10 Can't-Miss Tips for Writing a Suspenseful Book or Script
Want to create a page-turning story? Check out these 10 tips for writing a suspenseful book, or script, that will keep readers excitedly flipping your pages.
Suspense Tip 1 - Make your reader care about the character
Suspense is heightened the more the reader wants to know a piece of information. A reader's desire for a certain piece of information increases the more the reader cares about the character involved.
For example, if a reader feels a deep connection to your protagonist, and that character is on trial for a murder he didn't commit, the reader will feel a lot of suspense awaiting the verdict.
On the other hand, if a minor character that the reader never got a chance to know was on trial for murder, the reader wouldn't care much about the verdict, ie not much suspense.
Since your protagonist drives the plot of your story, and most suspense will be around that character's outcomes, I suggest you learn how to create a protagonist the reader cares about.
That being said, supporting characters can absolutely be the subjects of suspense scenes too. Make sure you've at least developed some empathy between the reader and character if you want these scenes to work well.
Suspense Tip 2 - Put a lot at stake
Let's stay your reader cares a lot about a character and you decide to create a suspense scene around that character. You're off to a good start. You raise a question the reader wants the answer to. However, for some reason, when you read the chapter's draft, you're not on the edge of your seat. What happened?
Likely, not much is at stake. For instance, if your reader cares a lot about a character named Michelle, who's stuck in traffic on the way to work, the audience may wonder, Will she make it to the office on time?
However, this question isn't that suspenseful without something major at stake. If Michelle happens to show up 15 minutes late, nothing terrible will happen to her. She doesn't have much to lose.
Instead, if Michelle has a potentially career-changing presentation with her company's biggest client, now something is at stake. The busy client only has 30 minutes at the office before having to leave for another appointment.
If Michelle is late, she won't have enough time for her presentation. And if the presentation doesn't go well, she'll lose out on the promotion to her dream job.
Suspense Tip 3 - Use story questions
A story question is a certain type of question the reader wants the answer to. However, unlike other suspense questions, it's rarely answered in the chapter where it was raised, but much later in the story.
As mentioned, suspense is elevated the longer the reader must wait for a question's answer. Thus, story questions, with their long time horizons, lend themselves to effective suspense.
Here's an example of how story questions can play out...
The reader will have to keep turning the pages for the answers to those four story questions.
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Suspense Tip 4 - Create a compelling protagonist "want"
Your protagonist's "want" is the main goal they're after through the story. For instance, in a detective novel, the want may be catching a serial killer. Whether or not your protagonist attains the want shouldn't be revealed until the climax of the story, just before the end.
This time delay makes for good suspense. However, you also need to make sure a lot is at stake for your protagonist. As mentioned, when characters have a lot to lose if a story outcome turns out negative, readers become more emotionally invested in the result.
In the detective example, if the killer isn't caught, he's almost definitely going to carry out five more murders he's planned. Innocent people will die and the detective will be forced to shoulder the guilt, ie a lot to lose.
To learn more about creating a great protagonist want, check out my post on story plot tips.
Suspense Tip 5 - Structure your story into acts
As discussed, your protagonist should have an overarching want that propels the events of the story until the end. To turn up the suspense along the way, you should structure your story into acts.
The beginning and middle acts would build to answer their own questions, which would serve as sub-questions to whether or not the main character achieves the main goal.
For example, if a detective's main goal is catching a serial killer, the reader would receive a definitive answer in the final act. However, in the two previous acts, the events in the story would build to answer two important related questions:
Since these questions are related to the story's main one, if you did a good job crafting the main one, the earlier act questions will immediately become important to the reader.
To learn more about acts, check out my post on structuring your story into acts.
Suspense Tip 6 - Shift reader expectations during a scene
The last few tips involved building suspense across many chapters. However, you should also aim to create suspense within chapters.
The same rules apply: the reader needs to care about an outcome and you should delay the answer. However, within a single chapter, you don't have much time. You might only have five, maybe 10 pages.
A tactic you can use to compensate for the compressed timeline is to rapidly shift reader expectations during it. For instance, let's say you're writing a scene where a woman is running through the woods, away from a man who wants to hurt her.
