How to Write Nail-Biting Suspense in Fiction
A reader has asked, “How do authors create suspense in writing? What’s the key to nail-biting tension in fiction?”
I spent a long time asking myself the same thing. I also spent far too much time barking up all the wrong trees in my efforts to create suspense. But as reviewers frequently describe my published novels as fast-paced, gripping and suspenseful page-turners, I may have found the answer.
So this post details what I’ve discovered to be the keys to creating suspenseful fiction. And they may not all be what you’d think. I hope you find this useful and that it might save you time.
Character Transformation and Suspense
Character transformation is at the heart of all good stories.
That’s as true of a suspenseful thriller as of a Pulitzer or Booker prize-winning literary masterpiece. And it’s the mechanics of that transformation of a character from who she is at the start of a story to who she is at the end which hooks the reader and drives the narrative. If we want to answer the question, “How do writers create suspense and tension in a story?” then character transformation is the key place to start.
Transformation of character in fiction happens as the protagonists face obstacles and conflicts they must overcome. To overcome the obstacles they meet, the threats and difficulties which plague their progress, they must learn, adapt and change. They often suffer painful loss to achieve that change.
But change through conflict isn’t enough to create suspense in writing. Good writers know this. Just making life hard for your protagonist won’t create suspense if the reader doesn’t care about her.
Readers must care about characters. They must worry about them being safe, getting what they want and avoiding whatever might hurt them; just as they would a loved family member or a close friend.
That doesn’t mean fictional protagonists have to be flawless, lovely, likeable people. They can be lovely and likeable, perhaps they should be in most cases, but they should never be flawless.
It’s your character’s flawed personality which will make her take the wrong decisions and get her into all the trouble in the first place; until at last she realizes she needs to change to overcome all the obstacles and get to the satisfying end of the story.
Suspense comes from the reader being in a state of anxiety, worrying about whether the protagonist will overcome her self-limiting flaws and tackle the problems she faces. Suspense comes from uncertainty about the outcomes affecting someone the reader cares about. It has the same root as “suspend” which means hanging something up. Writers want the reader to be hanging on the eventual outcome. Holding her breath, desperate to know what will happen next.
The first point of suspense is present in all good fiction. It’s the question, “Will the protagonist be okay?”
So that’s the first thing writers do to create suspense. They create a character you care about but who is on the cusp of something terrible happening to her.
And the next thing a writer does to ramp up the suspense is make all those terrible things happen.
Throw her into conflict, put her up against the odds, face her with lose-lose situations and impossible choices. The suspense then comes as the reader thinks, “Oh no! Now what will she do? Will she make the right decision?”
So let’s take a look at conflict in fiction, because any old difficulty won’t always do the trick if we want to create real, nail-biting suspense.
Conflicted Characters in Conflict
The conflict has to be important; it has to be something that matters. That doesn’t mean it has to be global in scale or world-threatening. It can be local, small, quiet. It can even take place inside the protagonist’s head.
What makes a conflict matter isn’t whether it’s a physical, emotional, or psychological conflict; whether it’s internal or external. Scale has nothing to do with it. What makes a conflict matter, and create suspense in the mind of the reader, is that it links intimately to the protagonist’s deepest desire, and if the outcome is not in her favor, it will stop her achieving that desire.
The best conflicts, the most suspenseful, are those in which it’s the protagonist’s false belief, her personal flaw, which both gives rise to the conflict and sets her up to fail in her attempts to resolve it.
To create suspense in writing, the conflicts in your story must be character-driven. But always remember, the ultimate aim of all this conflict is to force change on your character.
You take the base metal of your protagonist’s flawed personality and thrust it into the alchemical fire of conflict. But the result must be transformation. That base metal must become gold.
In a short story, one conflict alone may make or break your protagonist. In a novel, she’ll learn a little at a time, piecing the solution to the problem together, until the pay-off at the end, when she makes the changes she must make within herself to enable her to overcome the external problems which have dogged her throughout her life and stopped her achieving her goals.
