Creating suspense

by Alex

I know, I know, huge topic. And I’m sure many others have done it better, but I’m not being satisfied with what I’m reading, so I’m blatantly using my post today partly to beg links to good articles (compile links, I mean…) and attempt to discuss what I myself know or suspect about creating suspense.

This is the first thing I tell people who ask me about suspense:

You have to study, analyze and teach yourself to write the kind of suspense YOU want to create.

Because there are all kinds of suspense. Many thrillers are based on action and adrenaline – the experience the author wants to create and the reader wants to experience is that roller-coaster feeling. I myself am not big on that kind of suspense. I love a good adrenaline rush in a book (in fact I pretty much require them, repeatedly). But pure action scenes pretty much bore me senseless, and big guns and machines and explosions and car chases make my eyes glaze over. What I’m looking for in a book is the sensual – okay, sexual – thrill of going into the unknown. How it feels to know that there’s something there in the dark with you that’s not necessarily rational, and not necessarily human. It’s a slower, more erotic kind of thrill – that you find in THE TURN OF THE SCREW and THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE and THE SHINING. So although I can learn some techniques from spy thrillers or giant actioners, studying that kind of book for what I want to do is probably not going to get me where I want to go.

There’s also the classic mystery thrill of having to figure a puzzle out. There’s a great pleasure in using your mind to unlock a particularly well-crafted puzzle. I love to add that element to my stories, too, so that even though the characters are dealing with the unknown, there is still a logical way to figure the puzzle out.

So to create suspense, the first thing you have to identify is what KIND of suspense you want to create. Most stories use all three kinds of suspense I just talked about (and others – really I’m just scratching the surface), but there will be one particular kind that dominates.

A useful thing to do is to make yourself a master list of ten books and films that are not just in your own genre, but that all create the particular kind of suspense experience that you’re looking to create yourself. There are particular tricks that every author or screenwriter uses to create suspense, and looking at ten stories in a row will get you identifying those tricks. If you’re reading a particularly good book, you get so caught up in it that you don’t see the wheels and gears – and that’s good. So read it to the end… but then go back and reread to really look at the machinery of it.

What tricks am I talking about? Well, let’s see.

To my mind, the most basic and important suspense technique is ASK A CENTRAL QUESTION with your story.

Of course, every good story is inherently a suspense story, because every story is predicated on the storyteller creating the desire in the reader or audience to find out What Happens? And writing mysteries as we all do (mystery/thriller/suspense), our genre has a built-in suspense element by its very nature – the built-in question – “Who done it?” (Or in my case, as Dusty says, “What done it?”)

So the very first place that a book creates suspense is on the meta-level: in the premise, that one line description of what the story is. That story line (flap copy, back jacket text) is what makes a reader pick up a book and say – “Yeah! I want to know what happens!”

– When a great white shark starts attacking beachgoers in a coastal town during high tourist season, a water-phobic Sheriff must assemble a team to hunt it down before it kills again.

– A young female FBI trainee must barter personal information with an imprisoned psychopathic genius in order to catch a serial killer who is capturing and killing young women for their skins.

– A treasure-hunting archeologist races over the globe to find the legendary Lost Ark of the Covenant before Hitler’s minions can acquire and use it to supernaturally power the Nazi army.

Any one of the above can also be phrased as a question: Will Clarice get Lecter to help her catch Buffalo Bill before he kills Catherine? That’s what I mean when I say the central question of the story.

Now, there’s a whole hell of a lot of suspense in that story question – unlike in, say, the movie we saw last night: WHAT HAPPENS IN VEGAS. Does anyone going into that movie think for one single solitary second that Cameron Diaz is not going to end up with Ashton Kuchner? No suspense in that premise at all.

But in a mystery, or thriller, or horror story, someone could die. Anyone could always die. Even the main character can die – at least in a standalone. And I would argue that third person narration in a mystery/thriller is always going to be more suspenseful than first person, because even if your first person narrator DOES die in a surprise twist at the end, the reader hasn’t worried about it for the entire book.

In that SILENCE OF THE LAMBS story set up, we know Catherine could die – in fact, any number of additional victims could die – because it’s a thriller and we’ve got a particularly monstrous killer holding her. Clarice could die, too – in fact, throughout the story, we are always at least subconsciously aware that Clarice is disquietingly similar to Buffalo Bill’s previous victims: she is young, white, Southern, from a struggling family.

All this is STAKES – a critical element of every story. What do we fear is going to happen?

A good story makes the stakes crystal clear – from the very beginning of the story. We know right up front in SILENCE OF THE LAMBS that there’s a serial killer out there who will not stop killing young women until he is caught or killed. How do we know that? The characters say it, flat out, and not just once, and not just one character. Harris makes us perfectly, acutely aware of what the stakes are. The story ups the ante when a particular victim is kidnapped and we get to know her – we really don’t want THIS particular, feisty victim to die.

In RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, the government agent who comes to hire Indy to find the Ark of the Covenant says that Hitler is after it, and Indy and his colleague, the archeological experts, tell us the legend that the army which has the Ark is invincible. That’s really, really bad. Huge stakes. And it is spelled out with crystal clarity, in dialogue, with accompanying visuals of ancient text – in the first 15 minutes of the movie.

It might even be the number one rule of suspense – You need to tell your reader what they’re supposed to be afraid of. Not just scene by scene – but in the entire story, overall. You need to let the reader know what the hero, or another character, is in for – or the whole world is in for – if the hero doesn’t do something about it.

And if that’s the number one rule, then the photo finish number two rule is – You have to make the reader CARE. Because if the reader doesn’t care about the characters, then they have no personal stake in the stakes.

No, I’m not going to go into all the techniques of creating a character that readers will care about – different post!

But here’s one technique that also goes to creating suspense: stack the odds against your protagonist. It’s just ingrained in us to love an underdog.

In SILENCE, the protagonist, Clarice is up against huge odds. She has many personal obstacles. She’s a woman in a man’s world, young, a mere trainee, she has big wounds from a troubled childhood. She also has many external opponents, like Dr. Chilton, the Senator and more minor characters within scenes – not to mention that Dr. Lecter is not exactly being cooperative – he’s got his own agenda, and he’s a master at playing it.

In RAIDERS, Indy is up against Hitler (through his minions). Indy is awfully heroic and expert and, well, hot – but he’s still the underdog in this particular fight.

A lot of suspense stories use children, women, or characters with a handicap to stack the odds against the hero. Okay, it sounds manipulative, but suspense IS manipulation. And just because a technique is manipulative doesn’t make it any less effective when it’s done well: Think of WAIT UNTIL DARK (blind protagonist) , REAR WINDOW (wheelchair-bound protagonist), THE SIXTH SENSE (I swear I went to that movie just to make sure that little boy made it out okay), THE SHINING.

Another suspense technique that can be built in on the premise level is the TICKING CLOCK. Building a clock into the story creates an overall sense of urgency. In SILENCE, we learn (very early) that Buffalo Bill holds his victims for three days before he kills them. So when Catherine is kidnapped, we know Clarice only has three days to save her. We know this because the characters say it. Beginning writers seem to be afraid to just say things straight out, but there’s no reason to be coy.

Harris does the same thing in RED DRAGON – that killer is on a moon cycle so the hero knows he has only a month to track this killer down before he kills another entire family. Again, we know that because the characters tell us so – repeatedly.

Harris is actually the master of the ticking clock – he has a particularly clever one in BLACK SUNDAY: a terrorist attack is being planned to take place at the Superbowl. Well, we all know it would take no less than the Apocalypse to get sponsors to cancel or postpone the Superbowl, so Harris has both locked his characters in to an inevitable event, and also created a clock – come hell or high water, it’s all going to come down on Superbowl Sunday.

Again, a ticking clock is manipulative, and you can make an argument that it’s a less effective technique these days because it’s been overused, but that just means you have to be more clever about it. Make it an organic clock, as in the examples above. In RED DRAGON, for example – having the killer be on a moon clock is very creepily effective, because not only is this a real characteristic of some serial killers, Harris has built a whole symbolic image system into this story – he uses animal imagery to depict this killer: describing him as a baby bat (with his cleft palate), emphasizing his biting, giving the character a desire to become a dragon. The moon clock is part of the image system, and the killer seems much more monstrous.

Now, all of the above are suspense techniques on the meta-level. Once you’ve created a story that has the elements of suspense built into the overall structure, you have to start working suspense on the scene level, moment-by-moment. And here’s where I find a lot of books really lacking in the kind of suspense I personally crave, which is about making me feel the physical and mental effects of wonder and terror. And that you have to do by working a scene over and over and over again. You need to direct it, act it, production design it, cast it, score it. What is scary in the physical environment, in the visual and in the symbolism of the space? How can you use sound to create chills? What is going through the character’s head that increases the danger of the experience? How do you use pace and rhythm of language to create the equivalent of a musical soundtrack (the prime purpose of which is to manipulate emotion in a viewer?)

You have to layer in all six senses – what it looks, smells, sounds, feels, tastes like – as well as what your characters sense are there, even though there’s no physical evidence for it. You have to create the effect of an adrenaline rush. I think a huge weakness of a lot of writers is that they either don’t understand – or they’re too lazy to convey – the effects of adrenaline on the body and mind. You know how in a good suspense or action scene the pace actually slows down, so that every detail stands out and every move takes ages to complete? Well, that writing technique is actually just duplicating the experience of an adrenaline rush – your heart is going so fast and your thoughts are coming so fast that everything around you seems slowed down. You react to things faster because your metabolism has sped up so you CAN react faster and possibly save yourself.

