LIVE Blog: Maximizing Suspense in Your Story
“I couldn’t put the book down.”
“A real page-turner!”
“I stayed up late to find out what happened next.”
Compliments like these can make an author’s day. But how can we create the kinds of stories that receive such enthusiastic reviews? One way is by maximizing suspense. In his book Conflict and Suspense, James Scott Bell defines suspense as “any unresolved tension in the story that makes the reader want to see what happens next.” Suspense isn’t just for thrillers. It exists in romance, friendship tales, any story where we want the reader to keep turning the pages. And while an event that happens suddenly may be dramatic and surprising, it’s the reader’s anticipation (waiting for a conflict to erupt, a secret to be revealed, a kiss to be shared) that creates suspense.
Here are three specific techniques, with examples of each, to help maximize suspense in your fiction writing.
Technique One: Set a ticking clock.
A ticking clock refers to the concept that the main character only has a finite amount of time to solve an important problem. Having a specific time constraint automatically increases tension. We frequently see this in disaster movies—the hero/heroine only has a few hours to prevent the catastrophe before the world ends.
But the concept certainly works in other types of fiction, too. In the young adult novel The Silence of Murder, by Dandi Daley Mackall, Hope’s brother is on trial for killing the baseball coach in their small Ohio town. She’s desperately trying to figure out who really committed the murder before the end of her brother’s trial. The trial serves as a ticking clock and adds a layer of urgency to Hope’s investigation. In Dr. Seuss’s picture book, The Cat in the Hat, the kids need to have the mess cleaned up before their parents arrive home. In his YA novel Looking for Alaska, John Green creates suspense with a ticking clock for an unknown event. Chapter one begins with the heading “136 days before,” and as the days count down in subsequent chapters, the reader is left to wonder, before what?
Not every story lends itself to a ticking clock, but if there is an important deadline that works within your story, make the most of it to increase tension.
Technique Two: Give your character a secret.
Everyone wants to be in on a secret, readers included. There are several ways to keep secrets in a novel. In a traditional mystery, the reader learns information and deciphers clues right alongside the main character. The suspense comes from unravelling “whodunnit” and why. The Girl I Used To Be by April Henry (young adult), The Case of the Missing Carrot Cake by Robin Newman (chapter book), Where Are My Books? by Debbie Ridpath Ohi (picture book), and The London Eye Mystery by Siobhan Dowd (middle grade) all fall into this category.
Another approach, particularly in non-mysteries, is to let the reader know the main character’s secret. You might think this diffuses the tension. But when readers care about your main character, they worry about what will happen if (when!) the secret is uncovered. And by design, the reveal usually occurs at the worst possible moment.
In Like Vanessa, a middle grade novel by Tami Charles, there are multiple secrets, some kept from the main character herself. But the reader is in on Nessy’s secret plan to participate in a beauty pageant, which serves as the major plotline. She hides the pageant preparation from her father, knowing he would disapprove. What will happen if her secret is revealed? Concern about the consequences serves to rachet up the suspense.
Another example of a secret occurs in my YA novel, Pandemic. While the primary storyline is about a teen girl’s fight to survive a deadly bird flu outbreak, her background involves being the victim of sexual assault. The reader is aware of Lil’s secret early on. When the man who assaulted Lil contacts her during the turmoil of the outbreak, she struggles to hide what happened, eventually questioning whether she should share her secret with others.
There’s a certain appeal to this type of suspense: “Our delight comes from knowing what the protagonist is holding back and why; we revel in the tension between what she’s saying and what we know she’s really thinking” (Wired for Story, Lisa Cron). For fans of this season of The Blacklist, we see this concept in action each time Raymond Reddington mentions betrayal to Elizabeth Keen, the person secretly responsible for his arrest.
Technique Three: Use cliffhangers at the end of chapters.
The idea behind a cliffhanger is that the chapter ends on a moment of uncertainty or tension. Ideally, this is a point where the stakes are raised and the main character’s circumstances have worsened. It’s an “uh-oh” moment when the situation becomes more complicated.
It’s important, though, that the chapter ending isn’t a false promise. As Chekhov stated in what’s known as Chekhov’s Gun, “One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it.” So don’t end a chapter on a possible bear attack if no bears will appear anywhere in your story. Besides being misleading, this type of deceptive chapter end doesn’t serve the story well, because an ideal cliffhanger creates complications that you can take advantage of for further suspense.
Let’s look at two cliffhangers that increase tension in a way that the author can build on later in the story. In Maria Andreu’s YA novel, The Secret Side of Empty, M.T. has a secret (see technique #2 above): She’s an undocumented immigrant with an abusive father. Any attempt to solve the situation with her father may result in her family’s deportation back to a country she doesn’t even remember. At one point, he confiscates all the money she earned from tutoring and hid for a possible future escape. This escalates the existing tension in their already fraught relationship, and the chapter ends with: “. . . I’m going to steal my money back . . . one dollar at a time if I have to . . . I will sabotage and I will carry out stealth actions. When you don’t have armies, you go for guerilla warfare.” With this cliffhanger, the reader rightfully worries about M.T.’s future interactions with her father.
In Allegedly, Tiffany D. Jackson’s YA debut, Mary lives in a dangerous group home after allegedly killing a baby. After becoming pregnant, she pleads with her parole officer to help prove her innocence, so she can keep her own child. The stakes are already high in this scene when she returns to her room to find that one of her housemates has taken the sheets off her bed and left them in the hallway. The chapter ends: “But this time there are holes cut in them; my flat sheet is a slice of Swiss cheese. Someone must have heard me talking to [the parole officer]. That doesn’t bother me. What bothers me is who else has a knife in here besides me.”
According to Chekhov’s Gun, if Jackson mentions a knife, someone better think about using it before the end of the novel. And indeed they do, so the chapter end gives the reader yet another legitimate reason to worry about Mary. As James Scott Bell says about the cliffhanger technique of creating suspense, “Give [readers] that pleasurable uncertainty that makes them need to flip the page.”
There you have it: three techniques for maximizing suspense in your story. Now, as part of WriteOnCon’s “live blog” format, I’ll be online answering your questions for the next hour. Let me know if you’d like me to clarify anything about ticking clocks, keeping secrets, and ending chapters with a cliffhanger. If you recognize any of these techniques from some of your favorite published books, feel free to share further examples as well.