And that brings us to the next part of the answer to the question, how do writers create suspense in fiction? They do it not only by character-driven conflict, but by raising the stakes. Things get harder and harder for the protagonist because she isn’t learning the lessons she needs to learn. So each time she fails, make it harder for her.
Be Mean to Your Protagonist
Every bad decision your protagonist makes must lead her into even greater trouble than she was previously in. When she jumps out the frying pan, you need to be sure she lands in the fire.
And that’s where a lot of new, inexperienced writers go wrong.
They get they need to pile on the conflict, but they don’t understand how to structure that conflict in the overall scheme of the novel.
All the conflicts must be surprising and meaningful to the reader.
It’s no good just hitting your protagonist over the head harder and harder, yelling “Learn your lessons!” That’s not raising the stakes, that’s being cruel and relentless. All that’ll happen is your protagonist and your reader both will have a stonking headache and become too exhausted to continue.
That’s where structure and planning come in to play.
The Lighted Fuse
This is harder to explain. Rhythm is important here; the breaths we take between words which helps us make sense of them; the stillness which gives the sudden explosion its impact.
The threat of the explosion is necessary to create suspense. But the suspense is in the tense, silent moments of bated-breath just before the fuse reaches the dynamite.
Look at a musical score. See how the notes rise and fall? See how there’s an unexpected key change here and a sudden run of triplets before a semibreve rest there? Crescendos build slowly. Sometimes there’s a false crescendo and then, just as you breathe out, all the strings soar in unison and thundering timpani rattle your eardrums.
Raising the stakes doesn’t mean being relentless. It means setting out an ultimate threat at the start of the story and then making your protagonist, by way of the flawed decisions she makes, draw ever closer to her doom.
The best way to learn how to structure a tension-release-tension rhythm into your fiction is to read. Read everything from Homer to Shakespeare, to Dickens, to Austen, to Gaiman, to Eco, Byatt, McEwan, King, Cooper, Koontz and Brown. Read much and widely. When you find something that grips you in the tight claw of suspense, go back and ask yourself why you cared so much? Analyze, make notes if you must; but above all, read. You’ll absorb the hidden rules.
But learning to do the groundwork of planning, of structuring your novel with as much attention to rhythmic detail, the breaths and pauses and shifts in pace, as a composer would a piece of music, is a fine way to make sure you inject suspense into your fiction.
The reason this works so well is that while your reader knows what’s coming, she can’t predict what will happen next, or when, or how. And that’s the next important way that writers create suspense.
Questions, Questions, Questions…
We’re a crafty lot, we storytellers. We keep a poker face. We play our cards close to our chest. We bluff and feint and always have a few aces up our sleeves.
It’s vital to keep your reader asking questions, not knowing what hand you hold, to create the suspense that will keep her reading to the end.
That doesn’t mean every chapter should end on the classic “cliff-hanger,” although in some genres it should, but there should always be unresolved questions in the reader’s mind. They should be questions that matter because your protagonist’s fate depends on the answers.
But that’s still not enough.
The best writers will layer in further strands of suspense through the tension between internal and external conflict. They’ll attack the protagonist on all sides, not just one. They’ll also ratchet up the suspense by limiting the space in which the protagonist can act and the time she has available before the final hour strikes.
So let’s have a look at what all that means.
When the Inner and the Outer Worlds Collide
One thing that can spice suspense with beauty and impact is getting the relationship and interaction between the protagonist’s inner and outer conflicts just right. This goes somewhat beyond craft and into the territory of art. But it’s essential if you want to create an outstanding, suspenseful story.
A common mistake made by new writers is to interpret conflict as a series of external threats alone. External threats are important, and they can offer tension, but without internal conflict, a story will be a rather flat, two dimensional experience for the reader.
The best stories, the most suspenseful, offer more nuanced and multi-layered narratives. The external conflict the protagonist experiences because of her false beliefs and her flawed personality mirrors the internal conflicts she faces. The two strands interweave on many levels and fuel one another in a complex latticework of cause and effect.
