Friday, November 08, 2019

A Workable Plan for Adding Tension, Suspense, & Intrigue

By Jodie Renner, fiction editor, @JodieRennerEd

Part of the How They Do It Series

JH: Keeping the reader glued to the pages of our novel is a goal for every writer. Jodie Renner returns to the lecture hall today, to share tips on adding tension and intrigue to the story. 

We all know that thrillers and other fast-paced popular fiction need lots of tension, suspense, and intrigue to keep readers riveted to the story. But so do all the other genres, to varying degrees. No matter what type of fiction you write, it’s all about hooking your readers in, engaging them emotionally, and keeping their interest to the end.

Tension, conflict, and complications are what drive all fiction forward and keep readers engrossed.

A happy scene is a boring scene. If the character has no cares or the problem is minor or easily solved, readers will lose interest and look for another book. And intrigue is what piques readers’ curiosity and keeps them turning the pages of your story, no matter what the genre. And of course, you’ll need to ratchet up the tension and suspense a lot more if you’re writing a fast-paced, nail-biting page-turner. Go through your manuscript with the list below to see if there are some ways you and amp up your story to make it more engaging.

A. Some “big-picture” techniques for adding suspense, tension, and intrigue:

First, make your readers care about your protagonist by creating a likeable, appealing, strong, smart, and resourceful—but vulnerable—character, with some inner conflict, regrets, and secrets. If readers haven’t bonded with your character, they won’t care what happens to him.

Put your character in motion right away. Don’t start with a description of the setting or philosophical musings or your protagonist getting up or on the way somewhere. Open your story with your main character in an active scene with others, with some worry, discord, and tension.

Get up close and personal. Use deep point of view (first-person or close third person) to get us into the mind, body, and emotions of your main character right away. This makes readers care about the character and worry about her. A worried reader is an engaged reader.

Challenge your protagonist. Now that your readers care about your main character, insert a major threat, challenge, or dilemma within the first chapter or two that won’t be resolved until the end. Create an over-riding sentence about this to keep in mind as you’re writing your story:

“Will (name) survive/stop/find/overcome (ordeal/person/difficulty/threat) on time?”

Create a cunning antagonist. Your protagonist’s rival or the villain needs to be as clever, determined and resourceful as your protagonist – or even more so. Make him or her a serious force to be reckoned with!

Create a mood of unease by showing the main character feeling apprehensive about something or someone or by showing some of the bad guy’s thoughts and intentions. For a thriller, establish a sense of urgency, a tense mood, and generally fast pacing.

Show, don’t tell. Show all your critical scenes in real time as they’re happening, with action, reaction, and dialogue. Show your main character’s inner feelings and physical and emotional reactions. Don’t have one character tell another about an important event or scene.

Use multiple viewpoints, especially that of the villain. For increased anxiety and suspense, get us into the head of your antagonist from time to time. This way the readers find out critical information the heroine doesn’t know, things we want to warn her about!

Keep the story momentum moving forward. Don’t get bogged down in backstory or exposition. Keep the action moving ahead, especially in the first chapter. Then work in background details and other info little by little, on an “as-needed” basis only, through dialogue or flashbacks – not as the author telling the readers.

Every scene needs conflict and a change. There should be something unresolved in every scene. Your character enters the scene with an objective or goal (agenda), but she encounters obstacles in the scene, so she is thwarted in her efforts to reach her goal. But circumstances or the character have changed by the end of the scene.

Put tension on every page. Every page needs some tension, even if it's just disagreement, resentment, doubt, or questioning simmering below the surface.

Vary the tension. But of course, you can’t keep up tension nonstop, as it’s tiring for readers and will eventually numb them. It’s best to intersperse tense, nail-biting scenes with a few less tense ones.

Add in tough choices and moral dilemmas. Devise ongoing difficult decisions and inner conflict for your lead character. Besides making your plot more suspenseful, this will also make your protagonist more complex, vulnerable, and intriguing.

Withhold information. Don’t tell your readers too much too soon. Dole out critical information little by little, through dialogue, thoughts, and brief flashbacks, to tantalize readers and keep them wondering.

