Generating Suspense in Fiction

Wednesday, September 19, 2012
It happened. Again.

I picked up a new novel, excited to dive in, only to find myself disappointed almost from word one.

What was the missing element?


A strong sense of suspense snakes its way around you, through your mind (and maybe sense of reality), and pounces immediately.

Need to get a grip and add a tinge (or ton) of suspense to your WIP? Try these tips. They'll get the hair to stand up on the back of readers' necks and cause them to cheer for your characters!

  1. Begin immediately. It's common sense, but think about the number of times you've read or written a scene that doesn't begin with tension. Instead, you (or the author you are reading) start with casual details, attempting to create backstory or establish setting. Face it. It's not working. So, why not jump right in and show what's wrong? One of the best examples I've read that begins building suspense from the first word on the page is Love You to Death by Shannon K. Butcher. (Check out my interview with Shannon.)
  2. Develop empathy. Does character drive suspense or does suspense drive character? Until the reader feels a sense of empathy for the character and the impending conflict, the writer should be building suspense. Sure, the suspense doesn't have to pound you on the head; it can be subtle, but it should create a empathy, devise and spread a sense of understanding the motivation of a character. One of my favorite examples of a subtle use of suspense is in Caroline Leavitt's novel, Pictures of You. I read it in an afternoon sitting, crying while I read, because of the empathy I developed for one of the characters. 
  3. Find the flow. Building suspense reminds me of listening to music. Action builds to a crescendo before it plummets to the abyss, then builds again, sometimes adding staccato, sometimes extending a whole note for an extra beat. Suspense thrives on flow and rhythm. Strong comedic pieces create  suspense, too, utilizing rhythm and flow to keep readers off guard. One of my favorite examples for establishing rhythm comes from author Claire Cook. Just when you think you've reached the pinnacle, her words take you to another level, and that gentle, lulling rhythm keeps you tuned in. Check out Best Staged Plans as an example.
These basic storytelling elements will add a strong, suspenseful presence that's sure to hook readers...and keep them coming back for more!

How do you create suspense? Suggest a novel that starts with a suspense-building scene.

by LuAnn Schindler


Eugenia Parrish said...

I'm trying to concentrate on finishing my ending and you got me worrying about my beginning again. But I checked out the book by Joanne Lewis (on your site) and my beginning isn't too dissimilar to hers, in suspense, not content. So I'm back to the ending. But I've made some notes for editing!

LuAnn Schindler said...

Good luck with your book and the edits!

Make that first chapter soar with suspense!

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