As storytellers, we believe it is the writer’s responsibility to keep the reader glued to the story and turning the page. Writers who can do this have long careers. We also believe that writing can be looked at as a trade, a craft that can be taught, practiced, and improved. Like all trades, there are specific tools and strategies in the craft of writing taut novels, including these eight that will add suspense to any piece of writing.
8 Ways to Add Suspense to your Novel
(Connor) Compelling Conflict
Writing compelling conflict is a crucial tool to add urgency to your novel. Analyze the conflict through the lens of stakes and goals at the scene, chapter, or even full story level, looking for those situations where the characters do not seem vital or active. One thing I like to always ask myself is, “What is the most painful thing that could possibly happen to my character at this point in time?” These burdens can be physical, emotional, or psychological. Then think of what the character needs to achieve or to change about themselves in order to alleviate that pain. This approach forces your characters into a crucible where action is the only choice. The action will reveal the character’s true self and so propel the story forward, which leads to my dad’s first tip.
(Mark) Write in an Active Voice
Examining and tweaking the voice through which you tell a story can radically increase its suspense. James Patterson taught me the value of writing as if you were in a bar telling the story to the person on the adjoining stool and focusing on the highlights. Stephen King says he knows if a writer is in control of a narrative within a couple of pages because he can hear the voice in his head driving the story and his interest forward.
If the narrative voice is passive, flat, uncertain, or unclear, the pace and purpose of the story becomes muddled; and the reader, alas, is soon uninterested and tosses the book aside. But if the voice is active, sharp, and nuanced, the clash and speed with which the tale unfolds will be greatly amplified and the reader hooked.
This is why first-person points of view work so well in thrillers. If the writer is any good, not only is the reader listening to a distinct voice, she is seeing the world from a severely limited perspective, which heightens any threat or perceived threat.
That doesn’t mean you can’t have an active, interesting, suspenseful voice when writing in the third person. Quite the contrary. If the writer is willing to use narrative skills to perform a disappearing act, to not call attention to the person behind the pen in any way, and then narrates the tale in a taut, lean manner, the tension in a story can become so palpable that the reader literally falls into a strange new reality. It’s called bringing the tale to life and there is no more active or suspenseful way to tell a story well.
(Connor) Interesting and Complex Characters
I often hear (especially in Hollywood) that in order for your audience to relate to your protagonist, that they need to be likable. That’s nonsense. They need to be interesting, complex, and relatable.
Likability alone is incredibly subjective.
If I were to meet Walter White, Bryan Cranston’s character from Breaking Bad on the street, I know I would not like the man. But I would find his plight and traits relatable.
Characters, like people, should be nuanced. A hero is not one-hundred percent good, nor is a villain one-hundred percent bad. Characters, like people should have redeemable and irredeemable qualities, that’s what makes them relatable to your audience. If they have relatable qualities and you put them in a difficult situation, the reader becomes more and more sympathetic to their plight in the story. Any story where the reader has an increasingly invested stake in the tale, the suspense will soar, and the pages will turn.
(Mark) Fishing Line
I usually think about fly fishing when I start to work on the third or fourth draft of a novel. By then I understand the story well enough to have spotted themes and narrowed in on events that have weight. They count. The book can’t have the impact I want without them.
This is critical when recrafting the first scenes. They must, in effect, act like the perfectly chosen and cast dry fly that lures a wary trout to slash at it. If you do these first scenes right, there’s no doubt the reader will react in the same way.
How do you do it? Make the scenes intensely believable, anchored deeply in reality, and the character at the center of them actively in pursuit of an object of desire. The object of desire can be anything. Personal safety. A loved one. Riches. Anything the reader can readily identify with as an object of desire and a well-spring of emotion. They are the perfect lures in any narrative.
So how do you set the hook?
A friend of mine, a master flyfishing guide, taught me to think in a completely different way when it came to hook set. He said that the second the fly lands on the water, you do nothing but control the tension in your line in anticipation of a strike.
If you do that right, when the fish strikes, all you have to do is lift the rod tip slightly and the trout is fully hooked. No big ripping movement like a bass-master on steroids. Just a slight lift. But from that point until the fish is landed the angler’s entire goal has to be maintaining tension on the line and the hook.
The same is true of writing the third or fourth drafts. In addition to the craft of luring, I try to think of the hook as already set before the book even opens. I try to see the fly and the barb sitting there to the left of the first word of the first sentence and to feel it connected by a strong but hair-thin line that runs through every word that follows all the way to the last word of the last sentence of the novel. And then I imagine that last sentence and word as having the most weight and impact of any others in the story.
As I revise, I am looking for anything that might slacken that tension or reduce the impact of that final moment. These flaws are either eliminated or altered until everything about the novel feels as surprising and powerful an experience as a big fish lured, fought, and landed.
