You have an excellent idea for a suspense novel.
But getting that story onto the page and keeping your readers at the edge of their seats is more challenging than you thought.
It’s plenty suspenseful in your head. But when you write it out, something is missing.
Welcome to Authority Pub’s guide on how to write suspense — with everything you need to know about creating suspense for your readers and nothing you don’t.
You’ll be back to writing that future best seller in no time.
Types of Suspense
There are five basic types of suspense in literature, all of which you should know if you’re writing a suspense story. Knowing the types can help you identify the ones used most frequently by your favorite suspense authors.
The two types of suspense that every suspenseful story should have are narrative (or long-term) suspense and short-term suspense.
Narrative suspense is about your story’s central issue. It builds as your story progresses.
With narrative suspense, you present a problem or mystery at the beginning, lead your reader through a variety of discoveries related to it, and end the story with a resolution that surprises and satisfies your reader.
Short-term suspense piques your reader’s curiosity with smaller surprises and mysteries throughout your story.
One way to build short-term suspense is to create mini cliffhangers at the end of each chapter.
The next three types of suspense add interest, but they’re not essential to every suspense story:
7 Key Elements of Suspense Story Writing
Building suspense is impossible without an understanding of its elements. The list of ways to create suspense can grow the longer we think about it.
But for the purpose of delivering the goods without taking too much of your time, we’ll distill them into seven key elements:
1. Strong Characters
Your story needs a likeable main character, a compelling villain, and a supporting cast your readers will care about or at least find interesting.
If your protagonist comes off as a whiny, self-obsessed brat or a self-righteous prig, your reader will most likely tune out and reach for another book.
And if your villain doesn’t present much of a challenge to your hero, your reader won’t be in suspense about the story’s outcome.
There should be no throwaway characters in a suspense story. Each one has a role to play in either the conflict or its resolution (or both). Give your reader a reason to care about what happens to each one of them. And give them a reason to be anxious about them.
2. Conflict or Dilemma
No one wants to read about characters who want something and end up getting it because nothing stands in their way. It only gets interesting when they have to overcome some challenge to get to or accomplish the thing they want.
For example, Frodo has to take the One Ring to Mt. Doom to destroy it, but many dangerous obstacles stand in his way. If Gimli’s axe had destroyed the ring in Rivendell, the story would have ended too quickly. And it never would have made it to the theater.
Call the central issue what you want — the conflict, the dilemma, the big question. It’s the main problem your hero has to face and somehow resolve.
But smaller conflicts and dilemmas (e.g., Saruman’s betrayal, the Uruk Hai, Gollum, etc.) are essential to creating short-term suspense. And those smaller problems should somehow relate to the big one.
To maintain a brisk enough pace to hold your reader’s attention, keep the story moving with short-term suspense and sentences that reveal necessary information without drowning it in nonessential details.
Suspense stories typically don’t have long, rambling sentences with elaborate description. That said, it’s okay if your first draft has content your story doesn’t need. That’s what editing is for.
The drafting stage is where you get your story onto the page, without worrying that it’s nowhere near what it needs to be for your reader.
The revision stage is where you’ll trim and refine each sentence and each chapter to create and maintain the brisk pace essential to a suspense story.
4. High Stakes
What are the stakes for your hero, and why should the reader care? What are the stakes for the villain? What terrible thing could happen that the reader should want the hero to avoid?
And what is the villain doing or saying that makes that terrible outcome more likely?
Maybe they have competing desires, but the villain, at first, is more invested in pursuing their interest than the hero is in pursuing theirs. So, the villain scores some wins at the hero’s expense.
The hero then needs to decide what they’re willing to do to go after what they want. What risks are they willing to take? And how will their successes affect the villain?
The villain could also force the hero into a corner, leaving them with an impossible choice to make that will have lifelong consequences.
5. Red Herrings and Rabbit Holes (Deceive Your Reader in a Way They Like)
Also essential to building suspense is knowing how much information to withhold from the reader — and how you can use red herrrings to trick them into focusing on the wrong suspect.
Both withholding and bread-crumbing information can lead your reader down a rabbit hole and keep them guessing about the central mystery or the looming threat.
This is a good thing, as long as you don’t break any promises to them. Once you promise to reveal something, to answer a question, to fix a problem, you’d better make good on it.
Tease them with possibilties, but don’t make a promise you don’t intend to keep.
You can also reveal information to your reader that the main character doesn’t know yet, allowing them to watch while the hero walks right into a trap.
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The setting is one of your most important characters. And sticking to essential details is as essential to your story’s intrigue as it is to its pace.
And if you’re using any atmospheric details as foreshadowing (the next element), you don’t want to hide them in a pile of nonessential details.
Think of those details as atmospheric dialogue. Don’t bore your reader with meaningless small talk. Every word should earn its place. That’s true whether those details are there for foreshadowing, to provide clues, or to make an emotional impact.
Give your reader the details that mean something and add to the story. Leave the rest to their imagination.
By definition, foreshadowing is hinting at what’s to come, whether you use atmospheric details, interesting turns of phrase, or events that relate to what’s coming.
Details from a character’s past, revealed in dialogue, can also provide useful hints.
The purpose of foreshadowing is to get your reader thinking, “What could this mean?” and to make them worry about your hero or about what could happen to them.
You want each foreshadowing detail to draw them deeper into the story and make them feel more invested in your characters — especially your hero.
Your reader might not pick up on all of them at first. But as they go deeper, things happen that remind them of those foreshadowing clues. And whatever happens makes more sense, or it has a deeper meaning. It compounds the suspense.
It also rewards your reader for paying attention.
Examples of Suspense in Writing
To illustrate how this works, let’s review some popular suspense writing examples:
Example #1: And Then There Were None, by Agatha Christie
Ten invited guests are stranded on an island estate. Each receives an accusatory message about a closely-guarded secret. And every night, one of them dies.
The reader is left wondering who the murderer is, why they’re killing those specific people, and whether anyone will survive.
So, aside from the long-term and short-term suspense, Christie used mysterious suspense (“Who’s the murderer?”) and horrific suspense (“Who will die next?”).
Example #2: Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte
Rochester is keeping a secret from Jane and from the reader, who are both left to wonder who roamed the hallways at night, torched Rochester’s bed, and tore Jane’s wedding veil.
We find out when Jane does — on her wedding day. After that, when Jane leaves, we’re left to wonder what will happen to Rochester, and whether he and Jane will ultimately end up together (romantic suspense).
Scenes in each season give viewers a preview of what’s coming but without giving them enough detail, creating suspense about the upcoming tragedy (horrific suspense) amd the identity of the victim (mysterious suspense).
As viewers, we know bad things are coming, but we don’t know the who, the when, the how, or the why. And after the tragedy hits, we’re left in suspense about the outcome for each of the characters.
Are you ready to create your own elements of suspense for your next story?
Now that you know how to create suspense in your story, which types of suspense are you most likely to use?
Once you know how to build suspense, you can make your story impossible to put down. And as long as you give each element of suspense its due, you can make your story impossible to forget — relatable, deeply affecting, and meaningful to your reader.
To get started, jot down some ideas for each of the types of suspense. And make sure your story idea includes all the elements.
Give your readers a story worth waiting for.