How To Write Suspense

Anyone who knows me well knows I'm a total wuss. I really don't like to watch scary movies or shows or read that style of book because it's too real to me. The images stick and I can't shake them off. Especially when I'm home alone late at night--and not even alone alone, but the last one up? My mind takes the wheel and drives me down Elm Street!

And yet I wrote a super creepy YA horror novel! My intent with Phobic was to have a story for readers who, like me, like a little bit of creepy but not so much that they can't go to the bathroom by themselves afterward--as what happened to me after I watched Candyman and The Skeleton Key.

But I'm not necessary talking scary here. Even if you're not aiming to write a "scary" story, all fiction needs to have one thing in order to keep readers turning pages. It's not a huge secret.

Every book needs SUSPENSE. 

Jay Asher, author of Thirteen Reasons Why and The Future of Us had a really great tip on this when I attended his workshop at SCBWI LA a few years ago.

He said in essence, "You never want to give readers a comfortable place to put the book down."

That means amping up the suspense consistently throughout the story.

But how do we do this?



1. ESTABLISH THE MYSTERY.




 Somewhere within your opening pages a mystery needs to be established. It doesn't have to be a "Whodunit?" mystery, just something to pique interest. I think about The Hunger Games, and the mystery of the Reaping in the opening. Finding out who gets selected to go into an arena and fight for their lives? Of course we knew it would be Katniss, but how would she be selected? What would happen to her when she got there? That was a big-time mystery!

In Phobic, the mystery is two-fold. The scene opens with Piper practicing clarinet and getting ready for school in her creepy house. While she's about to leave for school, the house refuses to open the door for her. While Piper is trying to open the not-locked door that won't budge, she then hears her dead father's voice coming from the TV in the kitchen. Instantly readers want to know several things: What is the secret behind Piper's haunted house? And what made her father's voice able to cross channels to connect with her?

Read more about how to establish the mystery in your story here.


2. GIVE SCENES DIRECTION. 




I'm half-plotter, half-pantser, so I usually go with the flow of where the story wants to take me until I get to a point where I'm stumped. This is when I plot and make sure each one of my scenes has a direction.

I make scene cards for every story I write. On these cards, I establish:

  • What's taking place in the scene.
  • What the character's goal for the scene is. (Or the goal of the scene overall.)
  • What setback keeps the character from reaching this goal.
Each scene must have a setback in order to continue raising tension. I used to wonder why my favorite characters could never catch a break. Why can't anything go right for them? As a writer, we never want things to go right for our characters! I'm always hearing how we should imagine the worst possible thing that can happen to our character and then put them in that situation. 

  (Sorry, the picture is turned! I'll figure out how to fix it...)
I didn't specify on any of these, but the goal of the scene is for Todd to come for answers about Piper's house. When he bugs her, the floor opens up and he falls in the basement. The raised stakes are now that Piper is forced to go into the basement, a place her dad forbid her from ever going into. 

Again, I'll go back to Phobic here. For Piper, the worst possible thing is to go into her haunted basement, which requires going through a door her father had repeatedly forbidden her from entering. But opening these doors triggers the suspenseful chain of events that torments her, yes, but also liberates her to solving the mystery and freeing herself from it. Actually, this is more of an overall setback, so let me get back to scene setbacks.

Here is one scene card that shows the setbacks and raised stakes. This is from my YA sci fi/fantasy coming Fall 2015, Sealed With a Kiss. 

Ugh, sorry, my pictures are sideways! But this scene starts with Remi's goal of protecting the governor. She gets there and because she's a hothead, shows off. This results in the governor's death, and she fails her mission from the start of the story.


These cards are also helpful to me while plotting because ideas flow as I write the basic points of the scene and I often think of ways to help develop the scene or a certain character or plot point as I go. Like above, where I highlight additional points I needed to make in the story. 


3. NEVER END CHAPTERS "COMFORTABLY"




Another key to writing suspense into ANY kind of story, is to continually raise stakes at chapter endings. TV show writers are geniuses at this. My husband and I really enjoyed the show Lost and 24. And every time an episode ended we were dying to know what happens next because they always ended with a cliffhanger.

Go back through your chapter endings. If things are tied up nicely, maybe jump up a few paragraphs and cut the chapter there. Raise questions, leave readers hanging so that when it's two am they'll choose finishing your book instead of sleeping because they have to know what happens next.

That's one of my favorite things to hear as an author. That a reader stayed up until 2 am, 4 am, just to finish my book. Satisfying!

This post is already long enough, so I'll end my thoughts there for now, although I promise another post to come on amping suspense throughout your plot instead of just in your scenes, along with the best way to handle the ending of a book.

Did I miss any key points? Feel free to leave them in the comments. Thanks for stopping by!



Cortney

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