Over the years of my writing career I have been on many courses and workshops for different aspects of writing by a wide variety of well known published writers not only those who write for children. Some of my favourite writing talks are crime ‘noir’ conferences where I have discovered a wide range of writing tips and techniques.
One of the main things I have realised is that suspense, tension and conflict are all finely linked. You create one by ramping up the other and have to balance these factors with the final resolution. Here are a few of the things I have learnt and have found useful, which may help you to achieve this.
- Make achieving their goal a race against time. There is nothing like a deadline for keeping the adrenaline pumping around the body. The greater the need to achieve the goal and the less time available to achieve this the higher the stakes, the tension and the suspense.
- Lull the reader into a false sense of security by using longer sentence just before you reveal the shock of the unexpected.
- In contrast, short, sharp sentences mimic the disjointed thought patterns of fear and urgency.
- Make your readers root for your characters safety by ramping up the danger.
- Using the present tense at the highest points of tension will make the narrative more immediate.
- Make the source of the fear a surprise to the reader.
- To make your readers care and worry about the main character make your protagonist vulnerable in some way.
- Use foreshadowing to rank up the danger by letting your readers know of these vulnerable attributes such as allergies or phobias early on in the story and then make it inevitable they have to face these situations later in the story.
- In a similar way, give your character a desire, wound or internal struggle your readers can identify with and then use your reader’s empathy and concern for the impending danger to escalate the tension.
- View the world though the protagonists eyes so the reader can identify with your main character and experience what they are feeling.
- Use all the senses to get your readers to hear, touch, smell and taste the action.
- Initially the less people who believe the protagonist and who do not understand their fear of the antagonist and the seriousness of the threat, the more suspense is created.
- As you progress through the story more people should become worried, afraid, sad or curious. This will increase the tension.
- Strip the protagonist of something essential to their safety.
- Use the power of three. Have small alarming things happen three times to reinforce the conflict, so the concern is mentioned, then it is reinforced and then people begin to realise there is a problem.
- Use familiar things, people and situations in different contexts to make your readers feel uneasy.
- Let the reader know more than your characters do. So they can see the villain metaphorically creeping up behind your main character before the main character is aware.
- Use superstitions even if your character is not superstitious to rank up the suspense and tension, such as making the meeting at number thirteen, accidentally walking under a ladder or a black cat crossing their path.
- Delay what is really happening by having a small worrying event which your character ponders and tries to fix this when something bigger happens they need to solve and then have a final climax at the end of the chapter. This will help keep the readers turning the pages to find out what happens next.
- Think carefully about your word choices. You can create a dark, spooky atmosphere by using gloomy and macabre words rather than happy, sunny words.
I hope these ideas help you and if you have any more ways of creating suspense, you would like to share, please leave a comment.
A useful summary (and accumulation!) of all those recognisable indicators of suspense, impending crisis and immanent danger.