The Key Elements of a Suspense Story

Posted on by Bill Powers

Suspense is a popular genre of fiction writing for good reason. First, suspense is not just a genre, it is an element of fiction that keeps readers reading and continually has them coming back for more. Common elements of suspense include empathetic characters, creating concern, including impending danger for the characters and escalating tension. However, there is so much more to creating a compelling suspense novel. Here are some more key elements to include in a suspense novel that will keep readers turning the pages.

Foreshadowing

Using foreshadowing is a technique anyone who wants to write suspense fiction should master. Start planting clues early and remind readers that something bad is going to happen. Readers will pick up on the clues and will naturally start to worry about the hero of the story. Foreshadowing can seem small, or they can be obvious and monumental clues.

High Stakes  

When writing suspense fiction, low stakes and low consequences equates to low interest. Make sure your main character’s goals and reasons for achieving them are clear from the outset of the story. As your story progresses, the stakes should get higher to build the momentum and suspense of the story.

The Element of Surprise

Suspense is based on uncertainty. So, make it your friend if you want to write suspense fiction. Think about an expected outcome and flip it around. Maybe something bad happening ends up being a blessing in disguise. If you mix positive and negative foreshadowing, you will keep your readers on their toes, wondering what will come next and surprised by whatever it is.

Withholding Information

Generate interest in your story by requiring the readers to want more. Instead of giving your readers every bit of needed information, leave some important details out. If your readers only know what the main character knows, they will naturally crave additional information and keep reading until they get it. Slowly revealing information to your readers keep them engaged in the protagonist’s journey and will propel them through the novel. Not only is it okay to be vague at times, it will actually help make your suspense story better.

Put Time on Your Side (But not the Hero’s)

You can easily build up suspense and tension by putting time constraints on your characters. If your hero works against a clock while your villain has the clock as an advantage, the suspense will naturally build and will give your story momentum.

Pressure-Filled Situations

Create situations that put pressure on your hero. If you put your hero in situations that seem insurmountable, you create a sympathetic character your readers will root for. It is crucial for you to test your hero to the breaking point, but make sure your hero never breaks, no matter how stressful the situation is.

Dilemmas

Use your villain to complicate the progress of your hero. Suspense stories thrive on drama, and creating dilemmas for your hero to deal with is a great way to build it. As your hero deals with and overcomes all the dilemmas you create, your readers will become more endeared and will root for the success of the hero. Give your hero problems with no-win solutions, like a situation where two people are in peril and the hero can only save one. Your readers will be so enthralled with the story  they will keep turning the pages to see how every situation is solved.

Unpredictability

No one’s life ever runs smoothly all the time. Use this familiar issue to your advantage in your suspense story. Make your hero go through several unexpected events and have nothing be straight-forward. If your hero must constantly be concerned about every decision that must be made, it adds a bit of intrigue and suspense to the story. Your readers will want to know what tactics your hero takes to overcome the obstacles that are put in the way. The hero’s improvisation will bring interest to the story.

Intriguing Villains

The villain in a suspense story helps to drive the plot. In a suspense story the villain is always present, so you need to create a colorful character. Make sure this antagonist of your story is smart and motivated. Take time to consider your villain’s motivations and character. Let the readers know and understand why the villain makes particular choices. Make the readers believe in and fear the villain, and make the villain a worthy opponent for the hero.

Provocative Heroes

If you are going to put time and effort into creating a fantastic villain, you need to put considerable time and effort to create the ideal hero. The hero in a suspense story is different than a hero in other types of stories. The suspense hero must be believable and sympathetic. Readers need to truly care about your hero. Otherwise, they will not keep reading the story. Also, take time to show your readers why they should care about the hero. Do not simply tell them they should.

Now that you have a good idea of which elements to include in a suspense story, here are some tips on how to write a great one:

Keep the Plot Moving

Keep your readers entertained by providing a suspenseful atmosphere. Quickly move from one scene to another and regularly introduce new ideas to keep the readers hooked.

Make a Big Promise Early — and Keep It

Early in your suspense story you need to make a big promise to your readers. A big promise will captivate readers and keep them hooked until the end of the story. Let your readers know what the payoff will be, and then lead them there. The promises you make lie in the areas between the action. The tension and suspense will build as the readers wonder if and how you will be able to keep the promise you made.

Use Locations for Suspense

Set your suspense story in areas that lend themselves to suspense. Use the location of your story to enhance the suspense by incorporating it into the plot rather than simply having it be the background.

Take Away Helpful Tools From Your Hero

There are many tools your main character can use as weapons depending on the situations you put your hero in. A common trick is to make the climax of the story the ultimate meeting between your hero and your villain. During this scene, make sure your protagonist does not have access to weapons, other tools or even helpful allies. The existence of a precarious situation with no logical way out will build suspense that your readers will love.

Keep Your Readers Guessing

The feeling of suspense is reliant on the unknown. If the readers can predict your ending too early in the book, they will likely not care about finishing it.  So, keep them on their toes and turning the pages to find out what will happen. Throw in a few twists and turns along the way to always keep your readers guessing. But, be careful to not go too far. You want to build suspense, but not at the cost of completely confusing your readers.

Do not Overstep

Writing a suspense story is a fine craft. It is crucial to build the feeling of suspense, but if you are not careful, you can create too much of it and it will lose its effect. Give your readers some calmness between the heaviest scenes, so they do not become overwhelmed with the suspense you have created.

Use Short Sentences

You should vary the length of your sentences throughout your story to have a good rhythm and flow and to avoid repetition. However, when you start writing the most suspenseful parts of your story, use short sentences to increase the pace and build anticipation.

Use Suspenseful Character Development

It is crucial to have strong character development in a suspense story. Do not be afraid to make a drastic change in a character’s situation mid-way through the story. Doing so can help to create drama and make your character more sympathetic and human. Some good ways to create suspense for characters include giving them flaws that threaten to derail their goals or successes, making a character take a step or two backward after making some progression and adding surprises or shocking information to their backstories.

Use Parallel Plotlines

Using parallel plotlines is a great literary device for instantly building suspense. As you write about two different events, your readers will automatically begin to wonder how the two storylines and their characters connect and why they do so. Your readers will be compelled to keep reading to find out how and why the two storylines connect.

Writing a suspense story does not need to be a daunting task. But, it does take a lot of forethought and planning. If you want to try your hand at writing a suspense story, start jotting down ideas and follow these tips. Before you know it, you will have a fantastic story that readers will not want to put down.

Book on fire

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