Thursday, May 9, 2013

5 Ways To Turn Up The Suspense...

I'd like to pass on some suggestions from Brian Klems article: Five Ways To Make Your Novel More Suspenseful. This was in an e-mail I received from Writer's Digest Magazine. I found the article to be what I would call a keeper. For the sake of brevity, I'm only paraphrasing what I read. If you'd like to read the entire article, please click here.

#1. Turn up the sensory detail.
Suspense is sustained by the absence of anything terrible happening, and the continued focus on detail. By focusing in on the little things like a car back-firing, the hiss of a cat or anything that would keep the reader holding their breath, you are building the suspense.

#2. Turn down the velocity.
Slowing down time increases suspense.
a. Complex sentences. Stay away from the short sentences that speed up the action.
b. Internal thoughts. Let the reader hear what your character is thinking.
c. Bring the reader as close as possible to the scene. Let them experience the tension of the sequence first-hand.

#3. Modulate suspense. 
Building suspense takes time. Break the tension by having something happen that advances the plot or provides a moment of comic relief.
a. Insert a pause. A telephone rings. One of the characters cracks a joke. Remember, in real life, humor is used to ease tension.
b. Reveal something that seemed menacing to be ordinary. A scary shape turns out to be the shadow of a tree in the moonlight. A hand on the shoulder of the protagonist turns out to be his best buddy.
You can use this technique to give your reader a respite, then continue to crank up the suspense to keep them hooked.

#4. Foreshadow rather than telegraph.
Creating a suspense sequence that ends harmlessly is a good way to foreshadow something more sinister that happens later on in your novel. Be careful to foreshadow and not telegraph: giving away too much too soon is guaranteed to ruin the suspense.
The line between foreshadowing and telegraphing is subtle. When you insert a hint of what's to come, look at it critically and decide whether it's something the reader will glide right by, but remember later with an Aha! That's foreshadowing. If instead the reader groans and guesses what's coming, you've telegraphed.

#5. Always end with a payoff.
You can have a suspense sequence early that ends with nothing more than a harmless tabby padding off into the night. But as you near one of your novels end-of-act climaxes, the suspense sequence should pay off. The payoff can be an unsettling discovery of evidence of a crime: finding a dead body, bloodstained clothing, a weapons cache, or that the floor of the basement has been dug up.
The discovery might reveal a character's secret. Finding love letters might reveal a hidden relationship between two characters.
Or, the payoff can be a plot twist. The bad guy confesses, the sleuth gets attacked, or locked in a basement, or lost in a cave, or the police show up and arrest the sleuth.

I hope these ideas have given you food for thought and have stirred your juices around enough to check on the suspense in your novel. The main thing is to enjoy the process. And write!


  1. Great tips, Karen. I think writing great suspense is one of the hardest things to master in writing.

    1. Thanks, Mary! I agree with you. It's so easy to either bog the story down with too much detail or give away the ending too soon. I'm still working on it.

  2. Hi, Karen. Great tips.

    1. Thanks, Susanne. I'm learning from these tips as well.

  3. Reading your posts on writing has sure been an eye opener for me, the non-writer. I love a good story, but never really thought about WHY I enjoy this one over that one. I had no clue how much work went into it! Maybe I had this vague idea that some writers just had more "talent", or some such myth.

    Talent, yes; but methinks hard work wins the day!

    My hat is off in respect to all you hard working writers. :-)

    1. Rettakat: Thank you. I'm leaning to a mix of talent and hard work to be the key. And to keep on writing at every chance you get!