—by Jeff Gerke
After successfully engaging the reader, which is Job 1 of writing a novel, Job 2 is to create suspense. When your reader is engaged with your hero and your story world, you can afford to coast along a bit before that engagement begins to diminish (not that you would intentionally do so). But before too long you’re going to need to continue reeling in the reader. He won’t stay with you for the whole book if he gets bored after the opening.
Suspense means different things for different novelists—and different genres. If you’re writing a thriller, you’d better have a roller coaster going pretty much from Page 1. If you’re writing a romance, the suspense is likely driven by whether or not the hero and heroine will finally get together—it’s of the will sheor won’t she variety. In an action/adventure, suspense might be in finding out if the hero will save the world or achieve his dream.
But no matter what type of novel you’re writing, there had better be some kind of suspense in it. The reader must be asking, “How will this turn out?”—a question preferably followed by: “I have to find out, and I can’t go to bed until I do!”
Some suspense will be created simply by engaging the reader with the main character. We keep reading because we want to see if he reaches his objective, whatever that may be.
Another surge of suspense will be generated when you introduce the villain—that equal and opposite force that’s going to cause fits for your hero. The mere presence of a person who stands to hurt our hero in some way will raise our excruciatingly wonderful anxiety. And excruciatingly wonderful anxiety would be a very nice definition of suspense. We can’t stand it, but we love it.
Let’s look at some other ways to elevate suspense in the first 50 pages of your novel.
Establish What’s at Stake.
If I told you I was going to give you a million dollars, you’d probably be thrilled. If I told you I would give you a million dollars if you could get to Clipperton Island (a tiny atoll about 800 miles southwest of Acapulco) by noon tomorrow, you’d start feeling something else.
That something else—an almost frustrated kind of urgency tinged with the possibility of a great payoff—is what you want your reader feeling as she reads your novel.
There’s a very simple formula for creating the stakes (and thus suspense) in your story: Show your reader something she wants, and then threaten it.
Show her a man longing to be reunited with his son. Show the son wanting to be back with his daddy. Then have someone abduct the boy and smuggle him to another country. Aaagh! How will that man find his little boy? We want to know now!
Show a woman locked into an engagement with an awful man. Show her meeting a wonderful man she really loves and who loves her back. Then bring tremendous forces into play so that the woman feels she must marry the first guy no matter what. No! It can’t be!
Show us a ragtag group of freedom fighters who want only to live free of tyranny. Then show the evil Empire arriving with their Death Star to destroy the rebels’ hidden fortress. Can they be stopped?
You see how it goes. Make us care about something, then put that something in danger. As these examples show, the danger doesn’t have to be life and limb (though it can be). The prospect of the hero not getting what she dreams of (and what we’ve come to dream for her) is terrible enough.
In Dante’s Peak, the stakes are that our hero and the woman and her children he’s come to love may not escape a volcano before it erupts and kills them all … just as another volcano had killed the hero’s fiancée years before.
In Music and Lyrics, the stakes are that the hero will take glory for himself alone instead of sharing it with his co-writer, and thus lose her love.
In In the Line of Fire, the stakes are that our hero, a Secret Service agent, may not put the puzzle together in time to save the president from an assassination attempt—as he failed to do for John F. Kennedy years before.
What are the stakes in your novel? What does the protagonist long for, and how can you make it look like she won’t get it? More important, what is the precious thing the reader longs for, and how will you threaten it?
Emphasize the Or-Else Factor.
Another way of thinking of stakes is in terms of the or-else factor. The hero will achieve his objective … or else what? What bad thing will happen if he fails? If the protagonist and his crew don’t figure out a way to deflect an incoming asteroid, the or else is that Earth will be destroyed. If our FBI agent undercover in the beauty pageant doesn’t find out who the killer is in time, the or else is that someone will be brutally murdered. The bus can’t drop below 50 miles per hour, or else the bomb will detonate.
You must establish your or-else factor in the first 50 pages of your novel. That doesn’t mean we need to know everything about it in those pages. By the time we reach page 51 we may not know the exact bad thing that might happen, but we will have begun growing very attached to something or someone in the story, which is the first half of the equation.
It probably won’t be until later in the novel that the precise form of that threat to what the reader wants becomes evident. He may know the what and the why, but the exact how will have to wait. We know the Empire wants to destroy the Rebel Alliance, but until the very end of Act 2 we don’t know how they’re going to try to do it. That’s as it should be. But you can’t wait so long to start building our connection with the thing we want—or to start laying the groundwork for how it could be taken away. Those things must be done in the first 50 pages.
