How to keep your reader in suspense
When I meet new people and tell them I’m a writer, I get one of two responses. Either their eyes glaze over, and they say something like, “Oh, that’s nice,” or they get excited and start firing questions at me “What do you write?” “Would I have heard of you?” “Can I buy your book?!”
This post is for that second group of people. The ones who get excited. This is for lovers of the printed word. (And the answer to that third question is always “Yes, please do!”)
I write everything from fiction, poetry, and memoir for craft to copywriting, email newsletters, and landing pages for trade. I am most passionate about my work when writing for craft. I recently re-released my debut mystery novel Chosen Quarry in trade paperback, and I’m sharing what it’s like to write a great mystery. I am pleased to say, there are many 4 and 5-star reviews on Amazon for my novel—I’d love for you to check it out. I also know, many are curious . . . what does it take to keep a reader in suspense?
1. Don’t Keep Your Reader in the Dark: What does that mean? In order for the reader to become anxious and scared, they have to have information. Stephen King’s work is often centered around reader worry. For example, the suspense in Misery (1987) is clear from when readers see that Paul is locked in Annie’s house and is at her mercy. The worry, in this case, is caused by our hero as he contemplates what Annie may or may not do to him. Giving the reader this internal dialogue creates suspense. What will Annie do next? How much danger does Paul really face?
2. Use Comedy and Contrast: Comedy will make your writing more fun. It will also add to the drama and allow your reader to reflect on the suspense. The scenes I write where my protagonist becomes sarcastic and comedic are often those when she’s at her most threatened. It doesn’t have to be a full-on joke, a snarky comment or comeback will do, if it’s funny.
3. Kill and Kill Again: You don’t have to actually kill anyone. Well, in a murder mystery you kind of do. The point is, start with a bang and keep on making noise. You want to grab the reader in your first pages with a killer event, often an actual killing. From that point on, the tension needs to mount and continue to build to where the protagonist is in ever-increasing danger until it becomes life-threatening . . . and then they solve the mystery.
4. Make Setting Work for You: When you choose a location for your story, don’t stop there. Every city or town has a character. Use that. I set my novel in Philadelphia. Since I grew up there, I know it well and I used that knowledge to create a certain feeling. People who read my book said that I’d captured the essence of the city. I used different neighborhoods to emphasize and reinforce the theme of classism in my story, for example. And, I used landmarks to anchor the story for those familiar with Philadelphia to give a sense of place.
5. Don’t Be Cliché: Be careful not to fall into the cliché trap. “It was a dark and stormy night” is probably not the best first sentence nor is it the best setting for your mystery. Be contrary. Pick an unexpected setting. In Stephen King’s novella The Mist, people are trapped in a supermarket when a fog filled with nightmare creatures surrounds the store. We all need to visit supermarkets. He’s showing the reader that nowhere is safe. Let the murder be on the beach at midday, at a major league baseball game, or a children’s birthday party. Ratchet up the terror.
6. Location, Location, Location: Keep the story moving. In a mystery/suspense novel, every scene has to create a sense of place. Keep readers alert and involved by changing environment early and often. You will set the stage for future action and keep your readers engaged with novelty. This doesn’t mean you can’t write lovely descriptive sentences, just be sure they add to the ambiance and propel the story forward.
7. Stereotypes Be Damned: Be wary of “the butler did it” outcomes. Write in shades of grey rather than stark black-and-white. No villain is all evil while no hero is complete without flaws. You can have fun with this in character development. Character flaws serve multiple purposes. Often, they’re the faults and shortcomings that create conflict between key players in a story. Make your villains attractive. Perhaps you have more than one but only one is the killer. Give your heroes secrets; they’re not perfect either. Make it as realistic as possible. This will keep your reader guessing and make your work more accessible.
Whatever you do, have fun while you write. Novel writing may seem like an overwhelming task . . . hundreds of pages, plots, characters, sub-plots, etc. And yet, every novel was written one page at a time. Why not make yours one of them?