Three Tricks Writers Use to Build Suspense

Three Tricks Writers Use to Build Suspense

By Warren Nast


Suspense is what keeps the reader turning the pages. What happens next? How are they going to get there in time? Will the bad guy win? Will everyone survive? The writer must always keep these questions in mind and when editing tightens the suspense elements like a guitar string; taunt but doesn’t break when played again in the next chapter. So let’s look at a few tried and true suspense techniques for you to use in your own writing.

Keep an eye on the clock.

We have all felt the pressure of the clock in our lives. Will be at work on time or not. Will we make the movie before starting or not. It is in my opinion the best way to keep a story going and helps with the structure of your story. 

In Michael Crichton’s book, Jurassic Park, Dr. Grant needed to get back to the lodge to warn the boat not to dock because there were stowaway dinosaurs on board. If it was not for that crucial time element he and the kids could have just hidden in one of the underground sheds until power was restored and help comes to find them. (But no one would have wanted to see that movie.)

In Top Gun Maverick, they had 4 weeks to train but halfway into the movie the enemy base was going to go online a week earlier and this new time pressure sends the movie gloriously forward. (Need for speed, indeed.)

In Star Wars, the Death Star needed to be destroyed before it got a lock on the rebel planet and blew it up. Remember the tension you felt as the Empire was targeting the rebel base at the same time Luke was making his run. If Luke had failed the rebels would be history. (Sounds like that would make a great What If? episode.)


Location, location, location

A good location will amp up the suspense level. Whether it is the beaches in Jaws or the USCSS Nostromo freighter in the Alien movie. The more the reader connects with the setting the more suspense they will feel. I also think when writers put a twist on a familiar place that it gives the story more tension.

 In the Shining, Stephen King gives us the Overlook Hotel with old-fashion wallpaper, topiary hedges, and endless hallways of matching doors that give just the right amount of creepiness. Doesn’t matter what hotel chain you go to after reading or seeing The Shining how can you not be anxious in a Holiday Inn hallway?

In Stranger Things, we get the familiar but scary world of the Upside Down. A place where everything is frozen in time, exactly the same but minus the people and now a residence of evil. Watching those kids bicycle to Vennca’s house was suspenseful as we didn’t know what to expect.

Hannibal Lecter’s cell in Silence of the Lambs shows us an artistic, well-educated man, whose body may be confined but he has kept his mind sharp and ready for action. Just seeing him standing there composed in his lair, sends chills down Agent Starling’s spine. Who is really trapped there Lecter or Starling?


Bring on the Villains

A strong antagonist is a must. Villains must be stronger, more motivated, and seemingly unstoppable to create the best suspense.

Darth Vader, Jaws, Freddy, Jason, Joker, Pennywise, when these characters show up in the story something bad is going to happen to our hero. A great villain doesn’t have to have an elaborate back story and not even a lot of words written about them to make them terrifying. 

Physically they should be different and intimidating, like how Darth Vader is tall, a cyborg, and dressed in black with a mechanical voice. Or the Joker with his face paint and foppish dress. Joker looks like a pushover but he always gets Bat-Man in trouble. Which adds to the suspense.

Villains are motivated. Thanos wants to eliminate half the universe’s population. It makes sense to him but terrifies the rest of us.  Annie Wilkes wants to know what is going to happen in the next Misery book. She is Paul Sheldon’s #1 fan. Give your villain a motivation that makes sense to them, but is crazy to everyone else and you will have suspense throughout your story.

Time, setting, and a great villain are the three key elements for creating suspense in your work. If you nail these three, readers will be turning those pages faster than a T-Rex can run after your jeep in the jungle.

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