Creating suspense in a novel is easy. Just pose some intriguing questions that won’t be answered until later. While you’re at it, put someone in danger. Make it someone we really like and someone who is defenseless, and we’ll turn the page and the next page and the next until we find out what happened to her.
Every good novel, whether it’s a family drama, a romance or an adventure, is suspenseful. It raises questions that must eventually be answered or the reader will lose interest. The first question you should dangle in front of the reader is the central dramatic question, the most important one because it drives the entire novel.
The central dramatic question might be “Whose bones are in that grave and how did they get there?” or “Will the attorney be able to save the black man who has been wrongly accused of murder?” or “Will a spinster and a derelict drunk be able to blow up a Nazi battleship or will they die trying?” Not just any question will do. It must be one with high stakes or one that will ignite the reader’s curiosity. If you don’t have a life-changing question early in your manuscript, the reader will have no reason to turn the page.
Putting the protagonist, whom we’ve come to love, in danger produces tension, but putting the protagonist’s loved one in jeopardy triggers an explosion of anxiety. Having the reader care for your characters is critical. Even an antihero must have qualities we admire. He may be alienated from society. He may be reluctant to get involved. He may be an alcoholic, but whatever his flaws, he must drive the action and step in to save someone from harm.
Author Lee Child, who writes thrillers, says humans seemed programmed to wait for answers. The longer a reader must wait and the more the peril increases, the greater the suspense. There may even be a ticking clock, making the pressure on the protagonist almost too agonizing for the reader to bear. Then put more pressure on him chapter by chapter. Foreshadow threats and traps. Cut the time on the ticking clock in half. Put your hero in a crucible—a ship or an island or any place he can’t easily escape from. Use cliffhangers at the end of chapters to escalate the anxiety. Zero in on the hero’s biggest fear, whether it’s snakes or a sniper, and make him confront and conquer it.
Avoid plot predictability by using carefully placed twists that are unexpected but plausible. Make sure you have a worthy antagonist who appears to have more advantages, skill and power than the hero does. If the bad guy doesn’t seem threatening enough, have him kill off or injure someone the protagonist loves. Then the reader knows the next victim could be our hero.
Just when it looks like victory is in sight, crush your protagonist. Homer used this trick in the Odyssey. Odysseus acquires some ships to take him home. The master of the winds gives Odysseus a leather bag containing all but the west wind, a priceless gift that should have helped him on his journey. However, while Odysseus sleeps, his fellow sailors foolishly open the bag, believing it contains gold. The winds escape, generating a storm just as the sailors’ home, the island of Ithaca, is within sight. The winds blow the ships back, losing all the distance they had come.
This scenario is a writing technique that lures the reader into believing the hero has achieved his goal but then you take the prize away. Your job as the author is to continually pressure the protagonist and torment him often to the point of death because it is through adversity we learn his true worth and he gains wisdom. If the story is well told, the reader suffers along with him, each reversal heightening the anxiety.
Author Brian Klems says creating suspense is “like inflating a balloon—you can’t let the air out of your story; instead you keep blowing more in, tightening the tension until it looks like the balloon is going to pop at any second. Then add more and more. And more. Until the reader can hardly stand it.”
The balloon explodes at the climax of the story, answering all the questions the author has introduced. Be careful not to release any air from it before the climax. If you take away the danger, you’ll drop the tension and the reader may lose interest. If you can come up with a twist at the end, you’ll surprise the reader and give her an extra thrill.
Look at your own manuscript? Is something really important at stake? I was in a critique group many years ago in which one of the writers said her story was about a crippled man who had to choose between traditional and alternative therapy. The rest of us groaned.
Does your story have a central dramatic question? How about questions, twists and turns throughout the novel? Have you foreshadowed danger? Have you complicated, prolonged and increased the distress until the hero and the reader can no longer stand it? At that point, it will be time for you to reveal the answers that have been kept from the readers and allow them to breathe a long and well deserved sigh of relief.