How Will You Build Suspense in Your Story?

the suspense of a man on the verge of a bungee jump

Estimated reading time: 9 minutes

We all love a good suspense build-up. Suspense is a literary technique used in horror, thrillers, TV shows, and just about every genre of entertainment. So many people enjoy suspense because of the thrill it creates. How will the structure of your story create suspense?

There’s nothing more exciting than being left on the edge of your seat. Suspense, when mastered, keeps your audience and readers engaged. Let’s look at how the structure of the story creates suspense by withholding information, using cliffhangers, employing red herrings, and more.

What are the elements of suspense?

The key to suspense is to leave the reader uncertain — and in anticipation of — what will happen next. There are many ways you can weave suspense into your story structure to create an exciting dynamic and keep your readers engaged.

There is as much power in how you tell your story as well as what your story is about.

Uncertainty is the main ingredient when creating suspense, and how you execute that in your story is part of your writing style. There are a handful of storytelling techniques you can use to create suspense. Let’s address some techniques of building suspense within your story structure.

Withholding information

Withholding information is a fun way to build suspense as a writer. How you decide what information to give, what to hide, and when to deliver it shapes the story and your connection with your reader.

Withholding information can be done in two ways. You can withhold information from your characters that only the narrator exposes to the reader, or you can withhold an important event or detail from your reader that you don’t expose until the plot develops.

When storytelling, you want to think of who holds the power. This involves the point of view, your characters, and the external events that happen in the story.

Experimenting with point of view, perception, and the beliefs your characters hold broadens the scope of how you can build suspense. The mind of your main character does not have to be synonymous with the narrator. That’s an omnipresent narrator, who can be a character all on their own. A narrator who is watching and commenting on the events in the story will typically know more than the other characters in your novel.

What does your character know?

In Edgar Allen Poe’s classic short story, “The Tell-Tale Heart,” the thumping of the heart that the main character hears is real to the character. However, the reader understands that it is in the main character’s mind. This split between what the reader knows and what the character knows is a stylistic choice in storytelling and an excellent example of how the structure of the story creates suspense. As the thumping grows louder, the anticipation behind what is real builds as the protagonist rips up the floorboards.

In other stories, the main character is the sole narrator. Limiting your perception and understanding to only one person can create multiple perspectives. And as we know, all narrators are flawed to a degree, as we are all human. Ever played a game of telephone? No two people have the same recount of events. The details that one character has, another may not. As a writer, you can experiment with this by illustrating certain scenes and dialogue in conjunction with your plot.

Using cliffhangers

Cliffhangers are like withholding information but with more drama. A cliffhanger cuts a scene off at the height of climax, leaving your readers as if they were literally “hanging on the edge of a cliff.” Did the killer get caught? Is our protagonist truly insane? Will they say “I love you” back?

There are many benefits of using cliffhangers. They build emotional tension. The story’s trajectory may alter based on what happens next. This type of suspense is one we just cannot ignore. The excitement and anticipation are too high and our brains need to know what will happen next. In this way, a cliffhanger can also create a sense of urgency and is one more way the structure of the story creates suspense.

Cliffhangers are great to use at the end of chapters, end of episodes, or to set up foreshadowing. (Read “How to End a Story and Keep Readers Engaged” to explore how to craft an end to your story, featuring examples from popular authors who make expert use of cliffhangers.)

However, there are also potential drawbacks to using cliffhangers. They can be overused, leading to a sense of predictability and diminishing returns. If every chapter or episode ends on a cliffhanger, the audience will anticipate that, reducing its effectiveness. It is important to use cliffhangers sparingly and strategically without creating loose ends.