If you simply describe her running for three pages, yes, your reader will likely feel suspense. However, that suspense would be stronger if you fed in a stream of events that shifted reader expectations as to whether or not the woman gets away. Here's how you could do that:
Suspense Tip 7 - Use a ticking clock
As you now know, with good suspense, you want to make your audience wait for answers. However, you'd benefit by doing the opposite for your characters - you want to give them tight timeframes.
In writing, a ticking clock is a deadline a character has to accomplish an important task. These clocks are sometimes literal - in an action story, the hero may have just three hours to find and diffuse a bomb with an actual ticking clock on it.
A physical clock doesn't need to be involved, though - you just need a time crunch, regardless of the source.
For example, in a romance story, the lead character has been offered a job in a new city. She has until June 1 to accept the offer. From now until then, she needs to decide if she wants to take the job or stay in town and pursue a relationship with a man she's falling for.
A ticking clock builds suspense because it makes a promise to the reader: by a certain point in time, either something good or bad will definitely happen for a character. The definitiveness of the outcome makes the reader care more about it. As the clock ticks down, the feeling of suspense grows.
To elevate the suspense of a ticking clock, you can use dramatic irony to put a character in a dangerous situation he isn't even aware of. For instance, the audience knows a bomb, set to go off in 30 minutes, is inside a building. Unaware, the main character walks inside.
Suspense Tip 8 - Leverage cliffhangers
With a cliffhanger, you raise a question the audience cares about in a chapter and then end the chapter before giving the reader the answer.
Though closing on any type of unanswered question technically constitutes a cliffhanger, the more dramatic kinds involve leaving a character in a pressing predicament. The obvious example is someone literally hanging off a cliff.
If the reader cares about a character, and that character somehow has found his way onto the edge of a cliff, and falling means serious injury or death, end the chapter there and the reader should be very eager to turn the page to see what happens.
Don't be afraid to close a lot of your chapters with a cliffhanger. That being said, if you end many chapters in a life-or-death predicament, your story may feel a bit forced. Vary the stakes and the immediacy of the chapter-ending questions.
Suspense Tip 9 - Leverage crosscutting
With crosscutting, you'd write a chapter from the POV of character A, then write the next chapter from the POV of character B, who is currently not with character A. You're essentially jumping in space.
At the end of a chapter, if the audience is left wondering how certain events will play out for character A, cutting to character B delays the reveal of information about character A, infusing suspense.
After character B's chapter, if you again cut to character A (or even to C), the audience is left wondering about character B, ie even more suspense.
The crosscutting technique works best in combination with pressing-predicament cliffhangers. The suspense around character A will be elevated when you cut to character B, if character A is left in physical danger or some other state of impending jeopardy.
Suspense Tip 10 - Equip your antagonist for surprise
As your protagonist pursues the want, the story's main villain should throw obstacles at the hero to prevent success. Make your villain a worthy opponent of your hero. Even better, make your villain more imposing than your hero, at least at the beginning of the book.
A skilled, dynamic antagonist is capable of surprise. Thus, even when things seem to be going well for your protagonist, your audience will still feel suspense.
If the reader knows a resilient villain, capable of crafty attacks, is lurking somewhere out there, the protagonist is never quite safe. A devastating surprise can come at any time.
To learn more about antagonists, check out my post on writing great villains.
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What is suspense in storytelling?
Suspense in storytelling is delaying the reveal of information the reader wants to know. The more the audience wants to know something, and the longer it waits, the greater the suspense.
What types of stories need suspense?
Though suspense is often associated with the action and thriller genres, it can be woven into stories of any genre. Yes, suspense is part of any quality gunfight or car-chase scene, but it's also what makes many subtler scenes work well.
For example, in a domestic story, let's say a husband and wife are simply sitting at a table eating dinner. The reader knows the husband just told his wife a lie about where he was last night. When she asks him questions about the night, suspense is created. Will he will be exposed as a liar?
Whatever type of story you're writing, it can benefit from an infusion of suspense.