The secret to writing pulse pounding suspense is…
It’s an old joke and I can’t take credit for it, but it’s true. The best way to create suspense and hold it is to create an emotional situation of any sort, and delay, delay, delay resolving it. Authors and other story tellers have been doing it since the dawn of man (I’m pretty sure…I have no empirical data to support that claim.) but I can picture a hunter, sitting in front of the fire with all the tribe cavefolk, describing how he managed to snare their dinner.
“I stalked the mammoth for hours. Each time I got closer, he moved moved us further from the safety of the ravine. I couldn’t come in close enough on the downwind side. I wasn’t sure what was going on until I realized, we weren’t alone…something else was closing in too. The only question was, ‘is it stalking the mammoth too?’ or ‘is it after me?'”
“What was it?!” a little cavegirl asked.
“I’ll get to that,” the hunter replied.
Obviously, delay isn’t the only ingredient in building suspense. The story itself has to be compelling and the reveal has to be satisfying. I’ve read a few cozy mysteries where the entire story was dedicated to uncovering the who, what, why, and how of a murder, only to find out it wasn’t a murder at all but a bizarre twist of fate that resulted in an accident that looked like a murder. “What?! I read the whole book, let you lead me into believing it was the corrupt sheriff, only to find out snow melted on the roof and released an icicle, which then fell just as the victim looked up, striking her in the eye?!” Wow…was that a let down. The whole story was basically a wild goose cha– but I digress.
Timing is a big issue when building suspense. There is a rhythm to story telling that most people have in their own heads. It’s the rhythm they use to tell stories to themselves and it’s pretty standard. If you know this rhythm, you can wreak holy hell on the emotions of your reader, by not only ignoring it, but by using it to bait them.
The air was still. A pin dropped fifty feet away would have been heard. She moved from the ground, scuffing the toe of her shoe and sending a wave of tension through her chest at the sound. She stopped, listening to hear if her stalker had also heard it.
After a moment of continued silence, she climbed to her feet, careful not to make noise this time.
Where are you? she thought peering behind her.
When she stepped around the corner someone knocked her to the ground. She screamed.
“Easy,” the man said, holding his hands out in a gesture of calm. “What are you doing out here in the middle of the night?”
“Someone was chasing me,” she replied, desperation coloring her tone. “He broke my car window and followed me down–”
“Whoa, whoa. Slow down. Who was chasing you?” the man asked. “Did you call the police?”
“I don’t know who he is. I didn’t get a good look at him, but my phone is still in my car.”
The man smiled. “Good. It would have sucked if you’d called it in already.”
Each time you add another story component after the tension is created, you add to the suspense. Twists are great for doing that. Not only do they draw out the suspense, they force the reader to relax a tick just before you slam them with something bigger. The impact is more resounding if they’ve been pulled into the same false sense of security your character has been and then had that hope stripped away.
You aren’t playing fair when you write these stories. You are going in with the intent of understanding what your reader is going to feel before they feel it and manipulate it. This is not the act of an emotionally balanced individual. Oops. Sorry.
To create suspense, tension, fear, loathing or any other strong emotion in a reader, you need to be manipulative…yes, it’s antisocial behavior. If you’re good at it, at least you’re putting it to constructive use by writing good stories. Maybe you’ll even get some of it out of your system…maybe.
If you liked this post, then please like this post 🙂 S.L. Shelton is the author of an Amazon Bestselling Political Thriller Action Espionage Series, (The Scott Wolfe Series). Follow him here on WordPress, on Twitter @SLSheltonAuthor or Facebook. He will love you for it. And if you like the posts, click like (likes, follows and reviews are the best way to get authors to write more.)