Approaches to Building Suspense

gardenia Creating “Page-Turner Novels” was and still is my writing goal. In reviews, readers have complimented me for creating a good story and holding their  attention. (That is very satisfying.)

As I continue to improve my writing craft I have read several books. One that I would recommend is The Marshall Plan for NOVEL WRITING by Evan Marshall. He provides some excellent tools which helped me understand viewpoint writing and the proper sequence within the novel. I use a form of that now to plan my novels and to record the actual chapter detail and story progress. Here is what I do:

Storyline – Create a story that immediately has the element of fear attached

Twists – Lead the reader down one path only to have it be a dead end

High Stakes – Let the consequences be the worst possible…loss of lives

Time Consequences – Make finding the killer an immediate need, or lives will be lost

Protagonist – A person with high values, but with weaknesses

Antagonist – A person with psychological problems, but very intelligent

Chapters – Focus on short sentences and chapters to keep the reader reading

Senses – Consider touching on each of the five senses in each chapter

View Points – Establish no more than seven other perspectives written in 3rd person

Share – Give the reader the advantage of getting inside the antagonist’s head

Knowledge – Let the reader see the danger coming that the protagonist does not

Approach – Heighten the reader’s fear by writing the protagonist in 1st person

Chapter Sequence – Ping Pong to each view point character advancing the story

The first thing I focus on is the plot. I spend many weeks kicking around a story in my head, making some notes as I go. In that process, I continually ask myself, how can I create more tension? Since I’m writing about people being kidnapped and killed, I focus on the killer. Killers are really bad people – how can I compound that? Serial killers are even worse because they have psychological problems, and women serial killers are even more terrible as they can hide behind their beauty. I think you get the idea.

Just the thought of a serial killer being in the novel sets the reader’s expectation of danger and therefore fear, resulting in suspense. Reinforcing those with high stakes consequences – people’s lives in jeopardy, the added pressure of time running out to stop the killer or killers, along with the knowledge of what the antagonist thinks, feels, and is planning to do increases the reader’s anxiety. I couple that with a protagonist who lacks the credentials to prevent things from happening which creates the reader’s interest and excitement to turn the pages to see how it possibly could turn out okay.

One thing that also comes to mind is that people can react differently to an object. An example is the ocean. People think about how pleasant it is. However, for the people who saw the movie Jaws…it forever changed that. From that point on there was a fear of the danger present in the ocean. Add the music before the shark attacks and people were on the edge of their seats, or blocking their eyes. I try to employ the same technique by taking red hair and the scent of gardenia, which are normally not at all offensive, and tie them to the female killer. When either of those are present the reader is immediately suspect and on guard.

Some writers create a powerful and experienced protagonist. My novels have an amateur who should not be involved in investigations and who couldn’t possibly save others, let alone himself. That approach instills an added fear that he is in danger and makes the reader want to protect him.

I couple that with an antagonist who has significant psychological problems. However, he/she is very intelligent and executes well-developed plans managing to stay one step ahead of the authorities. The reader fears that when the antagonist’s path intersects with the protagonist, or his love interest, he isn’t going to be equipped to save either of them.

To heighten the suspense I use short sentences and short chapters. Another key approach is sharing vantage points in each chapter, ping-ponging from one Point-of-View, or viewpoint character, to the next. This leaves the reader wondering what is happening in that scene while reading the next totally different scene with a different character. (Lynne Cantwell mentioned this in her recent post about cliffhangers.) That also heightens the reader’s anxiety to keep them turning the pages to learn what happens next.

I also bring the reader into the story by describing what they hear and smell, what they want to touch but are unable to, and what they sense is coming but can’t see, because they are blindfolded and restrained. One reader commented that “…on several occasions smells described overwhelmed me…” That is an important statement because I try to put the reader into the story. How? I use first person (“I”) for the protagonist. The reader is now the protagonist and what is happening, or going to happen, is now directed at the reader. All the other chapters are written in third person (he/she).

The most powerful of those other characters is the antagonist. The reader witnesses the antagonist’s thinking, motives, plans, feelings, and reactions. One reader’s comment was, “I love how several chapters are told through the viewpoint of the killer, letting the reader get into the killer’s head and understand their motivations.” This I feel creates more reader anxiety, fear and suspense.

Create suspense (anxiety) by using fear (presence of danger), heightened by the reader’s brain reacting to the five senses and obviously without any way to warn the protagonist. The reader expects the suspense novel to end in a positive manner, but given their awareness of the details they do not know how that is possible. Danger is truly coming, the consequences are real, lives are in jeopardy, and unfortunately time is running out for the protagonist who is the reader, or in this case YOU!

The definition of suspense will vary from reader to reader and author to author. One thing they will agree upon, however, is that the right amount of suspense will hold a reader’s attention from cover to cover. And that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it?

Author: Dick C. Waters

Dick C Waters is a Contributing Author for Indies Unlimited and author of the Scott Tucker mystery novels; Branded for Murder, Serial Separation, Scent of Gardenia and Fragrance of Revenge (soon to be published). For more information please see his Author Central Page

34 thoughts on “Approaches to Building Suspense”

  1. Thanks, Dick.

    “View Points – Establish no more than seven other perspectives written in 3rd person.”

    As a reader, I find it difficult to follow novels that include too many characters. I forget names, and I have to skip back pages to refresh my memory. It’s especially problematic when I’m reading something in spurts over several days. Take those characters and write from their perspectives? Even more confusing.

