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5 Simple Steps on Creating Suspense in Fiction

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Posted on May 30, 2017

To keep the readers’ attention through the long midsection of your book, you’ll need to continually develop the conflict and advance the plot in logical steps without making the story predictable. What keeps readers turning pages is suspense, which you can create using a variety of techniques, including tension, pacing and foreshadowing.

The suspense we’re discussing here doesn’t necessarily involve the characters being in peril; it’s created whenever there’s something the reader wants to know. Will Joe kiss Brenda? Will Sally give in to Brad’s demand that she work for him? Will Jared answer Katherine’s question or dodge it?

Whenever you cause readers to be curious about what comes next, you’re creating suspense in writing. Suspense arises naturally from good writing—it’s not a spice to be added separately.

In fiction, you create suspense by withholding information, and the best type of information to withhold is often the backstory. You, as the author, can create suspense in three main ways:

By withholding information from readers. As the author, you know the entire hidden story behind the plot and characters: the backstory and the plot twists that are yet to come. You might be tempted to spill out the backstory and hidden story right away, but most stories are improved when at least some of that information is held back—sometimes up to the very end.

By withholding information from the main characters. This is the Hitchcock effect—so called because Alfred Hitchcock was a master of it in his films. By reading between the lines and applying common sense and experience, the readers (like Hitchcock’s movie audience) can draw conclusions about what’s likely to be coming up. But, like the movie audience, the readers are powerless to prevent a character from stepping into a yawning trap that only readers can foresee.

By having the characters withhold information from the readers—and from one another. Just because a character knows something doesn’t mean he has to share it (even if he’s a POV character). And even hidden motives will affect how a character acts, cluing in alert readers to what’s really going on.

When you’re writing scenes in which suspense is crucial, you also need to know what to avoid. Keep in mind that putting too much backstory early in the book, or using too much introspection to divulge information about your characters, is a great way to bore the readers and destroy any suspense you may have established.

There are, however, five simple steps you can take to increase the level of suspense in your scenes.
Keep the action intense.

If significant amounts of time go by without suspenseful action—which is often most powerfully motivated by backstory—the story loses momentum and readers lose interest.
Make the danger feel real.

If the hero and heroine stop in the middle of a chase to share a passionate interlude while trusting dumb luck to keep them from being discovered, it’s going to be hard to convince readers that they have reason to be fearful. If readers are to believe the danger, then the characters must act as if they’re threatened. Even if the danger isn’t physical, keep pressure on the characters. Don’t stop for backstory; weave it in.
Keep the emotion high.

Even if the story doesn’t involve physical danger for the characters, their lifelong happiness is at stake. Keeping emotions at the core of the story reminds readers how important the situation is.
Repeat an action, phrase or event.

The first use of the action or line of dialogue may be almost casual, doing little more than getting the readers’ attention. The second use makes it clear that this bit of information is important (though readers may not quite see why) and foreshadows the important action to come. The third use is the most emphatic: The stakes have grown enormous since the backstory first laid the groundwork, and the readers, having been properly prepared, are on the edge of their seats waiting to see what will happen.

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