(Connor) Question Tool
The question tool is a great way to add suspense to your novel by keeping the audience guessing and turning the page.
This tool can also be used at the scene level, chapter level, and the overarching plot of your novel. This tool is used extensively in mystery novels, where the writer will often pose a question for their readers and characters to solve.
A great example of the use of the question tool is in Dennis Lehane’s novel, Mystic River. Other than his stunning prose, and his vivid characterization of Boston, Lehane uses the question tool as a vehicle to propel the suspense by asking his characters and readers to answer the questions of who killed the character, Katie Marcus, and why.
Lehane poses these questions in the beginning of the novel, building the suspense along the way, before finally paying it off when the mystery is solved.
Set up. Build. Pay-off.
Ask the question. Ramp the suspense. And finally, during a scene of peak emotion, answer the question.
This has been a bedrock story-telling principle since the early Greeks, and it is as valid now as it was then. Without obstacles, challenges, opponents, there is not only any suspense, but there also is no story, and without that, there is no reader.
I’ve been writing fiction for more than three decades and I have come to embrace obstacles as vehicles to better storytelling. Indeed, I’ve gotten to the point where almost anything that comes up in the course of research that frightens or intimidates me is now almost guaranteed to become part of the ultimate tale. This approach of confronting the thing that disturbs you most and dealing with it head-on tends to create strong narrative drama.
When researching my latest novel, for example, I learned that many ethnic German farmers living in Ukraine when Hitler invaded in 1941 collaborated with the Nazis and helped kill Jews during the Holocaust of Bullets. Some of these same ethnic Germans later claimed that they only buried Jews.
Both of my novel’s heroes were real ethnic Germans who had lived in Ukraine. When a descendant of those ethnic Germans told me that her grandfather had been held by the Nazis and forced to bury Jews, I was terrified. Was I about to write glowingly about a war criminal?
I did enough research in the archives of the U.S. Holocaust Museum to know there was zero mention of either of my characters in any atrocity whatsoever. But rather than ignore the possibility, I saw the idea of collaboration as a tremendous obstacle to one hero’s object of desire and therefore a dramatic opportunity that I could not pass up.
I went straight at the issue, faced the situation in a creative way, and the drama and suspense in the story erupted on the page.
(Connor) Ticking Clock
A ticking clock is essentially just a race against time and a great way to add tension to your work. Are your characters being too stagnant? Is the climax of your story too slow and drawn out? Simply raise the stakes by adding a higher level of immediacy to your story.
An example of a ticking clock can be a time limit to a kidnap ransom delivery, or even a countdown to an explosive going off. Want to see how a master employs the ticking clock into their body of work?
Want to see an author using not just one ticking clock in their work, but multiple ticking clocks at once?
Read Mark Greaney’s Gray Man Series.
(Mark) In Medias Res
Starting any novel or chapter in medias res amplifies suspense and rockets the story forward because it drops the reader into the middle of rising action and emotional upheaval with no explanation. This tactic immediately upsets the reader, engages and agitates the brain as it struggles to understand a new and confusing reality.
John Le Carre often used this technique to his advantage. Readers would crack one of his books to find themselves thrown deep into the timeline of a story of great intrigue. Nothing was as it seemed because the reader was given no foundation before events began to unfold. In many ways, starting a novel in the middle of things resembles the way a dream works. There’s little in the way of explanation. You’re just there as incidents whirl and you’re trying to understand what got you there.
It is also a tremendous way of picking up the pace of a story when you sense it flagging. In his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead used the tactic repeatedly to push the narrative and his protagonist, Cora, forward in time and place. Every time he does this, the reader is narratively dope-slapped. The mind automatically leaps into overdrive and tries to grasp what has happened between the familiar end of the last chapter and the completely unfamiliar beginning of the next. The reader is reengaged with the story and there is nothing more suspenseful than that.
Connor Sullivan is the author of Sleeping Bear (July 6, 2021; Simon and Schuster). He attended the University of Southern California, where he was the recipient of the Edward W. Moses Award for Creative Writing. During college, he worked for Warner Brothers reading screenplays before relocating with his family to the Gallatin Valley in Montana. You can visit Connor online at connorsullivanauthor.com.
Mark Sullivan is the acclaimed author of more than twenty novels, including The Last Green Valley (May 4, 2021; Lake Union) and the #1 Amazon Charts, Wall Street Journal, and USA Today bestseller Beneath a Scarlet Sky, which has been translated into 37 languages and will soon be a limited television series starring Tom Holland. Mark also writes the #1 New York Times bestselling Private series with James Patterson. He has received numerous awards and accolades for his writing, including a WHSmith Fresh Talent selection, a New York Times Notable Books mention, and a Los Angeles Times Best Book of the Year honor. You can visit Mark online at marksullivanbooks.com.