Guest Blogger: Jodie Renner: Heightening the Suspense, Part I

08 Mar

Today begins a new three-part series from Jodie Renner on heightening the suspense in your stories. Thanks, Jodie.



Whether you’re writing a thriller, romantic suspense, mainstream novel or any other genre of fiction, your story needs plenty of tension and conflict, and also a certain amount of suspense, to keep the readers turning the pages. As Jack M. Bickham says, “In fiction, the best times for the writer — and reader — are when the story’s main character is in the worst trouble. Let your character relax, feel happy and content, and be worried about nothing, and your story dies.” According to Jessica Page Morrell, “Suspense forces a reader to stay engaged and is part anxiety, part curiosity. Suspense unsettles the reader, plunges him into nail-biting angst.” And all this curiosity and worry keeps him turning the pages, of course.


What is suspense, anyway? Hallie Ephron relates this story: “Alfred Hitchcock was asked to define suspense. He told the interviewer to imagine two people sitting at a table at a café. Under the table is a bag. In the bag is a bomb. The characters don’t know that the bomb is there but the viewers do. That, he said, is suspense.”


And as Steven James said in his excellent workshop at Thrillerfest, “Suspense needs apprehension. Apprehension is suspense. And impending danger creates apprehension.” James says that suspense is about first “making a promise” (setting reader expectations that your characters and story are going to intrigue them) and then providing a payoff. “The bigger the promise, the bigger the payoff,” says James. “Give the reader what he wants or something better.”

What are the main elements of suspense?


Jessica Page Morrell likens writing suspense in fiction to dancing a striptease, because effective storytelling requires teasing the readers initially with a tantalizing opening, an intriguing story question and an inciting incident, followed by hints and foreshadowing of trouble to come, which creates a feeling of unease. Then add in some delay and subterfuge to keep readers on edge, waiting for the layers to be peeled off to find out what’s going to happen next, or what that deep, dark secret was. Of course, you need to seduce the readers first by piquing their interest in your protagonist, so they’ll start identifying with him — otherwise, they won’t really care what happens to him. As William Bernhardt says, “If people don’t care about your characters, nothing else matters.”


Tantalize, but build slowly. This initial delay, according to J.P. Morrell, “creates unbearable suspense, and suspense manipulates readers’ emotions. Once the inciting incident threatens the protagonist, the writer’s job is to prolong this trepidation for as long as possible.” As a result, “suspense builds and satisfies when the reader desperately wants something to happen and it isn’t happening.”


Suspense is about exploiting the readers’ insecurities and basic fears of the unknown, their inner need to vicariously vanquish foes, thwart evil, and win over adversity. The readers, if you’ve presented your protagonist effectively, are in her head, fighting right in there with her against her cunning adversaries and other dire threats.

Hallie Ephron outlines a typical arc of suspense. As she says, “You can build it gradually, teasing the reader with possibilities. The climax and resolution should feel worth the anguish of getting there.”


Here are the stages of the suspense arc, according to Ephron (my comments in parentheses):


1-Establishing and foreshadowing (set the stage, hint at danger to come)


2-Suspense begins (conflict and action start)


3-Tension escalates (danger looms), then loosens (slight reprieve, breather)


4-Turning point (critical point — can increase or release tension)


5-Sometimes a false payoff (false alarm)


6-Payoff (good or bad: resolved, moves to the next level or “to be continued”)
Repeat as needed throughout the book, always providing some reprieve between these tense, nerve-wracking scenes.


As Ephron says, “Think of a suspenseful scene as if it were a pressure cooker. First you increase it a little, then release it a bit, giving your readers and characters a little breathing space, then tighten again, raising the pressure even higher. Repeat until cooked.”


Part II of this theme will discuss a number of specific techniques for creating and heightening suspense in your novel.


Jack M. Bickham, The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes
Hallie Ephron, The Everything Guide to Writing Your First Novel
Jessica Page Morrell, Thanks, But This Isn’t For Us
See also: Writing a Killer Thriller, Part I, Writing a Killer Thriller, Part II, and Writing a Killer Thriller, Part III



Jodie Renner is an independent editor specializing in crime fiction. For more info on Jodie’s editing services, visit her website at:



Posted by on March 8, 2012 in Guest Blogger, Writing


9 responses to “Guest Blogger: Jodie Renner: Heightening the Suspense, Part I

  1. Jodie Renner

    March 8, 2012 at 1:24 pm

    Thanks, Doug, for allowing me to be a regular guest blogger here on your excellent blog! I hope to see you and some of our readers at Thrillerfest and Craftfest in NYC in July! Anyone else going?


  2. dianna

    March 8, 2012 at 4:58 pm

    Thank you for a very nice piece on what suspense in a story means, and how to write it into the story! The article is to understand and the points it brings up are easy to remember. I look forward to the next installment of this series.


  3. Jodie Renner

    March 8, 2012 at 5:47 pm

    Thanks, Dianna. I’m glad you found this article helpful. The next two instalments on “Heightening Suspense” will follow this one.


  4. Ian Walkley

    March 8, 2012 at 5:48 pm

    Excellent points you raise, Jodie. I like writing action scenes and suspense is something I need to work on more. In my first novel, No Remorse, I tried to create suspense in the wording of the last sentence of each chapter, so the reader will keep reading. I guess tension is the outcome of suspense, which can be considered in components within the overall suspense arc of the plot.
    From my view, the key difference between suspense and action is delay. With action, you’re trying to achieve excitement, the adrenalin rush. With suspense you’re deferring but hinting, trying to keep the reader engaged by an assortment of tricks so they want to find out what the outcome is.
    Certainly something I’m working on in my next book, Bait.
    Thanks for the tips Jodie!


    • Jodie Renner

      March 8, 2012 at 5:53 pm

      Absolutely right, Ian. You’ve hit the nail on the head. It’s all about delay and doling out information in bits to tease the readers and keep them turning pages. Or interrupting the action just as the protagonist is about to find out a key piece of information, to make the reader wait and wonder whether he’ll (and we’ll) still find out after the interruption. Or will it be too late? Surprise plot twists are great too — as long as you’re able to justify the turn of events later.


  5. journeyofjordannaeast

    March 9, 2012 at 4:33 pm

    Great post! I was afraid my current novel contained too many “oh $hit” moments and and too many subtle hints leading up to them. But, I see that may be a good thing! Thank you!


    • Jodie Renner

      March 9, 2012 at 7:54 pm

      Thanks for dropping by, Jordanna. Tantalizing the readers with little hints helps add to the intrigue and keep them reading. It’s a bit like a puzzle they want to solve, but they want the challenge and anticipation first, so don’t give away too much too soon.


  6. Vashti Quiroz-Vega

    April 14, 2013 at 12:39 am

    Thank you! Very helpful post.


  7. Adrian

    June 30, 2014 at 6:54 pm

    Interesting Read



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