The role of external conflict is only to expose the protagonist’s inner conflict; first to the reader, then to the protagonist’s allies and enemies, and finally to the protagonist herself. The way this revelation unfolds is one of the finest opportunities writers have to create suspense. It takes great skill, and several rewrites, to get it right.
Adopt Multiple Lines of Attack
Attack your protagonist on all fronts. Force her to deal with multiple, simultaneous conflicts and challenges. Think of the trope, common in crime fiction, of the detective who must hunt down the murderer and confront the breakdown of his marriage at home. Or the superhero that in one guise must save the world, but in another has to get his copy to the editor on time or lose his job. What about the heroine of a romance who has to win her lover’s heart, but has the threat of eviction hanging over her because of her ex-husband’s debts? Let’s have a fantasy-quest story in which the heroine must not only find the Lost Sword of Amazingness, but also manage a difficult bunch of bickering companions, or figure out who the traitor in their midst is.
You get the idea. Don’t let your protagonist have a straight and clear path with only one issue to resolve. Multiple problems and the constant tension between them offer endless opportunities to create suspense.
The Ticking Time Bomb and the Locked Room
I used the metaphor of the bomb and the explosion earlier. A classic way to throw in suspense by the spadeful is to make that bomb a time bomb. Not only that, lock your protagonist in a room with it. And make it a room from which she cannot escape.
You don’t have to do that literally. The time bomb can be something far more subtle, and the restrictions the protagonist faces might not be material. But combining a race-against-time and limited-room-for-maneuver is a sure-fire way to ratchet up the tension.
Tease the Reader With Promises You’ll Keep – But Not Yet
You know, I’ve read several books which at first glance are jam-packed with conflict but serve up very little suspense. They’ve been books full of action sequences and violence. If violence is an essential part of your story and you want to build suspense, keep the violence to a minimum, but hold on to the threat of violence as long as you can.
This is about making promises to your reader that something bad will happen, or a violent act will take place, or a shock awaits. You must keep those promises later, but hold back as long as you can before the pay-off. Take a good romance as an example. It’s unlikely the protagonists will wed or unite in sexual union until right at the end. Once that happens, the story’s finished. The suspense comes from the “will-they-won’t-they?” dynamic or the excruciating misunderstanding which keeps them apart until it’s resolved.
So set up questions, threaten bad things to come, and hold back on the pay-off until the pressure of events makes the explosion unavoidable and necessary.
Suspense in Writing and Chekhov’s Gun
A word of warning here: if you promise something – disaster, revelation, rescue, revenge – whatever it may be: keep your promise. There should be nothing in your story which doesn’t matter. This is “Chekhov’s Gun.” Anton Chekhov is one of my literary heroes. He is reported to have said:
If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on a wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.
I had great fun with this in Wolf Moon (currently out of print), where there is an actual gun introduced early on, and several times it comes close to being fired but isn’t until… well, you’ll get no spoilers from me on that!
The gun in Chekhov’s example is a promise to the reader, the threat of a gunshot. You don’t want to introduce it and fire it straight away. The suspense comes from it hanging there throughout scenes one and two and the audience wondering when it will come into play. But come into play it must, or it shouldn’t be there at all. Never break a promise you make to your reader.
Anyway, a few artfully placed Chekhov’s guns are a very effective way that writers create suspense in writing.
That’s enough isn’t it?
I hope that’s a reasonable and helpful answer to the question we started with, “How do writers create suspense in fiction?” If there’s something else I’ve missed, please say so in the comments. I’m no guru, just a jobbing writer, and I’m always willing to learn.
If you’ve enjoyed this post or if you haven’t, I would love to read your insights, experiences, thoughts, critiques, or reflections in the comments below. Please share this post on your social media. That would be a lovely thing to do.
Image credits: all images (apart from the book covers of my novels and the photo of me) are in the Public Domain and were sourced via the Creative Commons. Click on the image to reveal the name of the artist and the work in the address bar.