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06 February 2020

Six ways to build suspense

Jenny Quintana Author
by Jenny Quintana From Our Students, Writing Tips

Jenny Quintana worked on her debut novel The Missing Girl on one of our London novel-writing courses. This debut went on to be named the Waterstones Thriller of the Month for July 2018. Her highly anticipated second novel Our Dark Secret is a gripping tale of the lasting damage caused by an obsessive teenage friendship.

Here Jenny reveals some of her top tips for building suspense …

Building suspense is important when you are writing any type of fiction. Readers want to feel concern for the characters and apprehension over what is going to happen to them or how they will deal with a situation. The reader must be hooked and then feel so invested in the story that they keep on turning the pages anxious to know what happens next.

So what is the best way to achieve this? Here are six ways.

Hooking the reader

Readers often choose a book based on title, cover, blurb and opening paragraph, or even line. So the writer must hook their reader right from the start.

One way to do this is to present the dilemma as succinctly as possible while at the same time giving it emotional resonance. The reader should begin to feel unease or concern that something isn’t quite right within the first few sentences.

This can be done in a thriller or a mystery for example, by stating the central crime (assuming there is one) with how the protagonist feels about it. This method works well when the character is looking back, but there are plenty of other ways to do this too, starting with a dramatic event for example, a body being discovered, an explosion etc. It depends whether your novel is action packed or character driven. 

Creating compelling characters

No matter how clever a plot, readers must feel invested in the characters. If they don’t care about them, or find them believable, why will they care about their story?

For me the process of writing a novel always begins with character. Often a character comes into my mind, fully formed. Other times, it requires some nudging before he or she comes alive.

What’s important is that these characters whether hero or villain have both virtues and flaws. This makes them human and readers will identify. They are then more likely to fear for them and worry about the decisions they make, desperately turning the pages to find out how they cope.

Posing questions and keeping secrets

Once the reader is hooked and identifying with the characters, it’s important to keep them interested in the actual story. One way to do this is to build on the initial question by posing more and at the same time creating the sense that different characters are keeping secrets which are key to the story. 

Answering these questions and revealing these secrets should act as turning points driving the story forward. Depending on your genre, these revelations don’t necessarily have to be hugely dramatic. A large part of a psychological mystery after all is what is happening inside the character’s head.     

Beginnings and endings

Think carefully about where you begin not only your novel, but also every scene and chapter. The moment you start should have the immediate effect of immersing the reader in the story. Avoid too much back story for example. This information can be drip fed through the narrative. Often you can cross through the first few paragraphs or even pages that you’ve written and find a more absorbing point to start.  

It’s also important to end a scene or a chapter leaving the reader wanting more. For example, one situation might be resolved, but another is still under question. Pay attention to last lines. Give them intrigue and use cliff-hangers so that the reader wants to know what happens next.

Choosing a dual timeline

Switching between two stories in past and present is a great way to create suspense. It works well because the reader is taken out of a story just as they want to know more.

However, this can also be frustrating for some readers, so to make it work, it’s important to ensure that each strand is as compelling as the other, so that the reader is happy to be immersed in both and quickly becomes comfortable.   

The same effect can happen when alternating points of view. Make sure your reader is fascinated by each character’s story so that they don’t skim through anxious to get back to the first.

Controlling pace  

To keep those pages turning, it’s important to balance your pace, knowing when to speed things up and slow things down. Too much action becomes repetitive and exhausting, but too much introspection and description can be dull. Your narrative needs to have a certain rhythm.

Avoid too much backstory, but also make sure you don’t repeat information as this can interfere with pace. Sometimes it’s good to remind the readers of an event, but don’t spell it out. Readers like to work things out for themselves or to flick back through the book to check. Similarly, if information isn’t relevant to the story, it should be cut. This applies to whole scenes or even chapters if they don’t drive the narrative forward.

Jenny’s latest thriller Our Dark Secret is out now.

If you’re looking to work on your novel with expert tuition and the support of like-minded writers, discover all the creative writing courses we currently have open for enrolment and application on our courses page.

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