I’m realizing that this is going to have to be two posts – at least! – but here’s my last thought for this one. I think one of the best things a writer can do to learn how to write suspense is to take some acting classes. Learning to experience a story from INSIDE one of the characters – literally, inside that character’s body – will make you much more proficient at creating a physical, sensual experience for your readers.

So yes, if you have links to particularly good articles or sites on how to create suspense, please share! Authors, what are your favorite suspense tips and techniques? Who did you study to learn the fine art of suspense? And readers, who are your favorite suspense authors, and do you have a favorite KIND of suspense?

13 thoughts on “Creating suspense

  1. billie

    Alex, I have nothing to add to this – except to say THANK YOU. What an amazing summary of some very concrete aspects of creating suspense.

    My two mantras as I write are always: what’s at stake? and dig DEEP.

    I’m particularly intrigued with your thought that third person is inherently more suspenseful than first – I had never thought about that consciously, but recently began to put my entire second novel into third person because on some level I felt third makes this particular story more compelling. This one is much more a novel of suspense than the other two.

    And suddenly as I wrote the above, I realize that the first novel is more compelling in first b/c its “suspense” is much more internal to the MC. It’s her moment-to-moment perceptions and experiences that move the story to its conclusion.

    Ping! Ping! Light bulbs going on all around me.

    Thanks for the en-LIGHT-en-ment. 🙂

  2. R.J. Mangahas

    Great Post Alex. This is really great stuff.

    To start, here are a couple of links that I like:

    I love the examples you give by the way. I have either read or seen pretty much every title you’ve mentioned in your post. But now I can use them more as reference as well as entertainment.

    And I’m so glad you suggested that writers taking an acting class to really develop a sense of how to build character. I whole heartedly agree with that one. I have to admit, I do miss being involved in theater. I may have to go back if for no other reason to once again develop characters through acting. that and it’s just plain fun 🙂

  3. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Actually, Billie, thank YOU, for this: ” I realize that the first novel is more compelling in first b/c its “suspense” is much more internal to the MC. It’s her moment-to-moment perceptions and experiences that move the story to its conclusion.”

    PERFECTLY put, and I’m adopting that (with credit to you) for future posts!

    RJ, thanks for the links – I’m running out to a dance class for my daily adrenaline rush but will read them and comment as soon as I get back.

    Glad you like my examples – I’m always looking for the ones that almost everyone has seen or read.

  4. Louise Ure

    Great post, Alex. You’ve probably already memorized it, but Stephen King’s ON WRITING has a good section on creating suspense. He describes those opening set ups as “What if” questions, and the plot takes off from there.

    And I never thought Clarice was in danger from Buffalo Bill. He only went after “big girls.”

  5. toni mcgee causey

    Great post, Alex. I’d like to address this statement: “But pure action scenes pretty much bore me senseless, and big guns and machines and explosions and car chases make my eyes glaze over.”

    Because I agree… if it’s “pure” action, without forwarding the characters, their motivations, the stakes, their understanding of their choices and consequences or if it doesn’t serve to develop a new level of fear / heartache for the main characters. If the characters come out at the end of the action scene with the same level of awareness of their problem and their relationships to that problem and the people around them, then the action scene hasn’t served its purpose in the overall story of suspense / thriller narrative.

    When you really think about it, every single scene in any story is an action scene. The action may be internal conflict, where the outside is so still, we can practically feel the monster roiling beneath the surface. Or it may be conflict between the characters. Or it may be balls-out action. No matter what, every scene should have some level of building conflict which moves the story forward, and that’s no different from action scenes. “Movement” cannot be substituted for “story conflict” — so just because there’s a car chase, there has to be a lot more going on to make that work in the creation of suspense, stakes, goals, and character growth.

    I know you already know the site, but for others who may have missed it, the Indiana Jones “Impressive Failure” column is great:

  6. Louise Ure

    Sorry to be off topic here, but I’m trying to get hold of Murderati friend Tom Barclay.

    Tom, if you’re reading this … or if any of you know how to reach him … please have him send me a message at

    I need his good judgment on final assembly of the Ken Bruen farewell CD.


  7. Alexandra Sokoloff

    That is a good article, Toni. It is funny how literally deus ex machina RAIDERS is in the end… God just takes the damn thing back – but this is a rare case where that works!

  8. JT Ellison

    Alex, you really should be a teacher. This is fantastic — I’m printing it out for me — and timely as hell too, I’m suffering from lack-of-suspense-itis right now. This will help me get back on track. THANK YOU!

  9. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Well, JT, I’m thrilled to be of service. I’m going to spout off some more next week about some specifics within scenes. Of course I’M at this same stage in my book myself, the suspense pass, so I need it as much as anyone.

  10. Tom Barclay

    Alex, everyone, this has been a terrifically valuable and timely discussion. Thank you all.

    Louise, check the mailbox.


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