The Two Most Important Tricks for How to Build Suspense

Perhaps the greatest skill necessary to keep readers glued to your pages is learning how to build suspense. Whether you’re writing a thriller or a quiet romance, suspense of one type or another is what makes readers race to the end of your story. Suspense comes in many different flavors, everything from the threat of a serial killer in that thriller to the delayed kiss in the romance.

Whatever the genre, suspense always results from two important ingredients: a question and a wait.

We find both these elements in the final chapter of William Faulkner’s acclaimed historical masterpiece Absalom, Absalom!

In this book, the question is, “Who or what has been hidden away in the shack on the old Sutpen plantation?”

The specific question needed to create suspense will vary from story to story, but, ultimately, it always boils down to that age-old demand, “What’s gonna happen?

As soon as the author has hooked readers’ curiosity with this question, it’s time to make them wait. In Absalom, Absalom!, Faulkner raises the question at the beginning of the final chapter and then does everything possible to delay both the character and the readers from discovering the answer.

Pacing plays a huge role in pulling off a successful waiting period. To force readers to savor every deliciously and frustratingly tantalizing moment, authors need to slow their pacing to a snail’s pace. Faulkner, a master of pacing, does this so beautifully, you can almost see his characters moving in slow motion as they approach the shack, climb the porch steps, enter the house, and start up the stairs. Every moment is drawn out with aching suspense sure to have readers clenching the book with bone-white fingers.

If you can inject this kind of suspense into your story, you can guarantee readers won’t be able to look away.

>>Click here to read 3 Easy (or Easier) Ways to Build Suspense

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! How will you build suspense in your story? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.


  1. I tend to bank a lot on character arc and external conflict for my suspense. Very bluntly – there’s a war going on, who’s going to win the battles, and how long are they going to keep killing each other? Is the MC going to turn toward a life of service or is she going to follow her greed? Huh, put like that, I could have saved myself many tens of thousands of words, but I suppose that cuts the suspense doesn’t it?

  2. In searching ancient ruins for the hideout of a thief/murderer, the “Posse 2.0” keeps coming upon strange objects and graffiti including an abandoned and empty toolbox, a ruby-red crystal statuette of an Atlantic herring, and a Maltese Albatross. A sulking faerie forced to be part of the Posse ends up collecting this junk and fiercely holds onto it. Why? Is it a coping mechanism for being torn away from her home, or is one of those objects of some value? The truth is surprising, but logical. 😀

  3. I have two character who discovers an artifact in the course of their investigation in book one. They have a sorceress assay the artifact, who determines it’s a key that opens a cosmic door — but the catch is that an infernal being created the key …
    Since the detectives don’t know where the cosmic door leads, or how to defend themselves against the keymaker, they decide not to use it. But just in case the keymaker can track his key, the sorceress gives them a special bag to carry it in, which will hopefully hide the keybearers from his sight. Will it work?
    The keymaker is one of the chief antagonists of the story, so evading him forever isn’t an option. The detectives have to figure out if the cosmic door only goes one way, what is on the other side of it, and how to survive being the other side. Readers will wonder if the detectives will truly have a choice about when to use the key — before or after solving those particular conundrums — and what will happen to them once the key is activated.
    In the meantime, the detectives slowly learn more about the nature of the keymaker, his objectives, and the threat he represents. They will have well-defined reasons to fear using the key by book three.
    Glad to know I inadvertently stumbled onto the right track with this approach!

  4. I have a perfect example of suspense in my current project. To bowdlerize it, somebody is recieving nightly a certain medical procedure which seems to exhibit a certain affect sooner and sooner each time after it is completed. The first question is, at what point will it occur immediately after the procedure is complete?
    Actually, though seemingly complacent, the inner monologue has the main character asking quite a few very serious questions himself, none of which are answered, or even answerable considering the circumstances.

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