How to build suspense in fiction

8 mystery and thriller authors share tips on how to build suspense in fiction.

suspense writingAcross the genres, suspense novels hook readers from page one and keep them tearing through to the end. We asked mystery and thriller authors how to build suspense in fiction.

“Create an expectation in the readers for what’s going to happen next (let them think they’re ahead of the author) and then do something completely different. Then you have them in the palm of your hand for the rest of the book.”
— Blake Crouch, The Wayward Pines trilogy

“I plot the points on a board of when I reveal clues or information to the reader, so I can visually see that I’m not releasing too much too soon. And I always increase the personal stakes chapter by chapter. I’ve had the same sticky note on my plot board for several years that says, ‘Give the characters sucky and suckier choices.’”
— Kendra Elliot, Vanished

“End every chapter with tension. It keeps the reader engaged and turning to the next page.”
— Linda Fairstein, Terminal City

“Tension is best when it’s inherent. You build the story on a fracture line and the tension will rise and rise with the action. Your character is a doctor? She likes killing people. Detective? Crooked, incompetent or mad. Spy? Compromised. Composer? Recently-damaged brain, now interprets sound as scent. You cannot tell stories about those characters without gathering tension. They cannot so much as walk the dog without crisis. Which means you have leisure to go where you want, to work with identity, tone, themes and emotion. You have space to make your audience care.”
— Nick Harkaway, Tigerman

“It’s a matter of thinking my way into the book and into the action. It’s also hard work.”
— J.A. Jance, Remains of Innocence

“The old-fashioned cliffhanger at the end of the chapter is still a great strategy. Edgar Rice Burroughs would set up two narrative threads and alternate between them, so that you had to rush through chapter two to get chapter three’s resolution of chapter one’s cliffhanger. This technique really drives a reader through a story. Still, suspense only works if we care about the characters. An incredibly dangerous situation involving a character we care little for is rather a waste of the imagination.”
— Max Allan Collins, Supreme Justice

“Building suspense is dependent upon a turning point (or turning points) in the story. The turning point is basically that critical moment when your protagonist must make a choice that will ultimately take him in two very different directions. That is the moment when (hopefully) the reader cannot put down the book because he must know which decision, which direction, your protagonist is going to take.”
— Linda Castillo, The Dead Will Tell

“Give readers a character they care about and want to see survive. Once you have that, everything else will follow.”
— Tim Weaver, Fall from Grace

This was originally published in the October 2014 issue of The Writer.