As an editor I have read and edited a variety of fiction manuscripts. The creativity of many of the writers and the wide range of story lines is very interesting. But one thing (among others) I sometimes find is the lack of sufficient suspense. The story drags; the story, well, it flat lines. Here are a few tips on creating suspense in your novels.
1. Leave your reader hanging – at the end of the chapter is a good place because it not only raises the reader’s interest, it gets him or her reading the next chapter. Here is an example from my mystery novel Beyond Faith.
“From what Sister Olsen had told me about her brothers, I had some idea what might be bothering Eli. Too bad neither Eli Foster nor I had all the facts.”
2. Ask a question. You know the old saying “questions are the signs of intelligence.” Questions also make the reader want to continue to get some answers. These are questions in the narrative, the character’s inner thoughts, not in dialogue. Obviously in dialogue, another character will usually answer the question although they might lie.
Again from Beyond Faith, “Who were they? And why did one seem familiar?” (all Beyond Faith excerpts, copyright 2017, Sharon A. Crawford, published by Blue Denim Press.)
3. Don’t tell all at once. Keep some information from the reader. I do a lot of this in Beyond Faith. The idea is you build up your plot with tidbits even if the character knows more than she is letting on. This is just the opposite from the example in point one above.
4. Use foreshadowing.This is often in conjunction with another technique. Again, see the example in point one above. Another example of foreshadowing is when the character is heading for an encounter they don’t relish. Perhaps with someone they don’t like and know is a nasty person. Build up the tension by getting inside the character’s head. How does the character feel? Scared? Are they sweating? Do they try to avoid meeting this character or delay the meeting by driving the long way to the meeting place. If it is in a restaurant, do they drink a lot, drop the cutlery, knock over a glass of water?
5. Or as a twist, the person is overly confident about meeting someone – a piece of cake, the character thinks. Then, wham, when they get to the meeting place, something happens – a car runs her down; someone takes a shot at her. She finds the person there all right at the meeting place – lying dead on the ground. You can tell I write mystery novels.
6. One suspense-building technique that I use is to have two main characters both heading for the same place at the same time – maybe one knows the other is there; maybe not. But one or both of them know that there is danger at the other end. Each one is racing to get there and perhaps save the other. You flip back and forth between the characters in separate scenes or short chapters. Show the reader what each character is thinking and what is happening to them. And don’t make it easy. In Beyond Faith I have PI Dana Bowman following Eli Foster in their respective cars; then I flip over to her fraternal twin, Pi Bast Overture who is not following anyone, but he has found out vital information about another character and figures out what this character is going to do so he is off to stop it. And no, I don’t tell all to the reader. And I’m not telling you any more here.
There are many more ways to create suspense. The twisted plot is one. And you can get ideas by reading published novels, the ones that do build suspense. Yes some crappy novels get published and I am not referring to self-published here.
And keep writing and rewriting, rewriting, rewriting.
And join a writing critique group for feedback.
And when you have rewritten a lot, hire an editor.
Then you can do some more rewriting.
I just started reading Hunting Muskie, a collection of literary short stories by Michael Robert Dyet (Blue Denim Press, fall 2017 – yes, same publisher as me). The first story “Slipstream”, has many plot threads popping up – all connected to a theme. And it keeps you reading. It also breaks the idea that some people have (mea culpa sometimes here) – that all literary stories don’t contain suspense.This one sure does have suspense.
Happy reading and happy writing.
Sharon A. Crawford