Remember: The more you can establish the full magnitude of the stakes in those opening pages, the longer we’ll have to baste in that delicious angst that will inevitably follow.
Create a Ticking Time Bomb.
From a fiction writer’s point of view, the great thing about a countdown of any kind is that it increases suspense with every tick of the clock. The doom is hastening toward a conclusion—a negative conclusion, if the hero doesn’t hurry up—and every minute we tarry is another moment lost to avoid that doom.
Your team is behind, and there are only 25 seconds left on the clock to pull out a miracle. In five hours the last ferry leaves, and if she can’t get him on that ferry with her, their future together will be lost. His baby has only six months to live if he can’t find a cure. The race is tomorrow and their car is in pieces all over the garage.
Deadlines are wonderful things in fiction. (Well, they are for your characters. When you’re writing under a deadline, that’s not always so grand. But I digress.)
In fiction, a ticking time bomb is a cut-off moment after which nothing more can be done to avert disaster. Accomplish your goal by then, or you’ve lost.
In Mulan, the ticking time bomb is established from the very beginning: An enemy army is coming and intends to destroy the Han Dynasty. It’s crossed the only major line of defense, the Great Wall of China, and is bearing down on the simple villages of the people. Pretty early in WarGames we see that the WOPR computer is going to try to win a simulated game—by using very real global thermonuclear weaponry—in just over 24 hours. Possibly the best example is Armageddon, in which we learn early on that an asteroid is on a collision course with Earth. Our heroes have to deflect or destroy it somehow, or it’s the end of the human race.
Think about your novel. Can you plant a time bomb in it and start it counting down? It can be something large that you establish in a prologue or at some other spot in the first 50 pages, or it can be something that you plant the seeds for early, but that doesn’t really get going until later on.
National Treasure: Book of Secrets is an example of the latter kind. The time bomb is that the golden chamber is going to fill with water and kill everyone—unless our heroes can somehow get out in time. The water level is rising. There’s not much time left. With every second that passes, the water goes up another inch. Soon there will be no chance for escape.
What can you do, on either a grand or a small scale, to use this dynamic in your novel? I can think of no better means of naturally increasing the tension in fiction because even when the writer isn’t paying attention to it, the reader is still feeling it. The reader worries about its inevitable approach at all times. It’s always in the background increasing that excellent suspense.
It’s worth noting that the hero doesn’t need to know the doom is coming. The main characters may be oblivious to the peril that is speeding toward them. It’s enough that the reader knows. And sometimes that’s a more excruciating kind of bliss. Maybe that’s why people love to shout, “Don’t go in there!” to the characters in horror movies. We know what’s about to happen, even if they don’t.
As you think about creating suspense, do you see how a prologue could accomplish this for your story as well? We often hear that agents and editors frown upon prologues, and it’s true that not every novel should begin with one. But there are stories that are well served by this sort of early introduction to the villain and the stakes—and those with ticking time bombs are often among them.
Of course, not every suspenseful novel has a ticking time bomb. But if your story warrants one, it can be an effective suspense-building tool. Explore every option in your fiction writer’s arsenal until you find the best way to get that intense countdown going.
build suspense into your style.
One more tip about increasing suspense. When you want to subtly increase reader tension, use shorter paragraphs.
When I write, I tend to use fairly short paragraphs anyway, as I believe long paragraphs strain the eye and say to the reader, “I’m a boring book; don’t read me!” But when I want to up the tension, I use paragraphs that are even shorter still.
Shorter paragraphs read faster, which causes the eye to more quickly consume a page. This is a sneaky little psychological trick you can use to raise the reader’s heart rate. The eye races across the page. The hands turn the pages more quickly. The pace is subtly sped up, and the result is a feeling of breathlessly sprinting to find out what happens. It’s like faster intercutting in a movie.
Try it. Use longer paragraphs to simulate a slower pace. Then when you’re ready to increase the tempo, start shaving the paragraphs down. See the difference?
Not all suspense needs to be drawn from the plotline. Don’t be afraid to experiment with other ways to vary the style of your writing itself to build further suspense into your story.
Want to learn more?Expand your writing knowledge with these great writing books & videos:
- Write Your Novel in 30 Days
- You Should Really Write a Book
- Awesome First Pages: How to Start Your Story Right