Thursday, May 03, 2012

5 Ways to Build Suspense Like a Master

By Jen Blood

Today wraps up my special extended guest author week, and I'm delighted to welcome Jen Blood to the blog. (And isn't that a great name for a mystery writer?) No matter what genre you write, keeping readers wanting to know what happens next is critical to giving them a satisfying read. Suspense is one element you don't want to slack off with. Lucky for us, Jen is here to share a few tips on how to add it to our stories.

Jen is a freelance writer and editor. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing/Popular Fiction, teaches seminars and workshops on writing, online marketing, and social media for authors, and runs a popular website for mystery writers and readers. She is author of the 5-star rated, Awesome Indies-selected mystery All the Blue-Eyed Angels, the first novel in the Erin Solomon series. The second novel in the series, Sins of the Father, will be available June 1st. You can find her on Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads, or her website.

Take it away Jen...

It’s that thing that keeps us reading ‘til late in the night; the one that ensures we drag a book along with us everywhere we go, from the bathroom to the kitchen to the grocery store; the thing that makes us crash through a novel until the very final words on the very last page. What thing is that, exactly?

The fine folks at define it as: “a state or condition of mental uncertainty or excitement, as in awaiting a decision or outcome, usually accompanied by a degree of apprehension or anxiety.” That thing, in a word, is suspense. And whether you’re writing thrillers, horror, mystery, sci-fi, fantasy, or even romance, there has to be some element of it to keep your readers coming back for more. But, what are the mechanics to actually creating a suspenseful scene, chapter, or novel? First, let’s take a look at an example from one of my favorite authors of suspense thrillers on the market today, Gregg Hurwitz. This is the opening two pages from his thriller, Trust No One:
I snapped awake at 2:18 A.M., the bloodshot numerals staring at me from the nightstand. For years on end, I woke up at this exact time every night, regardless of what time zone I was in. But after seventeen years I had just started sleeping through the night. I had finally outrun the old fears. Or so I had convinced myself.

Remote sirens warbled in the night. At first I figured they were in my head, the soundtrack to the dream. But the distant wail got louder instead of fading. I hadn’t awakened on my own.
 I ran through what I remembered from the previous evening – the presidential debate had closed out prime time, and after the commentariat finished yammering, I’d fallen asleep watching a high-speed chase on the news. A guy in a beat-to-shit Jeep Cherokee, hauling ass down the 405, a legion of black-and-whites drawn behind him like a parachute.

I blinked hard, inhaled, and looked around. Same Lemon Pledge scent of my third-floor condo. My sweat imprint on the sheets and pillow. Breeze rattling palm fronds against my balcony in the next room.

And a watery blue light undulating across the bedroom ceiling.

I sat up.

The TV, across the room on the steamer trunk, was off. But the distant sirens continued.

And then, along with the light on the ceiling, the sirens abruptly stopped.

I threw off the sheets and padded across the carpet, stepping over a discarded Sports Illustrated and sloughed off dress shirts form the job I’d left a week ago. In my plaid pajama bottoms, I ventured into the all-purpose living room, heading for the balcony. The police lights had flickered through the locked sliding glass door. Halfway to it I froze.

A thick black nylon rope was dangling from the lip of the roof, its end coiled on my balcony. Motionless.

No longer groggy, I opened the sliding glass door and stepped silently out onto the balcony, rolling the screen shut behind me. My balcony with its Brady Bunch-orange tiles overlooked a narrow Santa Monica street populated by other generic apartment buildings. Streetlights were sporadic. I confronted the rope for a quiet moment, then looked around, expecting who knows what.

Bulky shadows of cars lined the gutters. An SUV was double-parked, blocking the street. No headlights, no dome light. Tinted windows. But a huff of smoke from the exhaust pipe. A sedan, dark and silent, wheeled around the turn and halted, idling behind the SUV.

Terror reached through seventeen years and set my nerves tingling.

I squinted to see if I could make out a police light bar mounted on either roof. In my peripheral vision, the tail of the rope twitched. The roof creaked. Before I had a chance to think, a spotlight blazed up from the SUV, blinding me. A zippering sound came from above, so piercing that my teeth vibrated. Then a dark form pendulumed down at me, two boots striking me in the chest.
Good, right? Chances are you were able to see just about every detail of that scene, and now that you’re left with the image of two boots striking our narrator in the chest, you’re left wondering what the hell happens next. Hurwitz is one of my favorites in the suspense genre, so using that excerpt, I’ve come up with five rules for building suspense guaranteed to keep your readers glued to the page and begging for more.

1. Use sensory details
Sights, sounds, a “Lemon Pledge scent,” the taste of ozone in the air, the feel of a cold hardwood floor under bare feet in the middle of the night... In moments of extreme fear, our senses are heightened to an almost painful degree–it’s a defense mechanism designed to aid in our natural fight or flight response. Whether we’re sticking around to duke it out or we’re running like hell, we need to have a complete picture of everything going on around us. Use sensory details to paint that picture.

2. Passive voice is for pansies
Avoid words like “felt” or “seemed”; be bold. Rather than saying “I felt scared,” Hurwitz writes, “Terror reached through seventeen years and set my nerves tingling.” Writing suspense in whatever genre you choose is no place to be timid; you can write technical manuals if you want to play it safe. Now’s the time to go out on that limb.

