When you’re reading a book or short story and keep saying to yourself, “Just one more page!” that author has succeeded in creating tension and suspense. A good writer not only introduces narrative tension into their short story or novel early on, but can masterfully increase it throughout the story to keep readers engaged. At Writer’s Relief, we know there are two main elements to tension and suspense: pressure and momentum. This combination creates the perfect dance between character development and airtight plotting, with a dash of help from perfect pacing. Here’s how to build tension and suspense in your writing.
10 Ways To Build Tension And Suspense In Your Writing
- Develop your characters. Getting readers attached to your characters is a surefire way to make them increasingly nervous when things go wrong. And if two of your characters have goals that directly oppose one another, so much the better for your story’s tension! This way, pressure builds naturally as each character gets closer to achieving that goal.
- Heighten the stakes. Ask yourself what your characters want and what they stand to lose if things don’t go their way. The answers to those questions are their stakes! There are two ways to raise them: Either give your characters more to win if they succeed, or more to lose if they fail. (Or, if you want to be really mean to your characters, both!)
- Add in—or ramp up—conflict. Problems and obstacles drive your story forward. If your characters didn’t struggle for what they want, the story would be boring—and your characters would never learn or grow. If you feel your story is lacking tension or suspense, consider introducing a new problem or bringing an old one back into play.
- Put your characters on a tight deadline. Giving your characters a deadline works on a few levels: First, it creates—and compresses—a timeline for your story. Second, it puts more pressure on your characters to achieve their goals…and a tight deadline can make them feel desperate. This is often when a story gets the most interesting and even seems to move at a faster pace.
- Increase tension in multiple subplots. Along with the main plotline, a good story has a few smaller side plots. And the best writers know that smaller doesn’t have to mean insignificant! Increasing tension and suspense in your subplots can give your story more momentum and make it feel truer to life. (Just be careful—juggling too many subplots can also open up plot holes.)
- Perfect your pacing. Pacing—the speed at which a story unfolds—is a crucial element for building tension and suspense in your short story or novel. While you don’t want your pacing to feel so uneven that it gives readers whiplash, speeding up key scenes will engage readers and encourage them to keep turning the pages. Make the reader feel, quite literally, like your story is moving faster: Use shorter sentences, more back-to-back action, and less description.
- Drop in a big reveal. Your characters should learn information that was withheld from them—and be sure they learn it at just the right moment! Rather than telling readers everything up front, dropping hints but saving a big reveal for a crucial moment later in your story will create a natural sense of suspense-building. The new information should be a crucial piece of the puzzle, something that changes their plans or imposes a new deadline. Any revelation that will create a sense of urgency will amp up the suspense and tension!
- Toss in a plot twist! You can accomplish the same sense of urgency with an unexpected plot event—your characters will have to adapt to the new situation, often with little or no preparation. And remember, though it’s a good idea to leave subtle foreshadowing clues throughout your story’s buildup, plot twists are most effective when neither the readers nor the characters see them coming.
- Intersperse moments of relief. This one may seem counterintuitive, but slowing down the pacing in key moments can actually make the returns and peaks of tension and suspense seem more dramatic by contrast. You don’t want to exhaust your readers to the point where the story is just too much. Plus, moments of rest and relief tend to lull the readers into a false sense of security, making the next conflict more surprising!
- Include cliffhangers! Cliffhangers are events that pose big questions and tease the possibility of catastrophic consequences. Typically, cliffhangers bring the story’s action to a halt, or cause it to make an unexpected and dramatic pivot. Writers often use this literary device at the ends of chapters to get readers to read “just one more.” But a word of caution: Don’t overuse cliffhangers. If you plant one at the end of each chapter, readers may find that it feels more like a gimmick than genuine tension-building.
And One Last Trick For Creating Tension And Suspense…
Keep your tension controlled. Keep in mind where your story came from and where it’s going. Don’t drop in a completely random twist, cliffhanger, deadline, or another device if it doesn’t truly fit in your story. Readers will be much more shocked and appreciative of a tension or suspense element that’s well plotted and that can be logically traced through your story.
Question: What was the last book you read that had a great sense of tension or suspense?