When you’re writing fiction, suspense is vital, no matter the genre. When readers can’t turn the pages fast enough, you’ll build readers and fans for your books.
Recently a writing student asked about a quick way to build suspense.
That’s an excellent question, because when you’re writing fiction creating suspense always needs to be in the back of your mind.
Lately I’ve been rereading Anthony Trollope. He’s a master of suspense. I’d forgotten that. You’d think that the long-ago politics of his Palliser novels needn’t concern us a century and a half later, but they’re still relevant. And we’re still rapidly turning pages to discover the fate of Lizzie Eustace and Glencora’s children.
So, what’s the quickest way to build suspense in your fiction?
Writing fiction and suspense: what’s the quickest way to build suspense?
Here it is in two words: stop explaining.
New authors always want to explain; that kills suspense.
Remember curiosity and anxiety.
Resist explanations—they ruin your fiction.
If you think you need backstory… you’re wrong. Readers just want to know what happens next.
Suspense, explanations and your first draft: maintain the fictive dream
That said, it’s difficult to resist explanations in your first draft, because in a first draft, you don’t know the story. You’re telling your story to yourself.
When I’m mentoring students, I suggest writing your first draft from go to whoa. If you try to think logically, you’ll either block, or you’ll write a dull book: you’ve lost your inspiration, because you’re thinking. Logic kills inspiration.
First, tell the story. Then you can eliminate explanations and build suspense in your next draft. When I reread portions of a current novel before each day’s writing, I mark explanations with “!!!” But I stop myself thinking about them.
It’s essential not to think too much in your first draft. Your goal must be to maintain John Gardner’s fictive dream:
“In the writing state—the state of inspiration—the fictive dream springs up fully alive: the writer forgets the words he has written on the page and sees, instead, his characters moving around their rooms, hunting through cupboards, glancing irritably through their mail, setting mousetraps, loading pistols.”
Also essential for suspense: make your characters WANT something
When your character wants something badly, the reader’s in suspense. Will the character get what he wants?
Readers love characters who go all-out to get what they want. These characters are motivated. This makes for conflict, and excitement. Creating characters who WANT desperately is a plotting short-cut. Scarlett O’Hara, Becky Sharp, and Tom Ripley all want something desperately. Becky and Tom will do anything to get out of poverty. Scarlett wants that too eventually. However, for most of Gone With The Wind, she wants Ashley Wilkes.
Here’s the big difference between real life and life in fiction: in fiction, characters want what they want—they refuse to admit defeat. So, for real suspense, your main character must want something desperately.
I’ve found Debra Dixon’s simple chart from GMC: Goal, Motivation, and Conflict useful:
Who = character
What = goal
Why = motivation
Why not = conflict
When a character wants something badly and is motivated to get it, the reader wants him to get it too. He keeps turning the pages.
Ready to edit? Do a “suspense check” before you begin
As we’ve said, when you’re writing fiction, you can destroy your inspiration if you try to think too logically while you’re writing your first draft.
When it’s time to edit, write “suspense!” on a sticky note where you can see it. Then check for suspense when you’re reading through what you have before you start editing.
Enjoy the editing process; you’ll discover that creating suspense for your readers is HUGE fun.
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Copywriter and marketing pro Angela Booth maintains a busy copywriting and ghostwriting practice. Fascinated by online marketing, she wrote one of the first business books for internet marketing, published by Allen & Unwin. She’s been an enthusiastic blogger since the late 1990s.