Last year, several of our writers’ group gatherings focused on writing suspenseful fiction.
A member triggered this topic when she complained about feeling tired all day: “I stayed up until 2:30 this morning, finishing a novel. I thought why? Then I started wondering how I could write like that.”
When we discussed books which hooked us so we couldn’t put them down, we decided that curiosity was a major factor.
For suspenseful fiction, keep readers curious
You want readers not only to become curious, you want their curiosity to build until it becomes concern, anxiety… and even FEAR for your characters.
You arouse curiosity by withholding information.
Let’s look at some additional tips for writing suspenseful fiction. (By the way, you need to provide suspense in all genres, not just in the suspense and mystery genres.)
1. Invoke imagination and readers’ senses for suspenseful fiction
Readers get pulled into your fiction via their imagination. You arouse their imagination by including sensory details in your writing, but there’s no need to be overt about it.
Consider this snippet from Deep Freeze by John Sandford:
David Birkmann sat in his living room with an empty beer can in his hand and stared sadly at his oversized bachelor’s television, which wasn’t turned on. A light winter wind was blowing a soft, lovely snow into the storm windows.
Sandford sneaks in the sensory details. Not only do they trigger imagination, they also arouse curiosity. (John Sandford is a major bestselling author for a reason.)
2. Plan to write suspenseful fiction: always look for ways to make readers care
Readers need to care about your characters, otherwise they won’t care what happens to them. How do you make them care? One way to make them care is via empathy.
In the above snippet, readers empathize with David Birkmann (even though he’s an unsympathetic character), because we’ve all experienced feeling sad, and hopeless.
In addition to empathy, admiration makes readers care too. Consider this quote from The Boleyn Inheritance by Philippa Gregory:
But I long ago learned to be stubborn, and long ago learned to be strong, and I have faced the dangerous dislike of a powerful ruler before, and survived.
3. You’re in control: look for opportunities to build suspense
To keep readers reading, readers need to know your characters’ goals, as well as the penalties if a character fails to achieve his goal.
In The Boleyn Inheritance, Jane Rochford’s husband and her sister-in-law were both executed by King Henry VIII. If Jane Rochford fails, the penalty is death. Although she’s also a deeply unsympathetic character, readers admire her because she won’t give up.
Philippa Gregory does an amazing job with her historical fiction. We always know what happened to her characters historically, yet she manages to write very suspenseful fiction.
An easy open loop, and a great way to add suspense, is to use the “ticking clock” device. You can make this a major device in your novel. In the kidnapping story for example, the kidnappers could demand a ransom — your hero has 48 hours to find the ransom money.
Can you write suspenseful fiction?
Suspenseful fiction: it’s not magic, it’s good writing
Our group’s discussions on writing suspenseful fiction were inspiring. When you see how authors and filmmakers build suspense in their creations, it gives you hope that you can do it too.
Will your next novel keep readers reading because they can’t put it down?
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