“How to Write Suspense” by Katherine Howell

My interest in suspense began when my agent told me that the draft of my novel Frantic had none. The story is about the kidnapping of a child—an inherently suspenseful subject, I had thought. The mother, a paramedic, is naturally distraught. Who has taken her child? And why? I liked the premise and characters, so set out to learn all I could about suspense and see if the book could be saved.

Suspense is the anxious uncertainty felt by a reader who wants to know what will happen to characters she cares about. While suspense is sometimes thought to be important only in thriller and mystery novels, it’s actually a necessary part of all narratives as it’s this quality that keeps the reader reading. A reader who doesn’t care about the characters or what will happen has no reason to persist with the book and will soon put it down.

Though suspense is sometimes perceived to be dependent on the cliched scenarios of a person fleeing a murderer or dangling from a cliff by the fingernails, it can arise whenever a cared-for character confronts a problem where the outcome has significant ramifications. The more a reader cares, the more suspense she will feel when the character is in trouble. Research has found that traits that best enable this caring include:

–         strength, not necessarily physical

–         self-regard

–         the presence of inner conflict

–         wit and spontaneity

–         a sense of humour

–         a seemingly impossible task

–         an emotional reason for their actions

–         intelligence that promises insight

–    being memorable and courageous, and facing challenges powerful enough to bring out that courage. The character’s traits help determine these challenges, and a careful choice can greatly intensify suspense. For example, seeing a liked character threatened by shipwreck can make a reader worry, but knowing that character cannot swim and is petrified of the sea makes it so much worse.

Uncertainty is primarily developed by posing questions the reader wants answered. The first page of a novel might present a character in some kind of trouble; the immediate questions then are who is this person, what kind of trouble are they in, and why? Longer-term questions include how the character will extricate themselves, and what the fallout might be. Questions are best presented on both a scene-by-scene and overall story-arc level, with minor questions asked and answered most frequently. This satisfies the reader’s desire for information and understanding while continuing to slowly build the drive towards the story’s climax.

Structure also helps build suspense. Rather than allowing a scene to come to a natural conclusion, a writer can break it early, leaving a character in danger or about to learn important information. When the reader is made to spend time in another character’s point of view, the delayed return to the first character builds anticipation and suspense.

Readers put together fragments of information in an effort to imagine what might happen. The writer can make this harder by withholding details or presenting them out of order, causing more uncertainty.

Ambiguity and distraction affect the reader’s ability to understand the knowledge they’ve collected. Ambiguity helps hide the true meaning of a clue, while the writer using distraction puts information forward in such a way that the reader may miss it or may not realise its significance.

Sometimes the narrative hints at a future occurrence. Readers may recognise such information as ‘planted’ for later use, but also remember that writers can introduce false plants, known as ‘snares’, which turn out to have no later relevance. For example, if a character says ‘I could kill him’, the reader considers whether the character might actually do it. This thinking leads to a range of questions about how he would go about the act and what would happen if he was caught. The alternative is that it’s merely an idle thought, unrelated to later events. This act of questioning and waiting to discover the answer increases suspense.

When a reader imagines what might happen in a story, she considers possible outcomes and assesses their likelihood. The fewer apparent solutions to a character’s dilemmas and the more serious the threat, the higher the suspense. Furthermore, when readers are unable to work out any solution, they tend to feel an even more intense level. However, total subjective certainty about a bad outcome befalling a liked character produces disappointment and sadness rather than suspense. It’s important therefore to keep some hope alive in the reader.

Because these techniques affect understanding, they influence a reader’s experience of time. When her thoughts turn back in search of the meaning of a puzzling narrative event, she no longer moves forward easily and may feel as if time has stopped. Meanwhile suspense itself keeps her looking forward, making the text seem long and the end too far away.

The ending of a novel plays a crucial role in satisfying a reader. Readers form ideas, no matter how vague, about what fates particular characters deserve, and an ending that fails to deliver this is enjoyed less than one that does.

Much of the reader’s pleasure in an ending results from the resolution of their uncertainty, through revelation of characters’ motivations and seeing meaningful order emerge from what may have been chaotic events. The reader  looks back over the text to see how it worked, and because she’s been constructing meaning repeatedly through the narrative, the clues in hindsight must add up, and the resolution in effect should appear inevitable.

After researching the subject, I reread my draft. It was clear where I’d gone wrong. My protagonist, the mother of the kidnapped baby, lacked many of the traits mentioned above, and also failed to act: she merely moped about, slowing the narrative pace and making her point of view an awful and boring place to be. I’d removed all but a fragment of uncertainty by showing that the kidnapper could only be one of two characters, then having him think about giving the baby back. With it seeming like no harm would come to the child, the identity of the kidnapper no big mystery, and the mother not being somebody we cared about anyway, there was no reason to read on.

I set out to change things. I developed my protagonist more and made her get up and act with courage against the challenges I threw at her. I brought in a police detective as another point of view character, lightening the narrative and enabling structural breaks from each point of view at tense moments. While in that draft my protagonist’s husband was killed, I now kept him alive and telling lies about what he knows. I reined in my tendency to explain too much, I filled the text with plants and snares, and I aimed to leave questions unanswered in as many scenes as possible. I made sure that all the clues were there¾though in an ambiguous or fragmented way¾so that the revelations of the ending would make sense and feel ‘right’.

Three years after that initial assessment I sent the reworked ms of Frantic off to my agent. Within months it sold as part of a two-book deal to Pan Macmillan here in Australia, then overseas to France, Germany, Italy, Russia and the UK¾truly proof of the power of suspense.

Katherine Howell is the bestselling author of Frantic, The Darkest Hour, Cold Justice, and the soon-to-be-released Violent Exposure. Her books have won awards and been published in six languages in eleven countries. Katherine was a paramedic for fifteen years and her books feature paramedics alongside Sydney police detective Ella Marconi.