The art of writing suspense is all about building the reader’s expectation and then at some later point, either hitting them with it with a bang, or twisting it and hitting them with something they weren’t expecting. This can stimulate a pleasurable dopamine rush, so that your readers enjoy reading your novel.
Mysteries involve solving a crime or puzzle. Suspense novels are slow-paced and usually character-driven. Thrillers are fast-paced, involving danger and action.
Five types of suspense
There are five types of suspense.
- Narrative suspense poses a question at the beginning and builds throughout the story.
- Short-term suspense is when an incident or scene evokes the reader’s surprise or curiosity, or anxiety as in cliff-hangers. Especially in thrillers, the early chapters often end with a page-turner/cliff-hanger incident or scene.
- With mysterious suspense, something is deliberately concealed from the reader, as for example in Jane Eyre.
- With horrific suspense, the reader knows something awful is going to happen.
- Romantic or comedic suspense is more light-hearted. Comedic suspense occurs in farce.
Tips and techniques
Here are my top seven tips for building suspense. What are yours? Let us know in the comments.
Startle with the first line
A cracking good first line is important for any novel, but for a suspense novel, it should really startle. A suspense novel should be a page-turner right from the opening scene. Don’t start your thriller with dialogue, clichés or info-dumps about the setting or weather.
Hint at dark pasts, buried secrets, unrevealed associations when introducing characters in the early chapters, but don’t give away too much.
Refer early, draw it out
Don’t rush it. Subtly reference a piece of your suspense arc as early as possible. Then make them anticipate each individual ingredient, agonisingly building to the final product.
Introduce something ominous
As she sits down to the breakfast table, show us that letter next to her plate, the contents of which are going to blow up everyone’s lives (as in I Know What You Did Last Summer by Lois Duncan).
Leave little clues
Create a puzzle for the reader to solve, weaving in little clues as you build up to the Big Reveal.
Use a false knock
Police cars line up outside a house, sirens blazing. They jump out and surround the house. Meanwhile, Baddie is in his kitchen, making tea. With one policeman’s gun out, another knocks at the door. Meanwhile, there’s a knock on Baddie’s door. He opens it; it’s only the neighbour asking if he’s seen their cat. A little old lady, innocent, opens the door to the police.
Put your characters in jeopardy
Keep the hero in jeopardy through most of the book. What this jeopardy will look like will depend on your plot and your genre, but we need to feel that the stakes are high, or why should we care?