Skip to main content
Publish date:

Stephen King's 3 Steps to Create Suspense

Analysis reveals there are three steps that Stephen King invariably employs to create suspense. Learn what they are and how to apply them to your work. by William Cane

Analysis reveals there are three steps that Stephen King invariably employs to create suspense. First, he mentions or provides hints about something that can produce reader curiosity, a problem or a worry somewhere down the line. Second, he mentions this worrisome thing or idea a number of times after he first introduces it, and before the payoff. I refer to this second step as a callback because it’s similar to the way accomplished stage comedians refer to an earlier joke during the course of a set. Third, King brings suspense to a peak during the payoff, the section of the story where the horror is most intense.

The best way to learn what King does is not to read his book on writing but to read one of his novels … with a pen in hand. Circle sections that suggest a problem down the line. In The Shining, you might flag Hallorann’s warning about the Overlook Hotel, or Wendy’s worries about her husband’s drinking. Then, as you read the book, wait for the callbacks and mark them as you find them. This would include the sections where Danny passes Room 217 again, or where Wendy wonders about her husband’s drinking again, and so on. Finally, circle the payoff where the suspense is highest, such as where Danny enters Room 217, or where Jack’s madness causes him to attack Wendy with a roque mallet.

In this way you’ll learn the three essential steps for creating suspense: hints about worrisome things, callbacks and payoff. And before you know it, people reading your books won’t be able to sleep at night.

Excerpted from Write Like the Masters (Writer’s Digest Books) by William Cane. Grab your copy here.

Image placeholder title

WD Online Course:
Learn the fundamentals of writing in just 12 weeks:

Getting Started In Writing

Become a Writer's Digest VIP:
Get a 1-year pass to WritersMarket.com, a 1-year subscription to Writer's Digest magazine and 10% off all WritersDigestShop.com orders!Click here to join.

Poetry Prompt

Wednesday Poetry Prompts: 590

Every Wednesday, Robert Lee Brewer shares a prompt and an example poem to get things started on the Poetic Asides blog. This week, write a cut poem.

What Writers Should Know About High-End Weddings

What Writers Should Know About High-End Weddings

2022 is seeing the highest number of weddings in almost 40 years. With celebration on the mind, authors Asher Fogle Paul and Mary Hollis Huddleston offer 5 things writers should know about high-end weddings.

Mail's Here!

Mail's Here!

Every writer needs a little inspiration once in a while. For today's prompt, you've got mail.

Brian Andrews and Jeffrey Wilson: On the Power of Creative Teamwork

Brian Andrews and Jeffrey Wilson: On the Power of Creative Teamwork

Authors Brian Andrews and Jeffrey Wilson discuss the benefits of working as co-authors and the process of writing the newest Presidential Agent novel, Rogue Asset.

5 Tips for Writing About Big Historical Events in Fiction

5 Tips for Writing About Big Historical Events in Fiction

Novelist Anna Stuart shares her top five tips for writing about big historical events in fiction so that the story stays front and center...and engaging.

Mantel vs. Mantle (Grammar Rules)

Mantel vs. Mantle (Grammar Rules)

This post looks at the differences between mantel and mantle with Grammar Rules from the Writer's Digest editors, including a few examples of correct usages.

Agent Advice

Agent Advice: Analieze Cervantes of The Harvey Klinger Literary Agency

Agent Advice (this installment featuring Analieze Cervantes of The Harvey Klinger Literary Agency) is a series of quick interviews with literary agents about their thoughts on writing, publishing, and just about anything else.

writer's digest wd presents

WD Presents: 4 WDU Courses, an Upcoming Webinar, Submission Deadline for Your Favorite Writing Websites, and More!

This week, we’re excited to announce 4 WDU courses, an upcoming webinar on creating an author website, and more!

How To Find the Right Professional Editor for Your Writing

How To Find the Right Professional Editor for Your Writing

It's not enough to know when your manuscript is ready for a professional edit—it's knowing who is the right fit to do the editing. Here, Tiffany Yates Martin discusses how to find the right professional editor for your writing.