A plethora of blood and gore does not a good thriller make. It’s the suspense, rising and rising, until you can hardly stand it—that’s what keeps readers turning page after page. They are dying to see what will happen.
Suspense can be a tricky writing tool to master. It takes a certain touch of delicacy because you must strike the right balance of intrigue and result, and stretch it out long enough to keep a reader interested, but not quite so long that they get bored. While this takes practice, these tips should help you along the right path.
Write interesting characters.
This sounds basic, I know. But too many heroes are all good. No one can relate to that. On that same token, your hero still has to be likeable, so make sure the good in them will outweigh the bad in the eyes of a reader. Why must the hero be likeable? Because we have to care about them. If we don’t care about the character, we won’t care what happens to them. If we don’t care what happens to them, why continue reading the book?
When it comes to villains, they can’t be all bad either. No one is evil for evil’s sake. They need to see themselves as the hero, making the hard decisions. If there is some sort of logic behind their actions, a story that can be sympathized with, they’ll be all the more frightening. If you need more advice on writing a villain, check out this post. It’s specific to female villains, but the logic applies across the board.
Additionally, avoid stock characters. Mary Sues might be an effective way to get the reader to imagine themselves in the character’s place, but they’re boring. So are regurgitations of characters found in stories told across platforms. The Evil Stepmother. The Western Hero. The Young Rebel. Having trouble avoiding stock characters? Take one and subvert it.
Foreshadow what is to come.
Suspense is not built by going blind into the story. Big events coming out of nowhere are shocking, but do not build suspense. Leave breadcrumbs. Have the hero go over their plan, so the readers can anticipate how it will go awry. Then have the villain plan a trap and watch the hero unwittingly walk right into it.
You can also foreshadow setting. To fully experience the suspense, rich details are important, but in the height of action, they can be jarring and pull the reader out of the story. Have the characters visit the setting of the climactic scene early in the story. Describe it in full detail so later the audience can envision it when they return.
There is some trust that goes with deep descriptions. If you spend the time describing something specific, it goes from innocuous to important in the minds of the reader. Whatever it is that you’re describing must become central to the plot later on. Their minds will go wild, trying to piece together how it happened. Do not disappoint them.
Readers want to guess what will happen, but they want to be wrong. They want to be surprised and intrigued at every turn. Best-selling author of Plot & Structure, James Scott Bell, suggested two exercises in his guest post with Writer’s Digest.
The first suggested exercise was to write down three things that could happen in the scene, then toss them and do something different. The second is to make a list of at least ten wrenches you could throw into the scene and pick the most surprising or unique one, and figure out how to make it work.
Switch it up.
Consistent danger or tension will desensitize the reader to it. Intersperse scenes of calm to heighten their senses again, for they know it can’t last long. Give the hero small wins to make their failures all the more dramatic. Have them make worse and worse decisions, all while trying to reach their goal, to escape from their fate at the hands of the villain. This builds the suspense more.
In his blog, best-selling author of the Three Worlds fantasy cycle, Ian Irvine, explained that if you were to rate each scene from one to ten on how suspenseful it is, your story should look like a zig-zagging line climbing up to the story’s climax, then tapering off as the story reaches its resolution.