The Suspense is Killing Me: How to Use Suspense

Suspense permeates every genre and story out there. It can be felt long after the novel has been put down and well into the night.

It’s a feeling of unease because we know something terrible will happen if that character doesn’t find the murderer, defuse the bomb, or overcome their hangups and miss out on the love of their life. And us writers love to use that feeling of uncertainty to make our readers flip pages as fast as they can.

Last time we talked about the suspense genre, and today we will talk about that crucial element that makes that novel type, well, suspenseful. Let’s dive in, shall we?

What is Suspense?

First off, let’s start with our definition:

Suspense: is the intense feeling an audience goes through while waiting for the outcome of certain events.

In essence, suspense is what makes us stay up until three in the morning, turning pages as quickly as we can. However, suspense isn’t a mystery. As Alfred Hitchcock once said:

“There is a great confusion especially in my particular job between the words mystery and suspense. The two things are absolutely miles apart. Mystery is an intellectual process guessing “who’ve done it?” But suspense is essentially an emotional process.”

Why is Suspense Important?

According to L. Ron Hubbard, in an essay titled Suspense, this literary device is “the most intangible thing in this business of writing” – aside from getting paid, that is. He also states: “suspense, or rather the lack of it, is probably responsible for more rejects than telling an editor he is wrong.”

If this is the case, how come most writers easily overlook suspense? Well, sometimes we forget because we’re too worried about all of the other essential story elements, such as character development or adding more action to our plot.

However, suspense is an essential tool regardless of what genre we’re writing in. It doesn’t have to be blatant, like in a horror, mystery, or thriller novel. It can be subtle, like in most romance novels. You need to incite anxiety in the reader that things may not work out.

The 4 Elements of Suspense

4 Elements of Suspense Infographic

Overall, there are four factors necessary for creating suspense: reader empathy, reader concern, impending danger, and escalating tension. According to Writer’s Digest, this is why these four things are essential:

“We create reader empathy by giving the character a desire, wound, or internal struggle that readers can identify with. The more they empathize, the closer their connection with the story will be. Once they care about and identify with a character, readers will be invested when they see the character struggling to get what he most desires.

We want readers to worry about whether or not the character will get what he wants. Only when readers know what the character wants will they know what’s at stake. And only when they know what’s at stake will they be engaged in the story. To get readers more invested in your novel, make clear: 1) What your character desires (love, freedom, adventure, forgiveness, etc.); 2) what is keeping him from getting it; and 3) what terrible consequences will result if he doesn’t get it.

Suspense builds as danger approaches. Readers experience apprehension when a character they care about is in peril. This doesn’t have to be a life-and-death situation. Depending on your genre, the threat may involve the character’s physical, psychological, emotional, spiritual, or relational well-being. Whatever your genre, show that something terrible is about to happen—then postpone the resolution to sustain the suspense.

We need to escalate the tension in our stories until it reaches a satisfying climax. Raise the stakes by making the danger more imminent, intimate, personal, and devastating. So, if the moon explodes in Act 1, the entire galaxy better be at risk by Act 3. If tension doesn’t escalate, the suspense you’ve been developing will evaporate.”

How to Use Suspense in Your Writing

Instead of listening to me blather on, I decided to include this video on how to make your writing more suspenseful (thanks, TED-Ed):

Here are some additional ways to add more suspense to your story:

Make big promises and follow through on them.

You want to follow the principle of Chekov’s Gun. And the rule means whatever you promise in act one of your story must happen by act three. In other words, don’t make false promises that you won’t keep; it’ll make readers angry.

Why? Because it isn’t suspense – it’s a disappointment. And we never ever want to disappoint our readers.

So don’t introduce things that are irrelevant to your story and the things you do? Please make sure they matter and fulfill your reader’s expectations in some way.

Put characters in jeopardy or dilemmas.

Readers want their favorite characters to succeed. They’ve invested in the well-being of that character, and if they’re in trouble, that reader will furiously flip pages to make sure they make it out okay.

It means that writers need to put those characters in positions where they might fail over and over again. Push those characters to the brink only to have them come out relatively unscathed in the end.

And it’s that cycle of problems and solutions that keep readers at the edge of their seats. It creates suspense.

Characters can tell the reader their plans.

You don’t need an omniscient point of view to build suspense. By limiting your character’s (and reader’s) viewpoint, you can transfer your character’s anxiety onto the reader. It’s not giving your secrets away, but more like hinting at what’s to come.

