Suspense is one of the best ways to keep your readers hooked…but poorly done suspense can make your story fall flat or become way too predictable. A common mistake is to believe that suspense and suspenseful situations are only for thriller novels. This simply isn’t true. Suspense is the glue that will hold your novel together. As the reader feels the suspense of a situation, they will be hooked deeper and deeper into your story. It is suspense that makes a reader say ‘just one more chapter’.
That’s all well and good, you might be thinking, but how do you actually add in suspense and avoid cliches? Follow these five tips to write exciting and thrilling stories.
1. Raise the stakes
One of the first things you should do if you want to add more suspense into your novel is to raise the stakes. We need to really care about whether or not something happens. Suspense falls flat when your readers get bored. If the outcome doesn’t matter that much, the reader won’t care and won’t keep reading.
2. Dramatic irony
Let the reader know or see something that the character doesn’t. While this is obviously much easier to do in third person, you can do it in first person as well. If a reader is putting together pieces that the character hasn’t been able to, there will be some great tension there. And the suspense will kick up a notch as we wait for them to figure it out as well.
Jaws does this well in their movie poster-the viewer knows the shark is there and the swimmer is completely oblivious to the danger.
3. Let your characters lose
Throughout your novel, give your characters instances that they lose or fail. If you know that the character will ultimately win, the reader can get bored and stop caring about the situation, no matter how many other ways you try to pack suspense in. Make the reader truly question whether or not the character will win and they’ll be hanging onto every word.
4. Add a haunting pattern
One of the most interesting ways I’ve seen writers add in suspense is with a rhyme or lyrical pattern. It can add chills if done right. A common pattern you can follow comes from an old nursery rhyme.
One for sorrow, Two for mirth, Three for a funeral And four for birth
A haunting pattern will stick in a reader’s mind and add an eerie quality. Repeating it will heighten your suspense each time, especially the more it becomes associated with bad things. You can then play with your reader’s expectation (see above) by using the pattern in places where nothing seems to be wrong.
5. Play with expectations
There are some very easy cliches to fall into. You can really pull suspense into the novel by giving us those cliches and playing it out differently than we expected. If we are walking through a dark forest on a stormy night, we’ll be jumping at every noise expecting something to happen. Invert what we expect to happen and you’ll leave the reader on the edge of their seat.
Try these tips to draw your readers in so they just can’t seem to put your novel down!