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Create Suspense, Keep Readers Quaking

by Greer | Content Lead | Writing Tips | Planning

Would you like to know the secret behind great suspense? Get ready. It's going to blow your mind... ...and change your life. Or, at least, it should. Properly pulling off perfect suspension is no easy feat! It should be well-paced, out of the reader's control, and - and this is where many writers fail - actually deliver the payoff promised. Good suspense will leave the reader keen to see what else you have to offer, and they will remember your story as one that had them invested. It is a lot easier than it sounds, so let's round up some key ways you can keep your readers on the edge of their seat.



1. Give Readers Hints of Dangers Ahead


Give your readers a strong sense of foreboding or outright anxiety by revealing that their protagonist is unknowingly walking into a danger zone. The danger itself does not even need to be explicitly stated, merely hinted at or referred to in a previous scene. The trick is to balance the character's obliviousness with enough pointed details or clues. The character's lack of awareness will practically have a reader shouting into the pages to look out - which, of course, falls on deaf ears. Before anything even happens, the reader knows something is about to go down but might not know how, when, or how the character will get out of it. EXAMPLE: The villain reveals to their henchmen they have ‘a little surprise’ waiting at a location, then we read of our oblivious hero in said location and likely walking into a trap.



2. Have Characters ‘Work Against the Clock’


Running late or working to a near-impossible time schedule is something most people can immediately relate to. Not only does it produce a notion of stress, but it also brings out nervous anticipation as to whether or not an objective will be completed before the sand timer runs out. Create a deadline for action and then throw obstacles in your character's way to make it harder to achieve. Bring it down to the wire! A building potential loss if the deadline is not met is another way to continuously raise the stakes EXAMPLE: A news team have until their 5pm tv slot to verify a ground-breaking story yet their initial source is nowhere to be found. As the minutes drop away they must work faster and take risks to get a reliable witness. At first, they were working to be the first to report on this major story, but as time runs out they realise a life is on the line.



3. The Need to Keep Moving


Being physically chased is enough to bring many of us to the brink of anxiety. Not having enough time to catch our breath before we need to run again heightens the tension and worry that our energy is constantly diminishing.

Do not allow your characters ample safety, whether they are part of a literal hunt or figurative race to a finish line. Continue to bring the danger towards them. Remove precious thinking or recuperation time as staying in place is not an option. Ever-changing situations and expectations, switching up needed actions can be used in all manners of story-telling. Example: A kidnappee escapes captivity but can’t rest for too long in one place as their kidnappers are on pursuit – and closing in.



4. Unpredicted Problems


It is better to anticipate possible issues than suddenly be faced with a massive problem you hadn't considered - which is why that is exactly what you should do to your characters. Unexpected obstacles are harder to overcome as there was no preparation or forethought. As well as throwing your characters off, it will feel like a dramatic curveball to your readers, who will be excited to see how their hero will get past this barrier. Keep these obstacles within the realm of believability, and varying their severity allows for a good dose of reality. Example: The protagonist tries to stop their love interest from boarding a plane, but airline clerk is refusing to sell them a ticket to get through to the gate as their passport has expired.



5. Competent Antagonist


There is nothing more dangerous to a hero than a villain who is always three steps ahead. If you choose to have an antagonist, give them strong motivators, intelligence and the mental skills to make them a serious threat to the hero. Anticipating the hero's every move, the villain should almost be impressive to the reader. Not only will it have the readers on the edge of their seat, but they will savour the eventual thwarting of the competent villain at the end. Serious pay-out! Example: A quick-witted crime boss is always one step ahead of our cop protagonist, who must continuously think on their feet just to scrape by. The cop will have to pool all his resources to stand a chance at taking the boss down.



6. Create Dilemmas - No Easy Choices


Black and white decisions are clear, concise, and separate the heroes from the villains...they can also be boring. Injecting some grey-area decisions with no clear right or wrong routes throw the reader into a moral conundrum as they question if one act is really better or smarter than another. The harder that question is to answer, the more suspense will be created as they try to predict how the protagonist's decision will impact future events. Make the reader torn and glad it is not them in the hot-seat. Example: The protagonist has to choose between the love of their life and their best friend, with only enough time to save one.



7. Don’t Give Away All Answers


As the writer, you are entitled to know all the ins and outs of characters, events, motives, and individual endings. However, a good writer knows to only allow a reader a partial view into this world - not just to avoid burdening them with needless information but also to create a strong sense of mystery.