Murder and violence isn’t suspense.

The more violence there is, the less it will mean. Why? Because murder is not suspense. Abduction with the threat of a murder is.

This isn’t a hard-and-fast rule because of the different genres. For example:

In a mystery, you might find out that a person was beheaded. This occurs before the narrative begins, so the focus of the story is on solving the crime. If you’re writing a horror story, you’ll show the beheading itself—in all of its gory detail. If you’re writing a suspense novel, the characters will find out someone will be beheaded, and they must find a way to stop it.

Time constraints can create suspense.

Let’s say your character needs to disarm a bomb in five hours or else. Oh, and the bomb is placed in the middle of a bustling public place with lots of foot traffic, and our protagonist is color blind.

By putting that time constraint and a few other obstacles in your character’s way, your reader should be a ball of anxiety over whether that deadline will be met.

However, you want to ensure your time constraint isn’t hindering character or plot development. It will also need to fit into the story’s escalation.

Use secrets and withhold information.

You can take many directions with this one, and it’s excellent for adding suspense to your story. Hinting at something that happened before in a flashback or what will happen is another superb way to bring tension into your tale.

I’ll take an example from my own writing.

My main character’s best friend, Cassandra, is a sexual assault survivor. However, Cassandra’s love interest doesn’t know this because she won’t open up about it with him.

It creates many problems in their relationship, making the reader question whether these two will get together. I also haven’t revealed what exactly was done to her, again making readers wonder if Cassandra’s trauma can be easily overcome.

Foreshadowing is your friend.

Foreshadowing is a good friend to have when writing suspense. Readers love to go back and reread a book to find all of the little clues and hints you dropped along the way to the climax.

And if you’re foreshadowing is more heavy-handed, it can create a feeling of unease in your reader because they may or may not know how you will get to that foreshadowed moment.

Use multiple viewpoints and plot lines.

Switching viewpoints can leave readers guessing, mostly when you leave one character in a juicy moment. Running two plot lines simultaneously, while promising they will converge, will keep readers engaged as well. How you present this information, and when, will have a significant impact on suspense.

Suspense is the backbone of every good novel because it hooks readers into giving our book a chance. It makes them toss and turn, thinking about what-ifs. What if the character didn’t make it out of that fight alive?

And it’s those types of questions that bring in the doubt and uncertainty we need to make big promises and hint at secrets and things to come. Without suspense and the roller coaster of emotions that go with it, we wouldn’t have a story.

It would be like reading a page out of someone’s diary. And as interesting as that may be, it’s not the escape most readers are looking for. They want to be in some fantastic place where anything is possible, and the unknown lurks behind every corner.

How have you used suspense in your writing? Is there anything that I missed?

Stay safe, everyone.

Until next time.



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Danielle Adams

Danielle Adams

Danielle Adams is a writer and editor for a local marketing agency. She has formerly worked as a writer for the Investing News Network and as an editor for Whetstone, a bi-annually published literary magazine. Aside from writing, Danielle has an unabiding love for all marine life and the outdoors. She loves taking long hikes with her husband and cooking delicious meals in the kitchen.


14 Responses

  1. I haven’t read all of the post, but I will offer that we absolutely need what the CHARACTERS are experiencing by what they do and say, to give the reader a feeling of suspense, or any other feeling.

  2. The cliche image of suspense limits our ability to apply it in our writing, because we are used to thinking of it in terms of the mystery, when the character, alone in a darkened house, is drawing nearer to the closet door, which was NOT slightly cracked open just 5 minutes before, and now they’re intend on opening it the rest of the way.

    1. Mysteries use suspense in an obvious way, and it has definitely led to our cliche image of what suspense is. Alfred Hitchcock, Edgar Allen Poe and Arthur Conan Doyle, among many others, further compounded that image with the popularity of their works.

      I just find it interesting that most people forget that there is suspense in every genre.

      1. “What will happen?” When the reader gets itchy with that question, we have suspense. Remember the original Alien movie, when Ripley was in the escape shuttle, and we can’t believe the alien is gone. Then it appears! She gets into the space suit while the thing is 10 feet away. Will it close in before she’s ready to spring her final surprise? Is the cat okay? WHAT is she going to do for her final surprise? We’re asking ourselves, and watching, closely, forgetting to breathe.
        Turn on the TV in the reader’s mind, and they go through that, only more so.
        It’s an act of creation no matter what genre you’re working in. It, like everything else, is supposed to bring the story to life in that ssme reader’s mind.

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