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Tuesday, November 10

8 Suspense-Boosting Techniques for Writers

By Laurence MacNaughton, @LMacNaughton


Part of The How They Do It Series

JH: The "need to know" keeps readers engaged in a novel. Laurence MacNaughton shares eight ways you can add suspense to your story.

Suspense is key to keeping your readers turning pages. Make them wonder what will happen next, and you'll keep them engaged and eager to get to the end of your story. If you feel like the suspense is flagging in your fiction, use one of these eight suspense-boosting techniques to make your reader perk up their ears.

1. A character pretends to be someone they're not.


Force your viewpoint character to act like someone they aren't. Maybe they must go undercover to impress someone, fool someone, escape someplace, or get to the truth. Maybe they have to "fake it until they make it."

Whatever the reason may be, give them a concrete goal for the deception, so that the reader knows there's a finish line. The suspense comes from the reader worrying that something terrible will happen if the character's true identity is discovered. 

2. Something is behind that door.


There's a good reason why dark basements and claustrophobic attics figure so prominently in horror stories. It's not the place itself that's scary, it's the possibility of what might be lurking in the darkness.

In your story, have a secret locked away, either literally or figuratively, in an isolated place. Drop clues about its existence, and make it something that the main character desperately needs to find in order to move forward in the story.

The suspense will naturally come from worrying what unpleasant surprise is waiting for them. Or if you decide to reveal the surprise to the reader, make it something terrible, so that the reader hopes the main character won't find it after all. 

(Here's more on The Key to Creating Suspense Is...)

3. Wait, something's wrong.


The hero is going about their normal business when they notice something is amiss. A door is ajar. A drawer is open. The gun over the mantel is missing.

Something is definitely wrong.

It's a subtle thing. It doesn't scream, "There's a killer in the house!" But it sets the character (and therefore the reader) on edge, because something is clearly going on.

This technique works well for a quick bump in suspense. But it won't last long, so be sure to follow it up with a faster-paced scene or another suspense-boosting technique. 



4. The bad guy prepares to make a move.


Unbeknownst to the main character, the antagonist gets into position to do something terrible. They don't do it just yet, but it's about to happen.

This scene is told from the antagonist's point of view, so the reader watches the preparations and knows a threat is looming.

The main character, meanwhile, doesn't know any of this. The suspense comes from the reader desperately wishing they could warn the main character.

Don't make the mistake of making the main character completely oblivious. In fact, you can build the suspense even further by having them suspect something is wrong, but they don't have enough information to figure out what's coming. 

(Here's more on )Why Every Writer Should Watch “Mama”

5. Everything has fallen apart.


If you have a character who is currently struggling with a terrible situation, you can build suspense by flashing back to a time when everything was going great for them. Show them living a picture-perfect life.

Then at the end of the flashback, something happens that signals a change. The phone rings. They find a handwritten note. There's a knock at the door. The reader wonders what's about to happen that will ruin everything.

Before you answer that question, cut back to the present, leaving the reader in suspense.

6. The bad guys actually help your main character.


This is a devious one. What you do is you force your main character into a terrible position. Make it impossible for them to escape. It seems like all is lost.

At the last moment, salvation comes from an unexpected source: one of the bad guys. But they don't save the main character out of the goodness of their heart. They do it as a favor.

As the bad guy leaves, make it clear that they expect the main character to repay that debt, probably by doing something that goes against their principles. What will the character do? 

(Here's more on 4 Mistakes to Avoid When Building Suspense in Your Novel)

7. The bad guy isn't vanquished.


Your main character has achieved a major victory. It seems like the antagonist is gone for good, and the problem is resolved. The main character turns their attention to another pressing problem. So does the reader.

Then we switch to the antagonist's point of view. It turns out they aren't beaten at all. They are merely brooding over what they consider to be a temporary setback. They are planning revenge and making preparations to create an even bigger problem for the main character.

Hint what this problem will look like, but don't reveal all of it. Leave the reader anxious to find out more as they worry about the unsuspecting main character.

8. Where is he leading us?


The main character is following the trail that leads to the antagonist. (This could be a literal trail of footsteps, or it could be a series of clues.) At first, it seems like the main character has the upper hand, and is closing in toward the final confrontation.

But something about this doesn't look right. Maybe the trail is too obvious. Maybe it's too easy. Maybe something doesn't add up.

No matter the reason, we get the uneasy feeling that the main character is being led into a trap. As the trail gets darker, more isolated, and more dangerous, the suspense level will keep rising. 

(Here's more on SPARK UP YOUR STORY – AA Workable Plan for Adding Tension, Suspense, & Intrigue)

Remember: the secret to suspense is to make the reader wait.


The essential way to build suspense is to pose an important question, but don't answer it right away.

Of course, you must answer the question eventually, or the reader will feel cheated. But the longer you can put it off, the more you frustrate the reader, the better. That's how you build up suspense in a great story.

Do you struggle with building suspense?

Leave me a comment below or contact me at www.laurencemacnaughton.com.

Laurence MacNaughton is the author of more than a dozen novels, novellas, and short stories. His work has been praised by Booklist, Publishers Weekly, RT Book Reviews, Library Journal, and Kirkus Reviews. He lives in Colorado with his wife and too many old cars. Try his stories for free at www.laurencemacnaughton.com.

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About Forever and a Doomsday

Crystal shop owner and quick-witted sorceress Dru Jasper is the guardian of the apocalypse scroll, an ancient instrument of destruction held in check by seven bloodred seals. All but one have been broken.

Now, a chilling cohort of soul-devouring wraiths has risen from the netherworld to crack open the final seal. If Dru and her misfit friends can’t stop them, the world will come to a fiery end. No pressure or anything.

These freakishly evil spirits can kill with a mere touch, making them impossible to fight by mortal means. To keep the apocalypse scroll out of their clutches, Dru must solve a 2,000-year-old magical mystery, find a city lost in the netherworld, and unearth a crystal older than the Earth itself.

Can she elude the forces of darkness long enough to save her friends and safeguard the scroll forever—before the undead break the seventh seal and bring on doomsday?

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Indie Bound Kobo

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