The art of suspenseful fiction

Keep readers on the edge of their seats with these eight pro tips.

Suspenseful Fiction
Learn pro tips to writing suspenseful fiction.

I recently finished writing a YA contemporary thriller, and as so often happens with a first draft, the story was there, but it wasn’t yet…thrilling. The suspense was MIA. That makes sense, though, because the first draft is where writers tell the story to themselves. Essentially, it’s them figuring stuff out. The next draft(s) are for other people, and that’s when the suspense really needs to ramp up as we tell the story to our readers. So, how can our revision processes crank up the suspense so that readers don’t dare put the book down?

Here are the strategies I’ve been using to good effect to make my thriller, well, thrilling.

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The power of clocks. There’s no time for a story to meander when some type of countdown is in play. Readers will continue to wonder: Will the hero make it in time? Will the problem be solved before [insert disaster that happens at a specific, promised time]? That wondering leads to worrying, and worrying leads to suspense. Go re-watch High Noon or reread Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None to see just how powerful a time constraint can be.

Trust the cliffhanger. USA Today bestselling author Don Bruns admits that he’s a fan of the late-great Edward Stratemeyer, one of the most prolific writers in the world (with 1,300+ books). “He had a simple but effective solution for keeping readers going,” Bruns says about the mind behind The Rover Boys, Nancy Drew, The Hardy Boys, The Bobbsey Twins, and more. “Every chapter ended with a cliffhanger.” Leave things unresolved at the end of a chapter, and readers HAVE to flip more pages to earn the resolution they crave.

Lie. Bruns points out that dialogue can also create suspense. How? Let your characters lie: “Little lies, big lies – the reader knows these are lies, and he wants to tell the person listening, ‘Hey, they’re LYING!’” What’s going to happen as a result of the lie? Is it going to be discovered soon? Those questions make readers really dig in.

And a related trick is to give characters a secret: Concealing truths is sure to create conflict, and when a hidden truth finally emerges? Wow, that’s potent stuff.

Too much is too much. Years ago, a kind-hearted editor wrote me a generous and helpful rejection for a story I’d submitted to a fantasy/sf magazine. In it, she explained that keeping everything at a fever pitch all the time is as fatal to a story as having no excitement or suspense at all. First and foremost, writers need to entertain, she wrote, so give them time to catch their breath before plunging headlong into the driving action and nail-biting moments. I followed her advice, and with my next story, I picked my moments to imperil the protagonist versus keep them in constant danger from start to finish. And I sold that story – my first professional fiction sale – as a result. 

Questions minus answers. Bestselling techno-thriller author David Hagberg builds on the cliffhanger idea by noting how writers can create suspense by posing a question to the reader and then not answering it right away. Not at the end of the chapter. And maybe not for many chapters. “But you can never, ever, ever, leave questions unanswered,” he warns. “At the very end, it all has to come together and meet at some central point.”

Puzzle readers. If the hero has to deal with a riddle, puzzle, or challenge – especially one that emerges from a series of clues – readers can’t wait to make their own guesses as they go. Think Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. Think Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Think the Tri-Wizard tournament in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and Goblet of Fire. Think National Treasure

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Controlling point of view. Plenty of writers love the ability to jump into the head of any character at any time. That’s terrific, to be sure, since you can set up a situation where the reader knows something a character doesn’t, and so we worry about them. But limiting your point of view to a single character creates a powerful immediacy that can pay off with a deeper sense of connection. Fear, worry, and emotion get more intense when we stick with the world of one character we’re deeply invested in. Leaping from one character to another forces the reader to (re)forge a sense of connection every single time. That’s a tall order, even for the most talented writers.

Surprise, surprise. To clarify – Surprise is giving the reader something they didn’t expect at all (versus suspense, which manipulates the reader’s existing expectations to good effect). Surprise is the secret weapon in my writer toolkit. For example, in my novel draft, I wanted a scene where the main character meets with a secretive world-class hacker in the middle of a Harry Potter convention to learn more about a mysterious government group called Prometheus. I had no idea that a black ops agent was going to use her sniper rifle to take out the hacker, right in the middle of a crowd of Hogwarts-costumed people, just as he was about to spill his secrets. Who’s going to stop reading when the hacker’s suddenly down for the count and the well-armed and clearly-deadly shooter gives chase to the main character through a crowd of Dumbledores and stumbles into a live Quidditch match? Not me as the writer. And not the reader, either, I’m guessing. Don’t go overboard with surprises. But one or two well-placed doozies can keep the story trucking along.

Real life isn’t all that suspenseful, so it’s understandable that early drafts of stories, too, aren’t chock full of reader-pleasing suspense. But if your revision process includes using time-tested tactics to engage readers and make them yearn to know more, your final drafts will be read in one breathless sitting, and readers will become fans who eagerly await your next story.

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Ryan G. Van Cleave is the author of 20 books and a frequent contributor to The Writer. Visit him at ryangvancleave.com and onlypicturebooks.com.