When you write fiction, you make choices. One of the best choices you can make is to deliberately create as much suspense as you can — you’ll write better novels.
Recently I asked a friend who hits Amazon’s Top 100 with his novels how he does it. His response? “I look for ways to add suspense — I aim to add suspense on every page.” He says that although he knows he’s not a strong writer (he is), he outsells others because he makes readers care, and worry.
Suspense is defined as: a feeling of excited or anxious uncertainty about what may happen, but can you deliberately add it?
My bestselling friend believes that you can.
Plan for suspense when you write fiction
What if you’re not writing a mystery or a thriller? You can nevertheless add suspense, and creating excitement and anxiety in your readers is easier than you think.
Try these tips.
1. Open loops: add more obstacles and problems for your characters (and take your time resolving them)
Open loops build suspense.
Marketers use open loops, often called the Zeigarnik effect, because they know that psychologically, humans have a compelling need for closure. In an article on open loops, The Blockbuster Secret to Seducing Your Audience, Jeff Sexton says:
If James Bond was issued a cool gadget and never used it, we’d feel cheated. As Anton Chekhov famously said, “If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it must absolutely go off.”
Open loops have setups, and payoffs, just as jokes do. Some “big” open loops, the story question of a novel, don’t pay off until the novel’s climax. Will the police catch the serial killer in a thriller, for example. Or in a romance, will the hero and heroine get together despite all their problems?
Other open loops concern backstory, and why a character behaves as he does. Open loops can be minor, even trivial, but they’re all an irritation to the reader, because the reader needs closure.
2. Delay, delay, delay! Delay in every scene
Anticipation builds suspense. You need to delay, and delay some more, to build the reader’s anticipation, and suspense. Delay revealing information which closes an open loop.
The more you can delay, without annoying the reader, the better. For example, let’s say you’re writing a thriller in which your main character’s daughter is kidnapped. The daughter’s boyfriend has disappeared. Is he involved in the kidnapping? You may decide that he isn’t, but you don’t reveal that for four chapters.
3. Opportunities: look for opportunities to add suspense
You’ll find, as I have, that when you look for ways to add suspense, it’s simple to add it in every scene.
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.
Study others’ writing when you write fiction: how do other authors use suspense?
Think about a novel which you stayed up late to finish. How did the author create so much suspense that he kept you reading? Novels are page-turning bestsellers because they create open loops. Our psychology ensures that we need to keep reading until we find closure.
Updated: July 12, 2021
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