I’d like to welcome a special guest to my blog this week. Savannah Cordova is sharing her thoughts on increasing suspense in our novels. Give her a warm welcome! Thanks for being here, Savannah!
Thanks to the huge cultural impact of books like Gone Girl and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, suspense novels began surging in both the traditional and self-publishing markets in the early 2010s, and they’ve hardly slowed down since. These novels keep readers on the edge of their seats right up to the very last page, providing the perfect escape from mundane real-life stresses — ironically, by injecting a healthy dose of fictional tension.
If you’re reading this, you may be interested in writing one of these page-turning thrillers yourself! For those who wish to maximize the suspense in their writing, this post will help you out with four great tactics you may not yet know for escalating tension in your novel.
1. Utilize all of the senses
Similar to romance, the best kind of suspense writing feels sensuous and immediate (which is part of what makes romance such a great complement to suspense). But while it’s pretty intuitive to write romance in a way that employs all five senses, the same isn’t always true for suspense — perhaps because the sensations of romance are familiar to many of us, while the experience of being kidnapped and left for dead is (thankfully) less common.
Still, that doesn’t mean writing sensuous suspense needs to be difficult. Start with a simple question: What raises the hairs on the back of your character’s neck? Perhaps an otherwise harmless situation will bring trauma hurtling forth — they double-take at a stranger on the street, or panic when a familiar perfume lingers in their house after a visit. Sometimes the most unnerving things are those that feel uncannily close to normal, but not quite so.
A disquieting encounter like this is a great entry point into bringing your settings and story to life in a sensuous manner, and laying the groundwork for some serious tension. When even the smallest deviation from the norm throws your characters off and forces them to question themselves, readers will probably follow suit. (You can tell you’re reading a good suspense novel when you start to feel paranoid in real life!)
The better you can describe both the sensations themselves and the accompanying emotions of your character(s), the more vividly your readers will experience and remember them — which means they’ll not only have a thrilling time while reading, but also recommend your book to their fellow suspense lovers. Consider honing your descriptive skills with some creative writing classes to really master this aspect of writing suspense.
2. Tantalize readers with half-answers
Another way to keep readers enthralled is to slowly unravel clues like a thread for them to follow — and every time they think they’ve figured it out, let the thread go slack again. Whether the reader only knows as much as the protagonist (or even a little more), you can keep your plotting a few steps ahead!
Say your protagonist is searching for their missing sweetheart and the reader already knows she’s dead; the twist is that they don’t know how it happened. Here, you could build tension by giving clues that seem to reveal answers — for example, by using ambiguous language about a character (as in The Girl on the Train), or by including a suspicious subplot that has a relatively innocuous explanation (as in the John Cho movie Searching) — before unveiling more information that leaves them guessing once again. This push-and-pull dynamic will keep readers avidly trying to trace your leads and awaiting the next turn.
The trick is to provide enough information that readers don’t feel completely lost, without letting them work out the mystery before you want them to. Balancing explanations with unknowns is crucial to engaging your readers without frustrating them — which is pretty much the essence of this next tip, too.
3. “Solve” the mystery a bit too early
It might seem like an oddly specific thing to try, but making your central mystery seem solved before you’ve really solved it is a surprisingly popular tactic in suspense. How many times have you been reading or watching a suspenseful story and gotten a solid explanation for what’s been going on… only to realize you’re only three-quarters of the way through the book or movie, so there must be something else coming?
This technique is an excellent way to keep your audience guessing and to innovate more as a writer! Even if you already have a great ending in mind, take this opportunity to think: What could make it even twistier? How might you be able to elevate a subplot or minor character into something significant that will tie into the true resolution — or alternatively, how could you make a genuinely suspicious situation into a red herring after all?
Again, you don’t want to go too far, as twists upon twists upon twists will only exhaust and irritate your audience (a particular episode of Black Mirror will always haunt me for this reason). But the promise of one more juicy plot twist, or even two, after you “solve” the mystery for the first time is sure to keep readers turning the pages.
4. Give your plot time constraints
Going back to the issue of suspense plots and relatability, here’s a simple way to tap into readers’ experience without assuming they’ve undergone thriller-esque trauma: add in some time constraints and raise the stakes!
Indeed, most of us can relate to struggling under time limits in some capacity (thinking back to timed high school exams still makes me shudder). Forcing your protagonist into a high-stakes scenario, with minimal time to wriggle out, will give your reader a knee-jerk adrenaline rush — one that will return each time they agonize over how your protagonist can possibly succeed against the ticking clock.
Once more, though, take care in your execution of this. Repetitive chapter-by-chapter countdowns aren’t terribly effective, for example, because the reader comes to expect them. But starting a countdown in the middle of the book, or suddenly halving the time to solve an important problem — now that’s a recipe for instant tension.
If you’re not quite sure how to pull this off in a novel, try writing a short story that’s full of suspense first; by the nature of the form, you’ll have to compress things you might otherwise let languish!
In fact, this is a great place to start for any budding suspense writer. Consider applying any or all of the above tactics to a short story, then expanding to a full-on novel. That way, you’ll have already nailed the essence of your tale and can exercise greater control over the longer version — and after all, controlling your prose (and with it, readers’ experience) is what writing great suspense is all about.
Savannah Cordova Bio
Savannah Cordova is a writer with Reedsy, a marketplace that connects self-publishing authors with the world’s best editors, designers, and marketers. In her spare time, Savannah enjoys reading contemporary fiction and writing short stories. Naturally, she’s a big fan of suspense novels (when they’re done right).