Delay answers to critical plot questions. Look for places in your story where you’ve answered readers’ questions too soon, so have missed a prime spot to increase tension and suspense. Draw out the time before answering that question. In the meantime, hint at it from time to time to remind readers of its importance.

Use foreshadowing to incite curiosity. Tease the readers with innuendos. Drop subtle hints of troubles to come. Hint at the main character’s past secrets. What is the character worried about or afraid might happen? Capitalize on this.

Add in some revelations and epiphanies to put a twist on things and reward readers for their interest and involvement.

Use the setting to establish the mood and create suspense. This is the equivalent of ominous music, harsh lighting, strange camera angles, or nasty weather in a scary movie.

Make use of compelling, vivid sensory imagery to take us right there, with the protagonist, vividly experiencing and reacting to whoever/whatever is challenging or threatening him.

Use brief flashbacks at key moments to reveal your main character’s childhood traumas, unpleasant events, secrets, emotional baggage, hangups, dysfunctional family, etc.

Keep hampering your hero or heroine throughout the novel
to increase worry, tension, and suspense. Stir in some of these ingredients: a ticking clock, obstacles, chases, traps, restrictions, handicaps, injuries, bad luck, etc.

Keep raising the stakes. Keep asking yourself, “How can I make things worse for the protagonist?” As the challenges get more difficult and the obstacles more insurmountable, readers worry more, and suspense grows.

Plan a few plot twists. Readers are surprised and delighted when the events take a turn they never expected. Don’t let your readers become complacent, thinking it’s easy to figure out the ending, or they may stop reading.

See Jodie Renner’s book Writing a Killer Thriller for a lot more detail on each of the points mentioned above.

B. Revision stage:

Amp up, condense, or delete any scenes that lag, and tighten up your writing. Now go back and make sure every scene and paragraph drives the story forward. Make every chapter, scene, page, paragraph, sentence, and word count!

See Jodie’s Fire up Your Fiction for lots of concrete tips with examples for tightening your writing and revising your novel or short story to make it more compelling.

Also, see Jodie’s Captivate Your Readers for more great tips!

Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor and the award-winning author of three craft-of-writing guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing  Compelling FictionCaptivate Your ReadersFire up Your Fiction, and Writing a Killer Thrilleras well as two clickable time-saving e-resources, Quick Clicks: Spelling List and Quick Clicks: Word Usage. She has also organized two anthologies for charity, incl. Childhood Regained – Stories of Hope for Asian Child Workers.  You can find Jodie at, at her Amazon Author Page, and on Facebook and Twitter.

Website | Facebook | Google+ | Twitter | Goodreads |

About Captivate Your Readers: An Editor's Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction

Are you looking for techniques to really bring your fiction to life for the readers, so they feel they’re right there, on the edge of their seats, struggling with the hero or heroine? Staying up late at night, worrying, glued to the pages?

This award-winning editor's guide to writing compelling fiction provides specific advice, with examples, for captivating readers and immersing them in your story world.

It’s all about engaging the reader and providing a direct connection with the characters through deep point of view, showing instead of telling, avoiding author intrusions, and letting the characters tell the story.

Today’s readers want to put aside their cares and chores and lose themselves in an absorbing story. This book shows you how to provide the emotional involvement and immediacy readers crave in fiction.

You’ll find techniques for making sure your characters come to life and your readers feel directly connected to them, without the author’s hand appearing as an intermediary.

And like Jodie Renner's other writing guides, which are designed for busy writers, the format of this one is reader-friendly, with text broken up by subheadings, examples, and lists.

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Indie Bound


  1. Thanks for joining us today!

  2. Thanks so much for having me back to your fabulous blog, Janice! Great to be here again!

  3. This was a great article! I'm almost to the middle of my fourth novel and it was helpful to be reminded of all this—thanks, Jodie!

    This is one of my favorite places—right here with Janice Hardy. I always find good advice dispensed on these pages. :-)

    1. Thanks for your comment, Mary. I'm so glad you found these tips helpful for your WIP. Good luck with your writing! And yes, Janice Hardy's blog is certainly a treasure trove for writers! :-)