Create Tension and Suspense. Keep the reader flipping pages!

I just completed the first draft of my latest novel, the sequel to Timber Point.  The working title was Dancing In The Shadows.  However, after completing the novel I thought of a title that fits better:  Silent Betrayal.

I often post about what stage I’m at in the process.  Therefore, today’s post is about creating tension and suspense in your thriller.  (Or in my case, make sure it’s done correctly during editing.)  Keep readers on the edge of their seat, flipping the pages.

I came across an article about this topic.  If you haven’t read The Kill Zone blog, I highly recommend it.  These tips were posted in that blog, but I added my own flair to them.  The expository is mine to help you better understand.

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1.  Condense your setup and backstory.

Nothing is worse than reading ten pages about nothing.  All fluff.  Or hearing about the protagonist’s entire life story.  The author should know the story, but your reader doesn’t need every small detail.  However, IF parts of the backstory is relevant to the story line– keep it.  Just make it as short as possible.  Give the crucial elements your reader NEEDS to know without the fluff.  Add emotions, yes, but don’t let it lag along for pages and pages.

2.  Hint at unanswered questions, secrets, fears, worries, indecision and inner turmoil in every scene.

This is a great way to keep the reader interested so they have to turn those pages to find out what happens.

3.  Develop a lean writing style.

Be ruthless when editing.  Cut all non-essential information and clutter to keep your thriller thrilling.

4.  Rewrite, condense, or delete scenes that drag.

This is a tough one.  You’ve spent long hours crafting a scene, describing movements, emotions, dress or a room in a house.  Now you want me to cut it?  Yikes!  You love the way it sounds.  But does it really do anything to advance your story?  Take a good hard look at it.  If it does, rewrite it and make it suspenseful.  If it doesn’t, and be honest with yourself, cut, cut, cut.  You can always put it in a file to keep to use in a different story.

5.  Keep chapters and scenes short.

This is one of my favorite tips.  I am a huge fan of James Patterson.  Did you know no one has ever sold more books than him.  Ever!  According to the World Records Book, it’s true.  He must be doing something right. What is that?  White space.  He keeps his chapters very short, anywhere from two to five pages.  I’ve actually seen chapters that were a page and a half!  His paragraphs are short and very digestible.  Which keeps the reader flying through the story.  The more white space on your page the better.  White space is your friend in thriller writing.

6.  Start each scene or chapter as late as possible and end it as early as possible.

Don’t start your scene or chapter with a lengthy setup.  Boring!  Instead, start every scene and chapter with a story question, intrigue, conflict.  You want to arouse the curiosity of the reader and keep them turning the pages to find out what happens.  Don’t make it easy on them.  Don’t give them the answer right away.  Make them wait!  Don’t wrap up your scene in a nice little bow.  You worked hard and accomplished so much at the beginning to hook them, don’t undo it now.  You’ll give them a chance to set the book down.  Never a good thing.  Instead, end in uncertainty, or with a new challenge.

7.  Limit explaining.  Show, don’t tell.

This is a no brainer.  At least it should be.  Keep memories, reflections, ruminations to a minimum.  Critical scenes need to be “shown” in real time.  This keeps them more compelling than just telling them what happened– boring!  Use lots of actions, dialogue, reactions and thoughts.  Keep the narration in the character’s voice.  You’re actually “showing” what she/he experiences, not “telling” what happened.

8.  Use summary to skip past the boring parts and advance time.

Keep it short.  Use this technique when nothing much happens.  It’s just a review, so again, white space is your friend.  Example,  “Three days later and we were no further along in the investigation.”


9.  Make sure every scene has enough conflict and tension.

No scene should be without conflict.  If you find one while editing, throw a wrench in your protagonist’s plans.  If you’re following proper structure than this should be automatic.  Goal, conflict, setback.  Reaction, dilemma, decision.  By following this formula it will be nearly impossible not to have conflict in every scene.

10.  Every scene needs a change of some kind.

No scene should be static.  If it is, introduce a new character, new dangers, new challenges.  Again, remember your structure.

11.  Use cliff hangers.

I love this one, too.  Cliff hangers are a great tool.  They add suspense, raise a question, increase tension.  End most scenes and chapters with unresolved questions, danger, setback, or threat.  Prolonging the outcome piques the readers curiosity (always a good thing) and makes them worry.

12.  Employ scene cuts or jump cuts.

Create a series of short, unresolved incidents that occur in rapid succession. Stop at a critical spot and jump to a different scene, often at a different time and place with different characters.  Again, James Patterson does this flawlessly.  Perhaps, pick up a scene where you left off earlier.  Switch from protagonist to antagonist.  Or from one dicey scene to another.  And remember, don’t resolve the conflict at the end.

13.  Use short paragraphs– lots of white space.

I touched on this earlier, but it bears repeating.  The more white space the better.  The eye moves faster down the page, and so does the mind.  Which increases tension and keeps your reader on the edge of their seat.  I just read Cat & Mouse by James Patterson.  I could barely keep my eyes open, but I couldn’t put it down.  Often I fell asleep sitting up with my computer still on my lap.  Of course, this was after many hours.  The body shuts down after a while no matter how suspenseful.  Mine does anyway.  Maybe I’m just getting old.  :)

14.  Use powerful sentences with concrete, sensory words that evoke strong reactions in your reader.

Avoid wishy-washy words or abstract words, or unfamiliar words that the reader needs to look up.  Stephen King in On Writing states, “Usually the first word that comes to mind is the correct word.”  Don’t use your thesaurus so much that it ruins your story.  Simple words can be, and usually are, the best words to advance your story.  Use evocative, active, strong verbs and nouns, and cut back on over use of adjectives, adverbs and pronouns.  Take out repetitive words.  Although, there is a technique I like where you use the same word to begin or end a series of sentences.  The name of the technique escapes me at the moment.  It goes like this.

This is an excerpt from my short story, Out of the Darkness:

If I survived, I pledged to appreciate the miraculous wonders of life.  I’d take nothing for granted.  I lost my sight.  Does that mean I stop living?  Robert died.  Thus, should I die too?  I answered with a resounding, “NO!”  If I survived, I’d fight for what I desired.  I’d learn braille, instead of denouncing it.  I’d buy a seeing eye dog.  I’d do everything in my power to overcome my disability.  Learn my limitations, and then conquer them.  No more pity-parties for me, if I survived.

Highlight the repetitive words for emphasis.  It’s very effective, in my opinion.

15.  Vary sentence structure.  Shorten sentences for a bigger punch, and a more suspenseful effect.

Shorter sentences or fragmented sentences gives a reader a pause.  This catches the eye of the reader and creates tension.  At a critical point in your story don’t run a bunch of sentences together.  They’ll get lost in the mind of the reader.  You want short, clipped, staccato sentences, easily digestible sentences.  It really works, especially in dialogue.

Well, that’s all for today.  This subject has many different variations depending on who’s posting.  I try to learn from the masters.  Successful authors who have many novels under their belt.  And I would never share something with you guys if I didn’t use the tips in my own work, just so you know.

No matter what genre you write in, you must have tension and suspense in order to have a great story line.

What are your favorite ways to create tension in your stories?

Happy writing, everyone!

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