Allow for some characters to be morally ambiguous. Don't explain every last detail. Carry one enigma throughout the story which is consistent yet hard to pin down. Example: An unnamed stranger seems to have an impact on events throughout the story, but their identity and motives are never fully revealed.



8. A Hero Close to the Heart


Many rash filmmakers make the mistake of assuming movie-goers will naturally care for the protagonist's plights. It isn't true, and readers also require legwork from the writer to form any real connection to characters. Invest time creating a hero that the reader can fully get behind, even a problematic anti-hero can gain reader favour. When they face off against challenges or danger, the atmosphere will naturally heighten as readers are invested in the character's fate enough to want them to be okay. Example: We care so deeply for this wonderful hero that any obstacle and failure fill us with dread and any success makes us elated.



9. Keep Odds Stacked Against Characters


Everyone loves an underdog as their journey to success is often in question. If the reader is never assured that their protagonist will succeed, they stand on the ice of uncertainty. Though a good story typically has some feel-good ending, the road getting there should be littered with barriers to overcome - some tedious, some near-impossible - so the reader cannot just sit back and wait for things 'just to work out'. Example: A young teenager takes on an entire town to save their innocent friend from going to prison. They are physically, mentally, and emotionally stretched thin, and they are often very close to being beaten.



10. Bait-and-Switch


There's nothing like a good, well-crafted plot twist. A big reveal always raises the drama level, but to pull it off you must first set out a clear pathway of expectations (supported by supposedly solid evidence) for the reader to walk themselves down. Characters may even state something as fact or only focus on details which agree with the presumptions. This makes it all the more jaw-dropping when you whip the rug out from under both character and reader by revealing the 'truth'. What started as reliable is now called into question, casting the reader into a world of trepidation. To pull this off without making the reader feel cheated involves a lot of planning, planting small, seemingly frivolous seeds that are overshadowed by red herrings. Example: We spend most of the story convinced a ghost is behind the horrors taking place in an old house, only to find that the real danger is a poisonous gas which causes hallucinations - something which is subtly hinted at in throwaway comments yet shrouded under louder 'evidence' of the paranormal.

However you manage to seep suspense through your pages, your readers will thank you for making the experience exciting and memorable. No more boring, low-risk plot lines for them!


Would you like to know the secret behind great suspense? Get ready. It's going to blow your mind... ...and change your life. Or, at least, it should. Properly pulling off perfect suspension is no easy feat! It should be well-paced, out of the reader's control, and - and this is where many writers fail - actually deliver the payoff promised. Good suspense will leave the reader keen to see what else you have to offer, and they will remember your story as one that had them invested. It is a lot easier than it sounds, so let's round up some key ways you can keep your readers on the edge of their seat.



1. Give Readers Hints of Dangers Ahead


Give your readers a strong sense of foreboding or outright anxiety by revealing that their protagonist is unknowingly walking into a danger zone. The danger itself does not even need to be explicitly stated, merely hinted at or referred to in a previous scene. The trick is to balance the character's obliviousness with enough pointed details or clues. The character's lack of awareness will practically have a reader shouting into the pages to look out - which, of course, falls on deaf ears. Before anything even happens, the reader knows something is about to go down but might not know how, when, or how the character will get out of it. EXAMPLE: The villain reveals to their henchmen they have ‘a little surprise’ waiting at a location, then we read of our oblivious hero in said location and likely walking into a trap.



2. Have Characters ‘Work Against the Clock’


Running late or working to a near-impossible time schedule is something most people can immediately relate to. Not only does it produce a notion of stress, but it also brings out nervous anticipation as to whether or not an objective will be completed before the sand timer runs out. Create a deadline for action and then throw obstacles in your character's way to make it harder to achieve. Bring it down to the wire! A building potential loss if the deadline is not met is another way to continuously raise the stakes EXAMPLE: A news team have until their 5pm tv slot to verify a ground-breaking story yet their initial source is nowhere to be found. As the minutes drop away they must work faster and take risks to get a reliable witness. At first, they were working to be the first to report on this major story, but as time runs out they realise a life is on the line.



3. The Need to Keep Moving


Being physically chased is enough to bring many of us to the brink of anxiety. Not having enough time to catch our breath before we need to run again heightens the tension and worry that our energy is constantly diminishing.

