the storyline.

10. The close shave. Suspense can be built upon the near-miss, too. You know the routine. It’s when the bullet whizzes past the hero’s head.

Of course, with few exceptions, you should probably solve the mystery for your reader by the end of your novel. How would you feel if you read a four-hundred page tome and never found out, “who done it?”

There is one major pitfall to writing suspense, however. As with all sleight of hand, it’s in the delivery.  Should you reveal too little, your reader may lose interest in your novel. If you reveal too much, they have no reason to continue reading. It’s a delicate balance, but a learnable skill.

I hope by now you know I wish for you only best-sellers.

C. Patrick Schulze

Author of the emerging novel, “Born to be Brothers”

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  2. thanks man

  3. WOW. This has been so useful! Thank you!

  4. This doesn’t help much. The only help it was was to lead characters in the wrong direction with clues but what if your not writing a detective novel? Didn’t think of that one did you Patrick Shulze

  5. Patrick,

    Thanks so much for this post. I’m working on my first novel,and after dithering around for the first 100 pages, I got several pieces of great pieces of advice from you to help me put it on track. Especially posing a fascinating question at the beginning, that’ll work perfectly when I do the rewrite.

    I appreciate your sharing your wisdom with us. I’m eager to read your how-to pamphlet.

    Thanks again,
    ~ John

  6. Think this is excellent advice, and very helpful.

    One thing surprises me, though – if I were really scared of, say, mice, I can’t imagine myself sticking with a story that involves them (which probably explains why I never, ever, read or watch medical dramas!). However, if I’m in a minority of one I’m quite happy to tap into other people’s fears, if that’s what they really want…

    Ah, well, I guess if humanity ever lost its power to amaze there’d be nothing left to write about!

    Thanks again for the very welcome advice. 🙂

    • Thanks for your kind words, Aislinn.

      If truth be told, I hadn’t thought of writing about one’s own fears. Interesting outlook you’ve got there.

      I enjoyed your line about humanity’s power to amaze. Very clever.

      Thanks for the great comment.


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