Foreshadowing

Foreshadowing is another technique for creating suspense in a story. Foreshadowing is a subtle technique that indicates to the reader that something will happen later. This can be used as a type of symbolism, an event that happens to a character, an object of importance that indicates a theme that you, as the writer, will repeat later in the story.

six months to publishingA modern example of this is in Netflix’s show, You. Joe Goldberg, the protagonist, is a serial killer and bookstore owner. In one scene, as the screen pans over his prestige book collection of original copies, we see the mystery classic, The Mysterious Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. This shot foreshadows how Joe is split between two selves. The nod to the book foreshadows how Joe is the serial killer he is constantly searching for — the same as the story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

In the scene, no one speaks or mentions the book. The viewer can simply see it. This would require prior knowledge of the book and its story to understand the reference, let alone the foreshadow.

As a writer, you can use similar nods to symbolism in the structure of your story to build suspense by suggesting an event that will happen later. For instance, a character may have a vintage antique collection of knives that may factor into their death.

In Romeo and Juliet, when Mercutio speaks a plague on both the Montague and Capulet houses, it foreshadows Romeo’s and Juliet’s deaths. His claim is ominous, speaking directly against the universe, so his words alone create tension. In this way, you can use a character’s claims, words, or speech to foreshadow.

Red herrings

A red herring is a false clue. This plot point is often used in detective novels, but they are not limited to that genre! Placing a red herring can sideswipe your reader’s expectations into thinking that one thing may happen, but another does. Anything that may falsely set up your reader’s expectations is a good way to build suspense.

Be wary of using red herring just for the sake of building suspense. It should follow the logic of your characters and the contour of your story. A good way to think about using red herrings is to ask yourself, Does this advance the plot of the story or aid my characters in their goal?

Does my story need suspense?

The short answer is: Yes!

Every story needs some sense of build-up and suspense. No suspense at all will leave a flat story line. Utilizing suspense can move the plot forward, strengthen interest in your characters, and have your reader wrapped up in how you tell the story. If you craftily use foreshadowing, cliffhangers, red herrings, and symbolism, you can build depth to your story and make it come alive.

The intensity of the suspense in your story might be determined by the genre you write. Stories whose main themes are action, horror, or mystery are generally the most suspenseful. How great the stakes — or the amount of time you leave your reader in suspense — can depend on the type of novel.

For example, in a romance novel you might create a cliffhanger when a character professes his love after an emotional build-up, but you fast forward to a different scene or flash back to another before the other character responds.

In a thriller novel, you might need to draw out suspense for a couple of chapters. You can place your main character in the middle of the action. They can be running from someone or trying to catch someone or waiting for someone to get to them who is facing their own hurdles. And time is running out…

4 tips for crafting suspenseful scenes

We’ve covered some techniques that answer how to create suspense. But how will you weave and lock them into your story? How will the structure of your story create suspense?

1. Point of view. This is the most powerful tool you have for storytelling. You ultimately decide in which way, and from whose perspective, the story unfolds. You can withhold information between the characters, the narrator, and the audience. Choosing when to reveal a character’s thoughts, a significant event, or what is real or imagined will create suspense in your story. Think of plot twists from novels that you’ve read or times where the perspective shifts and how that affected your perceptions as a reader.

2. Pacing. How slow or fast you pace your story is another tool you can use to create suspense in your novel. Pace can be determined by how quickly a character acts, how often something is happening to them, or an inciting action that speeds up the drama, stakes, or plot of the storyline.

3. Scene setting. How you present your scene to your reader can speak to a level of suspense. Consider the details of where your character lives or the scene in which an event is about to happen. Lean into details that can heighten suspense. The chill in the air, the lights flickering, a devious smirk crossing the face of a character. Subtle details like this will build and change your readers’ expectations as you can lead them to anticipate different possible outcomes.

4. Details. Details can build a vivid and immersive world that the reader can see and feel. The color and texture of a murderer’s shirt. The lighting and time of day when a person steps into a room. Remember, details are not just in what happens in the plot, bring detail to the characters as well. You ultimately get to decide which details you withhold, foreshadow, and use as a cliffhanger.

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Related Posts
Subvert Readers’ Expectations With Red Herrings
The Role Of The Unreliable Narrator
How to Harness the Power of Foreshadowing
How to End a Story and Keep Readers Engaged
Want to Write a Great Story? You Need to Raise the Stakes.

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