Specific Techniques to Ratchet up the Suspense
* Use the setting to create anxiety and suspense. This is the equivalent of ominous music; harsh, stark, or very low lighting; strange camera angles; or nasty weather in a scary movie. This applies to both indoor and outdoor settings, of course. Also, appeal to all senses, not just the visual… breaking glass, a dripping faucet, footsteps on the stairs, a crash in the basement, rumbling of thunder, a sudden cold draft, an animal brushing the skin in the dark, a freezing cold, blinding blizzard, a putrid smell coming from the basement…
* Mood and pacing: Thrillers and other suspense fiction generally need a tense mood and fast pacing throughout most of the novel, with “breathers” in between the tensest scenes.
* Compelling, vivid sensory imagery. “Show, don’t tell.” Invoke all five senses to take us right there, with the protagonist, vividly experiencing and reacting to whoever/whatever is challenging or threatening her.
* Raise the stakes. As the author of a thriller or other crime fiction, keep asking yourself, “How can I make things worse for the protagonist?” As the challenges get more difficult and the difficulties more insurmountable, we worry more and more about whether he can beat the ever-increasing odds against him, and suspense grows. And as a bonus, “Increasing pressure leads to increasing insight into the character.” (Wm. Bernhardt)
* Add a ticking clock. Adding time pressure is another excellent way to increase suspense. Lee Child is a master at this, a great example being his thriller 61 Hours. Or how about those great MacGyver shows, where he had to devise ways to defuse the bomb before it exploded and killed all kinds of innocent people? Or the TV series, 24, with agent Jack Bauer?
* Add obstacles and complications. The hero’s plans get thwarted; his gun jams or falls into a river during a scuffle; he’s stuck in traffic on a bridge; he’s kicked off the case; her car breaks down; her cell phone battery dies just when she needs it most; the power goes out, leaving the room in total darkness; a truck blocks the only way out of the alley… You get the picture. Think Jack Reacher, Lucy Kincaid, Elvis Cole or Stephanie Plum in any number of escapades. The character has to use inner resources to find a way around these obstacles or out of this dilemma.
* Incapacitate your hero. Your heroine is given a drug that makes her dizzy and hallucinating; your hero breaks his leg and can’t escape or give chase; she’s bound and gagged; he’s blinded by sand in his eyes…
* Create a critical turning point. Which way did the bad guys go? Should she open that door or not? Who to believe? Go up the stairs or down? Answer the phone or let it ring?
* Make the ordinary seem ominous. Zoom in on an otherwise benign object, like that half-empty glass on the previously spotless kitchen counter, and imbue it with extra meaning. Who was here? When? Why?
* Plant something out of place in a scene. Or even something just slightly off, just enough to create a niggling doubt in the mind of the reader. A phone off the hook, an open window, wet footprints on the entranceway floor, an overturned lamp, a half-eaten breakfast, etc.
* Use the occasional omniscient tip-off. The author (omniscient narrator) steps in to clue the readers in on something unknown but ominous that’s about to happen, with a statement something like, “If Henry had known what lurked in the house, he never would have gone in,” or whatever. Can be very effective, but use this one sparingly, as it’s kind of “cheating.” Best to stay in the story world, in the point of view of the POV character for that scene/chapter.
But of course, you can’t keep up tension nonstop, as it’s tiring for readers and will eventually numb them. You need to intersperse tense, nail-biting scenes with more leisurely, relaxed scenes that provide a bit of reprieve before the next sensory onslaught begins.
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: 20 Essential Elements of a Bestselling Thriller; 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: http://www.jodierennerediting.com