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What Is Suspense in Creative Writing?
In literature, suspense is an uneasy feeling that a reader gets when they don’t know what is going to happen next. A writer creates suspense through a controlled release of information to readers that raises key questions and makes readers eager, but terrified, to find out what happens. Sometimes, a writer builds suspense through dramatic irony—giving readers more information than the main character has. Writing suspense can also mean withholding information from the reader so they know as much as, or less than, the protagonist.
10 Tips for Amplifying Suspense and Tension
If you’re writing thrillers, a murder mystery, or even a short story—and have already mastered the basic building blocks of suspense—follow these 10 writing tips to amplify the tension in your story:
- Start the clock. One of the most effective tools in a suspense novel is a ticking clock. If you want low-grade suspense running through your story to supplement the big moments of suspense, shorten the deadline on the main character’s mission. They must accomplish their goal sooner than planned or something bad will happen.
- Finesse the point of view. If you want your readers to experience heightened tension, consider shifting the point of view for passages of your suspense story. Use third-person omniscient if you want your readers to see what’s coming before your main character, building suspense through dramatic irony. Conversely, if you want to keep your readers in the dark, only finding things out when the hero does, use first-person POV or third-person limited.
- End a chapter with a cliffhanger. To pique readers’ curiosity and get them to keep reading, end a chapter with a cliffhanger. Thriller novels create suspense through unknowns. Leave the protagonist in a precarious position with no escape routes and end your chapter there.
- Invest in strong character development. An important part of writing suspense is developing great characters with attributes and flaws, strengths and weaknesses—in other words, relatable characters. Ensure you’ve written a hero readers will care about. Then, when you raise the stakes and put them in a perilous situation, the reader becomes anxious that something bad will happen to them. Spend time ensuring that your villain’s motivation is credible, too. Your antagonist needs to be an equal match, a character who is just as smart and determined as the protagonist, so the reader stays on their toes anticipating what the villain will do next.
- Hint at what’s to come. Suspenseful stories often create anticipation through foreshadowing. Hinting at future events will keep readers at the edge of their seats waiting to see how the story will play out for the hero. Readers will keep that event in the back of their minds until the moment it happens.
- Make your main character more complicated. Make your main character mysterious by giving them complex layers. Use flashbacks to slowly reveal a backstory that helps to support their reasons for being on their quest. Create internal conflicts by adding obstacles that test their moral resolve and threaten to derail their quest.
- Layer in subplots to add to the suspense. Tension should come from more than just the struggle between the hero and the villain. When you create subplots, you can fill them with secondary characters who both serve as foils to your protagonist and create obstacles and conflicts for your hero.
- Create a false sense of security. Toy with reader expectations as a way to heighten the suspense in your story. Just when things feel like they’re going well for your hero, pull the rug out from under them. Use literary devices like red herrings, even a plot twist, to reverse course and increase tension.
- Put additional obstacles in the protagonist’s way. Obstacles are a device in almost every type of plot. They build tension by threatening to divert a character from their path and prevent them from achieving the goals readers expect them to reach. Writers create this expectation by making big promises at the beginning of the story, then build suspense by creating uncertainties throughout the plot about whether or not the protagonist will be successful.
- Raise the stakes. If you’ve created a character that readers are invested in, supplement the suspense by raising the stakes once the hero is well on their way. Give them something to lose that they care most about, like a loved one or life as they know it. When the stakes are high it will lead to a satisfying pay-off at the end of the book.
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