Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Injecting Suspense Into Your Novel

This past weekend I attended my local SCBWI spring conference in Lansing, MI. It was all kinds of awesome. There were SO MANY great lectures and workshops and this is especially amazing because it was only a one day conference!

THE Jay Asher gave an inspiring talk on his 12 year path to publication. Seriously, 12 years! And how he held onto the idea that would become his first published book for something like 8 years before he finally came up with the perfect story to execute it. (If you haven't read his NYT Bestselling book Thirteen Reasons Why yet, you really should.)

But Kristi talked about inspiration yesterday, so I'll tackle something else. Suspense. Because you see, Jay Asher wasn't just there to tell us not to give up, he was there to teach.

One of your goals as a writer should be to keep your readers reading. Make your book un-put-downable. Don't give them convenient stopping places because they might not remember to pick it back up!


We learn over time what happened to cause the situation the MC is in. Usually this type of story begins with the major event already having happened to the main character and throughout the story we learn bits and pieces of what lead up to that event, OR the main character is thrust into a new situation and as the story progresses we uncover the reasons why.

books that do this well: Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher, Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson, Holes by Louis Sachar

BEWARE of gimmicky slow reveals. It can be difficult to pull this off without making the reader feel duped. A story like Speak works because the MC is too traumatized to even think about what happened. But if a reader gets 3/4 of the way through the book and discovers that even though they've been inside the MC's head the entire time the MC never once let on that they knew exactly what happened the reader will be frustrated. Wondering why didn't the MC just say so in the first place.

Forcing the reader to flip pages faster and faster builds tension.
One way to do this is Pacing:
When things get tense/exciting, use shorter sentences and paragraphs.
White space on the page makes readers feel like they're moving through the book faster.
So that big, action-packed chase scene?
Don't fill it with long, winding, literary descriptions and huge blocks of fifteen line paragraphs.
See? Dialogue can also speed things up this way.

This goes for emotionally suspenseful moments too. If a character is about to learn that her dad is having an affair, that can be every bit as tension-filled as fighting off a zombie attack.

BEWARE being obvious about this. It should be undetectable, so save it for the moments when it really is tense and use it to ENHANCE those moments, not to make your boring chapter about going to the dentist feel more exciting. (Because unless that dentist is a ninja assassin, it's not.)

The end of a chapter is not the end of an episode/scene/event, it's the promise of something more. Let me repeat that because it's worth hearing twice: The end of a chapter is not the end of an episode/scene/event, it's the PROMISE OF SOMETHING MORE.

Ways to do this:
- What just grabbed me?!? (Think: A character walks into a dark room, he hears a sound, turns and something grabs his shoulder. He thinks OMG! What just grabbed me? And the chapter ends.) - This is a fairly cheap way to get the reader to turn the page. (According to Jay, all of the Goosebumps books work this way, but I haven't verified this.)

BEWARE: The problem with this type of cliffhanger is that it only encourages the reader to read the next few sentences to find out what grabbed the MC. Once they're read that, they can stop. This is often used when the reveal is not that exciting, like in the example I used, the beginning of the next chapter would reveal that it was just his friend that grabbed him, not some hideous monster, they would both laugh at how scared they were and the tension would be gone. Too many of these will disappoint your reader and they start to believe your book is just a bunch of cheap parlor tricks.

- Cut the Action Early - This causes anxiety in the reader. It's similar to the above example but instead it occurs in the middle of an event like a confrontation, fight or chase scene. The reader simply has to read the next chapter and find out what happens next.

- Hint at Stories To Come - This builds anticipation. If you wrap up a major event in a chapter, make sure that the end of that event sets up the beginning of the next one.

For Example: Your MC finally finds the magic box they've been looking for. Yay! (Do NOT end the chapter here.) But wait, what's that rumbling sound? Oh no! Dislodging the box from it's hiding space has set off a rock slide! How will they get out of this? (And... end chapter!)

BEWARE tying things up in pretty bows. When you wrap up a chapter with all the loose ends tied up you lose anticipation. There's no reason for the reader to keep reading because everything was just resolved. Coming from the screenwriting world, this is probably my biggest weakness when it comes to suspense. I think in scenes which means generally they end neatly, and then the next one starts somewhere else at some later time. Do not be like me.

books that do this well: The Hunger Games and Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

Other Easy but Effective Ways to Inject Suspense:
- Prologues
- Countdowns
- Chapter Titles

What about you? What are some of your favorite ways to inject suspense? What books do you think do it well?


  1. Lots of good nuggets here. Thanks for posting.

  2. Thanks! I hope you found it helpful!

  3. Such.

    Clearly, I'm a quick learner. ;) Great post with lots of practical info!

  4. Fantastic post! Thanks!!!! (karenb from the blueboards)

  5. This post was very helpful. Now I want to go write some suspense! Thanks! :)


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