ways to build suspense header

3 Easy (or Easier) Ways to Build Suspense

WAYS TO BUILD SUSPENSERecently, while writing a short story, I encountered the problem of its being too short. My editor complimented the storyline and structure but indicated something about the writing was missing. It was too short, too bland, too summative and passive instead of being descriptive and active. Finally, I found all these things centered on one main problem: this was supposed to be a suspense story. Where was the suspense?

Now, please. Don’t be deceived by this article’s title. There are no “easy” ways to build suspense. For some writers, it comes naturally, while others have to work harder.

But there’s no way around suspense. Whether you’re writing literary or commercial fiction, your story must offer suspense in some form or another.

What Is Suspense?

In the dictionary, suspense equals a “state or feeling of excited or anxious uncertainty,” but as writers we must dig a little deeper. Suspense, in fiction, is anything that poses a threat to your characters, anything that pushes them closer to one of the three types of death:

  • Physical death (actually dying).
  • Psychological death (emotional disparity)
  • Professional death (losing one’s job)

Optimally, you can incorporate all three of these in your story. In The Fugitive, for instance, Richard Kimble loses both his wife and his job in the movie’s opening sequence, but as the story progresses we see him facing psychological and physical death as well. The threat is psychological because he absolutely can’t give up and dishonor himself in public, and it’s physical because, well, they’re coming after him with guns.

the fugitive harrison ford

3 Ways to Build Suspense in Your Story

A correct approach and a deeper understanding of suspense and its purpose in your story is vital in the actual crafting of it. But if your story still lacks drama, there are a few easy fixes that all can contribute to your story.

1. Description

Now, you’re thinking I’m crazy. You’re thinking description takes up too much space in the constantly shrinking traditional-publishing world. Lengthy passages of description hearken back to Hawthorne and Poe, and while they were the best writers of their time, their style would never survive today.

And you’re right. I completely agree.

But keep in mind that fiction, in Alfred Hitchcock’s words, is merely real life, with the dull parts taken out. Good suspense must be real suspense, and you must show that in one way or another.

One way is description. An eye for detail, especially quirky or dark details, can contribute enormous amounts of drama to a particular scene. Take this passage from John D. Macdonald’s Cape Fear when Sam Bowden discovers convicted rapist Max Cady is watching him and his family:

He went over and put the sandwich and thermos on the sawhorse. As he was unbuttoning his shirt, he had his back to Nancy. He stopped, motionless, his finger tips touching the third button. Max Cady sat on a low pile of timbers twenty feet away. He had a can of beer and a cigar. He wore a yellow knit sports shirt and a pair of sharply creased slacks in a shade of cheap electric blue. He was smiling at Sam.

Sam walked over to him. It seemed to take a long time to walk twenty feet. Cady’s smile didn’t change.

“What are you doing here?” Sam kept his voice low.

“Well, I’m having a beer, Lieutenant, and I’m smoking this here cigar.”

Cape Fear 1962 Robert Mitchum

Notice the precision of the details, but the brevity as well. The passage isn’t lengthy, but it provides just enough for readers to piece together an image in their heads. The finger stopping on the button, the “cheap electric blue,” the “long time to walk twenty feet”—all these things add, little by little, suspense to this scene.

2. Vignettes

Hitchcock used these all the time. Look at the cricket-playing Brits and the divorced couple in The Lady Vanishes or the lonely woman, the musician, and the rest of the quirky neighbors in Rear Window. With these recurring everyday people going about their everyday lives Hitchcock communicated the reality of the story world. It adds a layer of believability to the problems that the lead characters were encountering.

The great thing about the Rear Window vignettes is that they almost always contributed to the story—say, the musician with his party and the tinkling of the piano and the distant laughter as Jimmy Stewart’s character is discovering something new about the killer in the next building.

rear window alfred hitchcock james stewart

Other times the vignettes serve as distractions that throw off, if only slightly, the pursuit of the lead character. If you can take this idea of believability and reality and inject it into your own story, with a little practice it will always turn out good suspense.

3. Setting

Of the three roads I’ve presented here, this one is likely the smoothest to travel. It’s not difficult to change up the setting of a scene, but it’s a simple, logical way to add suspense. When I write, I always try to cram as many intriguing settings as possible into my stories. It’s just not enough to set scenes in a character’s simple suburban house or a story’s Climax in an empty basement. Of course it’s possible, but it takes a skilled writer to make an empty basement interesting.

Look to Hitchcock again. We don’t call him the Master of Suspense for nothing. Consider the Mount Rushmore scene in North by Northwest or the scene in the United Nations or the oceanfront car chase. All these places are not merely settings, but factors in how the story plays out.

north by northwest mt rushmore cary grant eva marie saint alfred hitchcock

If Lester Townsend had been murdered in some remote forest, with no people anywhere in sight, then how could Cary Grant’s Roger Thornhill have been blamed for the crime? Interesting settings add both believability and intrigue to your story. Always have something going on around the characters while the story plays out.

***

Give these things a try in your everyday writing. Whether you write thrillers, romances, or sci-fi, you’ll keep your reader’s attention until the last page—and, hopefully, your next novel.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What techniques have you used in a recent chapter to build suspense in your story? Tell me in the comments!

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About Brayden Hirsch

Brayden Hirsch is a teenage writer from Vancouver, BC. His debut book, a collection of four long stories, is entitled On Catastrophe’s Whim, and will release this summer.

Comments

  1. Well done, Bray!

  2. Thanks for stopping by and sharing with us today, Brayden!

  3. Wonderfully descriptive and informative.

  4. Thanks for the insights. I confess I’d never heard of the three deaths before. Great concept to keep in mind.

  5. Thanks Nicole and Cathryn.

    Greg,

    The three death concept was introduced to me by James Scott Bell – check out his books, Plot and Structure and Revision and Self-Editing, put out by Writer’s Digest Publishing, for more insightful ideas.

    And K.M., it was great writing this. Thanks for having me.

  6. Great article, we can always take tips from classics that have survived the test of time.

  7. Great post! I loved the comparison to Hitchcock’s movies. And your description of the different types of suspense was very helpful.

  8. Great tips, Brayden. Adding suspense is something I constantly struggle with. The CAPE FEAR example was especially helpful for me. Thanks!

  9. M.E., Gwen,

    Thanks. Just the notion that I’ve helped anyone, even just a little bit, is great.

  10. Three cheers for minimalist description. I prefer it (as a style choice) mostly because I find lyrical prose harder to pull off. Also, all stories need a bit of suspense. Great job in breaking down the stakes.

  11. Ralfast

    What you say is true, but I believe it’s possible to be lyrical and economic with your words at the same time. Consider Raymond Chandler – his prose is stylistic, with a wonderful voice, and yet never does it run on too long. Writing fiction is about balance – Chandler understood that.

  12. Wonderfully put. I’d like to add one more type of death, moral death, when the character is put in a situation that should force him/her to go against his own set of principles. Will he/she find a way out of the situation without compromising? This is an underlying secondary thread of suspense in Stieg Larsson Millenium trilogy, for example.

  13. Epublishabook,

    Very true. Thanks for stopping by!

  14. Nice. Thanks for the article!

  15. Brayden, you are always so spot on! You did it again.

  16. Kathryn, Zaltair,

    Thanks so much. Happy writing.

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