    1. I totally agree with you on novels with too many names.
      What I try to do is to include other logical characters; love interest, obviously the antagonist, a friend, and where appropriate another investigator. I kept the first three novels under five, but in Fragrance of Revenge I went up to six including two other interesting characters.
      This is just how I do it, but might not be comfortable for you or other writers..

  2. I agree with you about the PoV shifts within a chapter, Dick, but I’d caution folks to be careful of head-hopping. It’s a good idea to confine a scene to a single PoV character. Otherwise, great tips. 🙂

    1. I totally agree. To clarify my viewpoint characters – that chapter is written from the standpoint of that viewpoint character. There could be other participants, but no head hopping within the chapter.

  3. Good pointers Dick. I recently learned how to introduce mind audio into my work. I write fantasy, but I can see it working in mysteries/thrillers. When you referred to the music from Jaws, it made me think of it. Think about that particular track, now make that work in words. It does add color, and additional excitement. Patterson head- hops and does it well, it is tricky and many authors stay away from it, although It can be done.

    1. aronjoice, hi, i did a google search for mind audio & didn’t get anything much; i’m assuming it’s like interior thought? but could you say a bit more about it? thanks, sounds like an interesting concept

      1. Felipe, I will try to find the post that I read from S. Larkin on LinkedIn. Basically, we tend to eliminate sound descriptions that can enhance the story. She used this example: in a motion picture, when a scene is about to reach a high point, or explode, the music amplifies and we know things are about to happen. We actually feel through the sound.Yes, we can do that with our words, she describes how to make those words translate effectively so we, the reader are actually hearing it in our heads. I’ll contact you when I find it. I am certainly not doing justice to the piece.

        Sorry to intrude Dick.

          1. Ahhh, great! Thank you 😉

            Did a quick glance, very intensive with lots of examples; am going back to it – meanwhile really liked this :

            “Storytelling is about making connections between characters, places, ideas, and experiences. It isn’t enough for a sound to be merely loud or high fidelity, or digital. It needs to remind you of, resonate with, other sounds places, feelings, in other times.”

    2. One of the things a liked about Patterson’s Alex Cross mysteries, is that they had very short chapters. He’s the model I used for my writing style.

  4. “I use first person (“I”) for the protagonist. The reader is now the protagonist and what is happening, or going to happen, is now directed at the reader. All the other chapters are written in third person (he/she).” –

    i like that clarification, thanks!

    also, re shifting pov’s, i may sometimes wish i’d been able to continue reading with a pov character that’s caught my interest, but the chapter shifting does create variety and interest

    head-hopping is almost always condemned, but i’ve also read articles (and stories) where, with the right transitional narrative, it works fine; as usual, i guess it’s all in how it’s done 😉

    best wishes dick, thanks!

    1. You’re most welcome Felipe. I get a few reader reviews that keep me going. I do like Evan Marshall’s book. Thanks for the best wishes, and same to you!

  5. I would counsel against swallowing systems whole… and especially that “protagonist/antagonist” thing. I have advised writers to drop those words from their vocabulary for good reasons. Very limited and can interfere with the story you are trying to write. Around screenwriting you REALLY see people hamstrung by that old Greek critical terminology (NOT, as I point out, terminology of writers for creation, but for analysis after the fact).
    The idea that the antagonist mus have psychological problems is EXTREMELY self-limiting. Hell, the antagonist might be the GOOD GUY, the only sane one around. Example: Wolf of Wall Street.
    SO MANY stories and suspense situations don’t fit these handcuffs. Love stories/romances almost never do. Frequently the two main characters have the same goal, but are hampered by outside forces. Stories of two rivals don’t work according to that schema. And I don’t think it requires much reflection to see that the possibilities for suspense when two people vie for the same thing (a love object, for instance) are much greater when you don’t have to “pick sides”, but have two different struggles going on. Example: 13th Warrior. Leaving Cheyenne or The Embezzler (THREE equal characters interacting)
    Frankly, I have never seen a single advantage to the writer from casting things in pro/antagonist or “three act structure”, but you see tons of advice on the subject.
    What I’m saying is… when picking up systems from others, be really careful and picky.
    Oh, and I’m also saying, don’t use words like protagonist and antagonist because they just mess you up without helping you.

    1. Thanks for sharing. I am still learning this craft and your advice will help.
      I’m sure there are many different approaches to novel writing, but I hope readers will appreciate my approach to creating suspense in these serial-killer novels.

    1. That’s pretty intersting post, all right. (He seems to have missed the fact that Salander and Bella are female, but nonetheless). The problem with it, like so many of the “how to be a best-seller” posts and ebooks, is that it’s basically saying “don’t write the book in your head and your heart, write this book instead”. If you’re a black woman, better start boning up on white male mentality, if you are a Faulkner or Joyce fan, better get with the program and write chunklets like Hemingway, etc. More valid, I’d say, that all those “base your book on anal-ized keywords” texts, but what it comes down to is, “what are you taking the time to write a novel for”?

      1. I thought he mentioned about Bella being a woman.

        No matter how we write, the reader is the best judge of whether they like what they are reading, or better, what they read.
        Beyond the feeling of accomplishment, I’m hoping some readers tell someone else about a book they read…hopefully one of them will be mine.

  6. Great post, Dick, with lots of good, solid advice. On the one hand it is important to build each story within an understandable framework/structure, especially for new writers. On the other hand, it is also important to write the story you want to tell. I think what you’ve done here is point out something very significant for all writers: to be able to break the rules, we first have to learn them,

    1. My boss and I used to joke about good news and bad news – ‘I was detailed.’
      Chris, thanks for the comments and for your input. That is what Indies Unlimited is all about.

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