Writing Suspense

It’s hours past your bedtime. Your heart is racing. You’re tired, but you know you won’t be able to fall asleep. You need to read just a few more pages. You must find out what happens next. You turn another page. You hope for a satisfying conclusion, but you don’t want the story to end. You’re kept in a state of utter suspense.

Whether you write thrillers, or merely want to pull readers into your story (whatever style you write), suspense is an excellent tool to keep your readers on the edge of their seats. Here are some ideas of how to add suspense to your writing.

Start with a bang

“The way to build suspense is simply to ask a question, and then not answer it.” – Lee Child, author of the Jack Reacher series

Suspense tells the reader exactly what they should expect up front. The reader knows the destination—e.g., she knows that the protagonist will face certain death to disarm a well-placed bomb—but she doesn’t know how the story will arrive at that destination. Good suspense keeps that solution secret for as long as possible.

End with a cliffhanger

“A cliffhanger is when…” – Buffy Andrews, author of The Perfect Husband

Cliffhangers are an effective way to end a scene. What question has popped up? What revelation has the protagonist discovered? To find out, you’ll have to read on. If you’re utilizing multiple narratives, this is a great time to switch point of view for a chapter or two.

Use time as a weapon

“The suspense is terrible. I hope it will last.” -Oscar Wilde, author of The Picture of Dorian Gray

A great way to build suspense is simply by using time constraints. Consider how time might be working against your protagonist. Sure, your protagonist might be able to travel to the other side of the world, find the evidence they need, and return to thwart an assassination attempt, but what if they only have 24 hours? Suddenly, the tension has risen.

Suspense workshop

Tosca Lee

“I have one aim when writing thrillers: keeping my readers up past bedtime. Every time a fan writes to me that they stayed up far too late to finish… I grin. Maniacally.” -Tosca Lee, author of The Line Between, and co-author of Forbidden

These are just some of the foundational ideas that go into building suspense. Want to learn more? New York Times bestselling author Tosca Lee will be at the library  Feb 23, 12:30-1:30pm to share her tips on writing suspense.

Stay for a reading with the novelist from 2-3pm. Q&A and book signing will follow.

Chris Blocker

Chris works in Public Services and has been with the library since 2007. He has a great passion for writing, so it's not uncommon to see him helping with library writing events. Chris holds an MFA in Writing from the University of Nebraska, strives to be a successful novelist, and dabbles with graphic design when time allows. His favorite novel is East of Eden. He is fluent in Trek.