3. Use strong descriptors and vivid images
“Bloodshot numerals.” “…a watery blue light undulating across the bedroom ceiling.” “A thick black nylon rope… dangling from the lip of the roof.” Have a clear visual in your mind of everything you’re seeing, and be specific when conveying that visual to your reader.

4. Keep things moving
Though there is plenty of description in the above excerpt, if you look closely you’ll see that there’s also a lot of action and forward movement. In fact, nearly every paragraph advances the scene in some way: “I snapped awake.” “I ran through what I remembered from the previous evening.” “I blinked hard, inhaled, and looked around.” “I sat up.” “I threw off the sheets and padded across the carpet…” These are verbs, action sentences, things that the narrator is doing as he makes the transition from deep sleep to the discovery of something clearly amiss on his balcony. It’s great to use descriptions to paint evocative scenes, but look at your paragraphs closely to ensure that each one is more than just flowery language. Someone should always be doing something.

5. Let story tension influence sentence structure
Physical actions in life are typically choppy, abrupt, fluid. They move. Our minds, likewise, in moments of stress don’t process things in long, flowery passages. You can reflect the action in a scene by switching up the length and structure of your sentences in much the same way. Look at the final paragraph of the excerpt: “I squinted to see if I could make out a police light bar mounted on either roof.” And then: “In my peripheral vision, the tail of the rope twitched. The roof creaked.” Hurwitz uses shorter sentences and more action to convey this new development–a critical one, as it signals the turning point in the scene. As you’re writing, look closely at the sentence structure in your most suspenseful scenes. How much do they vary? As the tension rises for your characters, are you using longer sentences or shorter? Try switching it up and see how your changes affect the overall tone of the scene.

These are just a few of the tools I use to build tension and suspense for my readers. What about you? Are there lessons you’ve learned about building suspense that I haven’t talked about here? Which authors keep you glued to the edge of your seat?

About All the Blue-Eyed Angels

"On my tenth birthday, I am baptized by fire."

So begins Erin Solomon's story, on a remote island in Maine where the Payson Church and thirty-four of its members have just burned. When the smoke clears, only Erin and her father remain. The police rule the tragedy mass suicide, but Erin knows the truth: no one in the Church wanted to die. She just isn't sure how much her father had to do with their deaths.

More than twenty years later, Erin is an investigative journalist still burdened with her father's secrets. When she receives incontrovertible evidence that the Payson congregation was murdered, she can no longer hide from the truth. She returns to her hometown only to find an intricate conspiracy involving her parents, a haunted woman who sought refuge with the Paysons before the fire, and a disturbed boy who believed himself destined to lead the Payson Church to glory.

Now, isolated on the Maine coast with an old flame and a handsome newcomer with his own dark past, Erin will risk everything to uncover the secrets of Payson Isle–secrets someone will kill to keep buried.


  1. Oh my goodness. I need to go buy that book. Now. I HAVE to find out what happens next! What a stellar example of suspense!

  2. SUPER example! I went back to read twice more.
    Thanks for the breakdown. Sometimes I read stuff and know its good, but its the analysis that stymies me. Thank you!

  3. Thanks, Wen -- that opening from Gregg's book is such a great example of what a good writer can do to keep the reader hooked straight out of the gate. I definitely recommend it!
    And Amelia: I agree, the analysis is where things really come together for me, whether I'm the one doing the analyzing or I'm just reading someone else's insights. Glad the post was helpful!

  4. I LOVE the bloodshot numerals! That really snagged me. Great excerpt, with a lot of gripping sensory descriptions. And passive voice is one of the biggest flaws of a lot of writers (yep, I do it myself at times, though I know better--I include those "felt" and "seem" words).

    Great advice to write shorter, choppier sentences during scenes of tension. Using simpler words with fewer syllables can help streamline, too.

  5. Excellent point on the fewer syllables, Carol -- so true! And I'm guilty of passive writing myself -- it's a default of mine that I invariably miss until I start editing. My first drafts are rife with "felt" and "seems!"

    Gregg's writing is just phenomenal; reading his work and a few of the other greats out there has taught me so much about how a story works.

  6. Jen, excellent post on how to keep our readers truly in the moment! Those bloodshot numerals got me too. There was so much tension, action in this passage even though not much is going on - but there was action through the visuals and what the character was experiencing. My heart raced as I read it, the words racing me along. Shorter sentences make the action faster too - or illusion of action. Great example! And your book is very intriguing too. Will be checking out. Thanks

  7. Thanks, Donna! Isn't that 'bloodshot numerals' visual great? It really grabs the reader right from the start. I always come back to that as a prime example of the kind of original descriptors that infuse a piece with movement and imagery.

    Thanks for the compliment on my novel, as well -- If you like Hurwitz and novels that move quickly, you should definitely check out Angels. It's a lot of fun. I picked up your novel yesterday, and actually will be in touch as I plan to feature it as the mystery picks on my website next Monday. Great work!

  8. Thanks! I really liked the suggestion of using sensory details. I'd never thought of that before, but it makes so much sense. No pun intended. I’ve got edits due into my editor on June 5. I think I’ll take the next week to incorporate these suggestions. I already know they’ll make my book better.

  9. Excellent post, Jen! Thanks for sharing the riveting example and all your great ideas!

  10. This is wonderful stuff. I'm copying it and pasting it in a word file for future reference.