Words || Sarah Barrie
Crafting suspense-driven novels can be challenging, but there are a few steps to remember that will make the process much simpler. Below are some of the key points I utilize when writing stories, such as my recently released novel, Bloodtree River:
It is critical the reader quickly develops empathy for your hero/heroine. If the reader isn’t emotionally invested in your character, they’re not going to care what happens to them. Without that excited or anxious uncertainty, there is no suspense.
To achieve this, provide an early opportunity for your reader to see your character in a universally appealing light. This could be through, for example, an act of selflessness, courage, or kindness, or, as people love an underdog, present a character who is vulnerable, treated poorly, or trapped by events around them. This doesn’t mean they can’t be flawed or make mistakes. In fact, those traits/issues can go a long way to helping the reader identify with them. No reader is perfect, and no character should be.
Give the reader a reason to worry.
Danger is created when a character finds themselves at physical, mental, emotional or relational risk. To become involved in the story, your reader has to know the character’s greatest need, what’s standing in the way of them getting it and what terrible thing will happen if they fail. Once the reader understands this they’ll want them to succeed, so any obstacles the writer puts in their way will cause anxiety, creating suspense. The higher the stakes, the greater the suspense.
Start with some action
Aim to hook your readers from the first page. This scene could be the trigger point to the rest of the story (an event that changes the hero/heroine’s life forever), or an example of a daily struggle (hardship of some kind). This is the perfect opportunity to introduce your character and the danger that surrounds them, while showing them at their best and/or most vulnerable.
Develop the suspense.
Suspense should be raised incrementally from a niggle of worry until the reader can barely stand to read on. It’s important to remember that action is not suspense. Suspense is the tension that lies between the action. It’s the waiting for the next thing to happen. Once that next thing does happen, it creates a breather, a sense of relief for the reader, a release of tension. This can kill the suspense if not done carefully.
Only ever break tension when there is a greater underlying threat already in place, or when the event itself creates another, more serious threat. At no point prior to the resolution of the story should the reader feel that the hero/heroine is completely safe or that their needs have been fulfilled. As long as the character hasn’t achieved their most important goal, you can create a rollercoaster of successes and failures held together by unmet needs/desires.
This is the most critical scene in the story, where the hero/heroine finally overcomes the greatest obstacle/threat to their happiness/wellbeing. This is what the reader has been waiting for and the payoff has to be worth the journey. The resolution of the climax is an emotional release from all the tension of the build-up, a reward for emotional investment. Don’t skimp. Make the reader feel good for having come on the journey. If you succeed, not only will the reader not want to put down your current book, they won’t be able to wait to pick up the next one.