What do books have that can keep an audience reading when everything seems to be going right and the conflict is seemingly over—but there are still 100 pages left?
The answer is suspense. This is the anxiety readers feel when they know something the protagonist doesn’t. As a character-driven technique applicable to numerous genres, the use of suspense can be valuable to help keep your audience eager to read until the end.
Here is a list of strategies you can try to create suspense on your next writing adventure.
Develop Character for Readers to be Invested In
A key to suspense is to design characters such that readers are interested in the outcome of their story. Interesting characters don’t even have to be good. They can be annoying, social outcasts, or bad at everything. They can be an antihero or an outright villain.
When you create your characters, even “guest stars,” you must flesh them out. That’s because flat characters can immediately pull your readers away from your story. There should be meaning behind each action and line of dialogue because people generally don’t do or say things without purpose in real life, and neither should your characters.
For your main character(s) in particular, make them relatable. Give them flaws. Provide them with bad experiences, which can be big or small, described in a flashback, over a series of therapist appointments, in thoughts, or to a friend. These experiences can come from the past or internal anxieties. If they are ones the character must overcome, describe them before a final showdown so the readers can feel the tension vicariously.
However, be careful not to info-dump. Remember that creating well-developed characters doesn’t mean you have to tell your readers everything about them. Giving your readers too many details at once can ruin the buildup.
Instead, consider the threat of an explosion. Think of a score in a movie where the building music creates suspense. Do the same with your writing. You can keep secrets from your readers, but consider writing with those secrets and backstories in mind.
Create Significant and Believable Conflict
Once you have created a character that readers will care about, try putting them on the cusp of something terrible like placing them in jeopardy. Although mean, it helps your readers feel deeply for your characters, which is necessary to create suspense so your readers come back for more.
This means that whatever conflict the character faces should affect them profoundly and provoke strong feelings in them. For example, if you’re thinking of presenting a conflict where a business is going under, a family business might be a great option. If you want your character to feel unloved, they could be dumped by their significant other.
Your characters’ wants can also mean something. Have goals for them to act on so they don’t operate on impulse. Creating conflict around these wants can make what the character does and feels matter.
To achieve this, you can use three main types of conflict: conflict between characters, internal conflict, and external conflict. The conflict between characters happens when characters directly impact and interact with one another. Internal conflict is contained in the character alone. External conflict occurs when outside impacts, like a zombie apocalypse, affect your character. But know that sometimes the more minor, local conflicts hit harder than a meteor headed toward Earth.
This can be generalized to all types of conflict: Conflicts don’t have to be world-ending. It can be small, local, quiet, or even inside the protagonist’s head. Smaller usually keeps the story focused and believable. The suspense doesn’t have time to build when things get too big.
You can also consider adding levels to your story to create depth for the conflict, such as multiple plotlines. This not only works in bringing together other characters within a book, but it can help stretch your protagonist in more than one way as well. This can mean forcing your protagonist to deal with multiple challenges.
Make Your Location Mean Something
World-building around a particular location can give your protagonist and story more depth. Use the area in a way you would a character: Invent a backstory based on the location and appeal to all the senses such by describing what the place smells and feels like. Create an illusion that we can experience just as well as the character can.
Additionally, consider building suspense-filled locations by creating an environment that causes the character distress or a place for them to confront later. This could be a whole city or a small dark room. It should mean enough that readers feel the shift when the protagonist enters the location.
Clue In Your Audience
Let readers in on information that the protagonist lacks. The readers may have already learned where the killer is hiding, but the clueless protagonist is still walking through the door to where the killer is. (Meanwhile, the anxiety is building for your readers and they are screaming at the pages.)
Video games create this kind of suspense with music; you can tell the boss fight is getting closer by the increasing volume. You can add similar tension into your writing with tools like flashforwards and flashbacks, allowing your readers a bit of extra knowledge of upcoming or past moments that your protagonist is unaware of or deems unimportant. Stay one step ahead of your readers and your character by leaving clues that someone could pick up during a second read but might miss during the first.
You can also use foreshadowing to indicate something important will happen with a significant object, character, or detail that your readers can pick up before your protagonist. This technique is used a lot in horror, where readers know something awful will happen but are unclear of exactly what or when that may be—a lot like waiting for a jump scare. Make sure the clues are realistic and add enough so that your audience is knowledgeable, but they don’t see that final moment coming—or if they do, it delivers.
Creating suspense means getting your readers to care about your characters and story, which you can accomplish by designing developed characters, convincing conflicts, meaningful locations, and clever clues. As you write your story, remember to build tension throughout and know that as long as you don’t constantly use cliffhangers to create the suspense, you’ve done a good job.
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