As the days shorten and the nights get colder, our taste for breezy summer reads diminishes, and we reach for books with a little more bite. From Bram Stoker and MR James, to Stephen King and Susan Hill, scary reads have always been popular. But writing suspenseful, creepy scenes takes a lot of work.
We often associate suspenseful writing with spooky, thrilling and chilling genres, particularly crime fiction, psychological suspense novels, action thrillers, horror and supernatural novels. But actually the toolbox of literary devices which horror and thriller writers deploy are useful whatever kind of book you’re writing. When a young girl, desperate to get into a ballet show, awaits the results of her audition, that can be suspenseful. When a man tries to find out whether his wife is having an affair with his best friend, that too can be suspenseful. We use suspense in fiction to get the reader on the edge of their seat and make it as difficult as possible for them to put the book down. So what are some of the devices and tricks that a writer can deploy?
Here are some tricks for building suspense in your novel:
- “If only I knew …” You can heighten the suspense leading up to your big climactic scene through foreshadowing. By suggesting ideas and possibilities to the reader which may come to fruition later in the novel, you build the reader’s expectations. The most commonly used and obvious form of foreshadowing is the “If only I knew then what I know now” type of line – the narrator tells the reader that something in particular is going to lead to disaster – though perhaps concealing the nature of the disaster or how one event led to another. This gets the reader looking where you, the writer, want them to look – and trying to figure out what’s going to happen and why. It builds the sense of dread, doom and the workings of fate.
- The rehearsal for disaster – Another foreshadowing trick is to show a near-disaster – something which ends in a moment of relief and release of tension, but which will hint at the real disaster still to come. For example, a mother is terrified when she goes to pick her child up from school and thinks she’s gone missing. The reader shares the mother’s terror and relief when the child turns up. But then later in the novel the child goes missing for real …
- Misdirection – One of the great joys of suspense-writing is the opportunity to misdirect the reader and present a really twisty tale. You can, for instance, use the foreshadowing tricks I’ve already mentioned to drip-feed little false clues into your novel while hiding your real agenda. Just as the reader thinks they know what you have in store, you veer away in a different direction altogether.
- Portents of Doom: Imagery, atmosphere and dreams – These can all be used to hint at what’s to come, so that the sense of impending disaster can seem to be carried in the very air breathed by the characters … Check out Kate Hamer’s The Girl In the Red Coat, for instance. She uses evocative language and imagery to weave a magical, elusive, fairytale quality around Carmel, the little girl in the story, which heightens the suspense leading up to her disappearance. Lots of novelists use dreams too to suggest the shape of a character’s future or the darkness of their subconscious – though I’d say be wary of doing this as it can just come across as lazy writing (and a bit pretentious!).
- Heightened emotions, obsessions and senses – Build suspense by showing the intensification of the emotions, fears, and sensations of your protagonist as they are thrown into danger. But do this sparingly, and try to avoid easy clichés. Also, don’t do it too wildly in the very early stages of a novel – if your character already has the pounding heart leaping up into his/her throat, the heaving breath and the churning stomach by page 5 or so, you’re not leaving yourself with anywhere much to go as your story progresses, and the overall effect can be rather shouty. Remember that smells, sounds and even tastes can add to a creepy atmosphere or terrifying predicament as well what the character sees, feels and thinks.
- Teasing rather than telling – Wherever possible, tease the reader with tidbits of information and partial disclosure rather than telling story flatly – it’s always more intriguing that way. Ask questions which you don’t immediately answer. Readers like to work so give them some work to do.
- Speeding Up and Slowing Down the Pace – As you build sharply toward a moment of crisis, you might choose to make your sentences shorter, more jagged and breathless. Your chapters too might get shorter, snappier. Or you could go the opposite way – as you’re nearing a major climax, slow everything down. Perhaps you show a drawn-out, languid scene only to suddenly and abruptly interrupt it with a dramatic event.
- The Cliffhanger – we all know about cliffhangers, but do remember to use them in your novel. Put your character in jeopardy and then end the chapter or sequence in the middle of it all, leaving your character and reader dangling, rather than at the end of the sequence when all has been resolved. If possible, cut away to other action or backstory and only go back to resolve it later.
For more writing tips, take a look at our 6-week online courses novel-writing courses all starting in January 2019: Starting to Write Your Novel, Write to the End of Your Novel, and Edit and Pitch Your Novel