Do not allow your characters ample safety, whether they are part of a literal hunt or figurative race to a finish line. Continue to bring the danger towards them. Remove precious thinking or recuperation time as staying in place is not an option. Ever-changing situations and expectations, switching up needed actions can be used in all manners of story-telling. Example: A kidnappee escapes captivity but can’t rest for too long in one place as their kidnappers are on pursuit – and closing in.



4. Unpredicted Problems


It is better to anticipate possible issues than suddenly be faced with a massive problem you hadn't considered - which is why that is exactly what you should do to your characters. Unexpected obstacles are harder to overcome as there was no preparation or forethought. As well as throwing your characters off, it will feel like a dramatic curveball to your readers, who will be excited to see how their hero will get past this barrier. Keep these obstacles within the realm of believability, and varying their severity allows for a good dose of reality. Example: The protagonist tries to stop their love interest from boarding a plane, but airline clerk is refusing to sell them a ticket to get through to the gate as their passport has expired.



5. Competent Antagonist


There is nothing more dangerous to a hero than a villain who is always three steps ahead. If you choose to have an antagonist, give them strong motivators, intelligence and the mental skills to make them a serious threat to the hero. Anticipating the hero's every move, the villain should almost be impressive to the reader. Not only will it have the readers on the edge of their seat, but they will savour the eventual thwarting of the competent villain at the end. Serious pay-out! Example: A quick-witted crime boss is always one step ahead of our cop protagonist, who must continuously think on their feet just to scrape by. The cop will have to pool all his resources to stand a chance at taking the boss down.



6. Create Dilemmas - No Easy Choices


Black and white decisions are clear, concise, and separate the heroes from the villains...they can also be boring. Injecting some grey-area decisions with no clear right or wrong routes throw the reader into a moral conundrum as they question if one act is really better or smarter than another. The harder that question is to answer, the more suspense will be created as they try to predict how the protagonist's decision will impact future events. Make the reader torn and glad it is not them in the hot-seat. Example: The protagonist has to choose between the love of their life and their best friend, with only enough time to save one.



7. Don’t Give Away All Answers


As the writer, you are entitled to know all the ins and outs of characters, events, motives, and individual endings. However, a good writer knows to only allow a reader a partial view into this world - not just to avoid burdening them with needless information but also to create a strong sense of mystery.

Allow for some characters to be morally ambiguous. Don't explain every last detail. Carry one enigma throughout the story which is consistent yet hard to pin down. Example: An unnamed stranger seems to have an impact on events throughout the story, but their identity and motives are never fully revealed.



8. A Hero Close to the Heart


Many rash filmmakers make the mistake of assuming movie-goers will naturally care for the protagonist's plights. It isn't true, and readers also require legwork from the writer to form any real connection to characters. Invest time creating a hero that the reader can fully get behind, even a problematic anti-hero can gain reader favour. When they face off against challenges or danger, the atmosphere will naturally heighten as readers are invested in the character's fate enough to want them to be okay. Example: We care so deeply for this wonderful hero that any obstacle and failure fill us with dread and any success makes us elated.



9. Keep Odds Stacked Against Characters


Everyone loves an underdog as their journey to success is often in question. If the reader is never assured that their protagonist will succeed, they stand on the ice of uncertainty. Though a good story typically has some feel-good ending, the road getting there should be littered with barriers to overcome - some tedious, some near-impossible - so the reader cannot just sit back and wait for things 'just to work out'. Example: A young teenager takes on an entire town to save their innocent friend from going to prison. They are physically, mentally, and emotionally stretched thin, and they are often very close to being beaten.



10. Bait-and-Switch


There's nothing like a good, well-crafted plot twist. A big reveal always raises the drama level, but to pull it off you must first set out a clear pathway of expectations (supported by supposedly solid evidence) for the reader to walk themselves down. Characters may even state something as fact or only focus on details which agree with the presumptions. This makes it all the more jaw-dropping when you whip the rug out from under both character and reader by revealing the 'truth'. What started as reliable is now called into question, casting the reader into a world of trepidation. To pull this off without making the reader feel cheated involves a lot of planning, planting small, seemingly frivolous seeds that are overshadowed by red herrings. Example: We spend most of the story convinced a ghost is behind the horrors taking place in an old house, only to find that the real danger is a poisonous gas which causes hallucinations - something which is subtly hinted at in throwaway comments yet shrouded under louder 'evidence' of the paranormal.

However you manage to seep suspense through your pages, your readers will thank you for making the experience exciting and memorable. No more boring, low-risk plot lines for them!


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