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Keys to Literary Success: Creating Suspense in Fiction in a Few Simple Steps

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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, a few 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.

Hide what characters are thinking.If the heroine assesses the hero’s clenched jaw and assumes he’s mad at her, and then you show him thinking about his aching molar, the heroine doesn’t know she’s wrong, but readers do—and all the suspense is gone from the scene.

In this example from Claire Cross’ novel Double Trouble, we see the heroine drawing conclusions about the hero based on his backstory, but we have no idea whether or not she’s correct:

I never could figure out why he married my sister. Unless a wife and kids were necessary accessories for the lawyer-destined-for-Great-Things—and she was as good a choice as any. They never seemed to have much in common, but maybe it was something basic between them. Like lust. Marcia used to be quite a looker, and I say that with the undue modesty of an identical twin.

Tonight, James looked surprisingly haggard and annoyed for a man made of granite, and as I mentioned, that expression didn’t improve when he saw me.

“What the hell are you doing here?”

Oooh, a vulgarity. Of course, the strumpet sister had invaded the last bastion of propriety in the Free World. That, at least, conformed to our usual script. His job was to make sure I didn’t feel welcome enough to hang around too long and taint the precious boys. I knew my lines by heart.

Too bad I hadn’t worn something really skimpy, just to tick him off. I slouched harder, knowing that perfect posture was a household holy grail. “You should be more gracious to the one doing your dirty work.”

The man glowered at me. “What are you talking about?”

“Your kids called me from the pool when no one picked them up.”

James flicked a glance up the stairs, some parental part of him clearly reassured by the ruckus coming from the bathroom. “Where’s Marcia?”

“Where were you? Takes two for the fun part. Why should one be left with all the work after that?”

What’s going on with James? We don’t know why he’s haggard and annoyed. We know what conclusions the heroine has drawn—but is she correct? Why does the heroine have a reputation as the strumpet sister? Why are these two in so much conflict that they have a “usual script” for their interactions?

We will have to turn the page and go on if we want to find out.

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