Are you writing a story and want to add suspense to it? Below we explain how to add suspense to a novel through 9 top tips!
1. Create a high-stakes situation
You can begin the novel by presenting a high-stakes situation. It should reveal what the situation used to be like for the protagonist, and how it has changed as a result of a certain problem they are facing. Also, you need to convey the repercussions and what the consequences would be if the protagonist fails to solve that problem.
Once the readers understand what is at stake and what the consequences would be if the protagonist does not solve the problem, all chapters moving forward will add natural suspense. Each time the protagonist makes a step forward, and gets closer to their goal (of solving the problem), the suspense for the solution and resolution will increase.
The high stakes consequences can impact the whole world (i.e. the protagonist could be literally trying to save the world, or a small town, or maybe a building), and they also have to impact the protagonist themselves (i.e. if they do not solve the problem, they will suffer a psychological impact or trauma that will permanently change them).
2. Use the protagonist’s own anxiety
The high-stakes situation for the protagonist will naturally add a bit of anxiety to the protagonist. Depending on the protagonist’s character traits, this level of anxiety can be big or small.
For example, if your protagonist is a law-abiding person but has to break certain laws to solve the problem, they might feel anxious any time a person on the street casts a second or a closer look at them. They might think they are being followed or watched from afar, and would want to get home or to any other safe place quickly.
Use this type of anxiety in the narration to make even a walk in the park a dangerous and dramatic obstacle that has to be overcome by the protagonist. Oftentimes, it’s enough for the protagonist to fear or imagine a worst-case scenario to get more suspense in the narration.
3. Indicate plenty of future danger
We use the word indicate here because you just need to let the readers know that there might be danger for the protagonist ahead, but the method of doing so can vary from foreshadowing to foretelling.
Foreshadowing is subtle and delivered through different ways, usually in the narration. Perhaps something happened in the past, to the protagonist or someone else, which indicates to the reader that something like that might happen in the future.
Foretelling is very much direct. Foreshadowing indicates that something might happen, but foretelling directly states that if a certain condition (or conditions) is met, something bad will happen to the protagonist. As such, once the conditions start being met within the story, the reader will start anticipating the bad thing that is supposed to happen.
4. Leave clues to a mystery
While the main plot of the novel, or the subplot, might not be of the mystery genre, and the protagonist might not need to solve a mystery to solve the main problem, you can still plant little mysteries in your novel to add suspense to the overall story.
For example, perhaps the protagonist’s mother died mysteriously 20 years ago, and they have now just found her old diary in the attic. Perhaps what is written in the diary does not seem to be directly related to the main plot in the beginning, but if you leave little clues throughout the narration, and each clue seems to indicate that the main plot and this seemingly unrelated backstory might be connected, you will build suspense and make the reader want to know more of what is written in that diary.
Additionally, you can leave clues in the protagonist’s narration but have the protagonist never state some things outright. For example, in the Kate Daniels series by Ilona Andrews, Kate never states in the first book, Magic Bites, that she is Roland’s daughter and is in hiding from him. Kate thinks about Roland and how powerful of a man he is, she mentions that she, herself, is in hiding from her real father, but never states that that father is Roland. It is up to the readers to connect the dots or not prior to the reveal in the second book, Magic Burns, that she is indeed his estranged daughter.
5. Add unseen danger
Similar to the anxiety of the protagonist, this type of danger is one that comes sight unseen. Perhaps the protagonist is meant to be alone in their apartment, but can hear noises in the bedroom. Although this noise might turn out to just be a cat that has jumped inside through an open window, you can continue the suspense by indicating that the protagonist does not remember leaving the window open.
Every time the protagonist senses danger but is unable to see it directly, you will increase the tension. This type of suspense is not carried across the whole novel, however. It is momentary and meant to add suspense to the specific scenes.
6. End chapters on cliffhangers
How you end your chapters is going to have a significant impact on the reader – and whether they bother reading the next chapter immediately or leave the book, go to sleep, and continue reading the next chapter the next day.
Ending the chapter on a cliffhanger – just as the protagonist has discovered something, found a clue, or are facing an enemy – will make the reader eager to turn to the next chapter and find out what happens.
However, be careful not to overuse this technique in your novel. If you end absolutely each chapter on such a cliffhanger, the reader will get tired of it and feel manipulated into feeling suspense and anticipation to read the next chapter. Use this technique sparingly in the beginning of the novel, and as you near the end, end the chapters only on the moments that have the most significant impact on the plot.
7. Use the antagonist’s or villain’s point of view
If you are using elements of the horror and thriller genres in your novel, you can use the point of view of the antagonist or the villain to reveal information to the reader that the protagonist does not know about.
For example, the antagonist could be stalking the protagonist, watching them through their window, or follow them as they go about their day. You can also use their point of view to reveal parts of what they plan to do to the protagonist to the reader. This will add suspense because the reader will want to read what happens next and would root for the protagonist to thwart the antagonist’s or villain’s plans.
8. Plant a ticking time bomb
The ticking bomb does not need to be a literal bomb. It can simply be a time limit for the protagonist to achieve something – either a minor situational goal that would lead them in the right direction to solve the main problem, or it can be that if the protagonist does not solve the problem in time, the whole world will implode.
For example, let’s say that the protagonist is a detective looking for a missing person. In these type of stories (and in real life as well), the longer that the person is missing, the less likely it is that when they are found, they will be found alive and well. In such plots, the time limit is implied and the tension and suspense is present in each scene until the missing person is found.
In another example, let’s say that the protagonist is locked in a cabin on a sinking ship and they need to find a way to open the door before the cabin gets flooded and they drown. This is a time limit that is present only in that scene and as such, will not carry throughout the novel, but placing the protagonist in mortal danger is always beneficial to adding suspense.
9. Play with the character’s relationships
Mostly present in romantic comedies, this kind of suspense is lighter in nature and creates excitement for something fun and happy to happen rather than cause dread that something bad will happen to the protagonist.
When the protagonist has a love interest (whether or not you’re writing a romance novel or have a romantic subplot in your novel), the ensuing interactions with said character become important in a will-they-won’t-they type of situation, making the readers more interested to discover what will happen next in their relationship.
You can also do this by playing with the stability of the relationships the protagonist has with other characters in the story, like the protagonist’s family members, friends, and even coworkers.
Perhaps they have a boss at work who has previously been highly unpleasant, and is now showing signs of being more mellow and willing to have a good working relationship with the protagonist. This would cause the protagonist and the reader to wonder why, and make the readers interested to keep reading and discover the mini-mystery of the change in the character’s behavior.