Writing Hair Raising Suspense

Before we get into writing hair-raising suspense, let’s determine the difference between suspense and mystery, because that’s important. In a mystery the hero pursues the killer, in a suspense a killer pursues the hero. Well, that’s pretty simple, but a good rule of thumb. Let’s go over some of the examples and discuss the differences.

In order to make suspense believable, you need to follow this set of rules. GROAN, not rules again. These are fun, though.

1. Create characters who are normal people, not heroic in the sense that they’ve rushed into burning buildings, etc., thrust them into a situation where they are forced by circumstances to become heroes. The deeper they delve into whatever is happening the more they put themselves at risk. Give them a good reason why they can’t stop, go home and be safe. They must go on, even though aware they are putting themselves in danger. If you give them sufficient motivation, the reader will root for them. POV character(s) are the ones most in danger with the most to lose.

2. Keep the time line of the story short. One night, one day are the best, though a few days can work. Keep the threat immediate, one that builds every second, minute, hour and day to the climax. The more relentless the threat the more suspense and tension you create.

3. There must be an evil character bent on stopping the hero from succeeding or a situation to overcome. For instance, volcano eruptions, earthquakes, etc. Make sure the hero is smarter than the bad guy and uncovers the secret. None of this villain saying, “well, I’m going to kill you now, so I’ll tell you how it all happened.” Hero is not lucky, he’s smart. Suddenly, we’re talking about mystery, aren’t we? Yes, in a good suspense, the hero must have a mystery to solve, it’s just that all the while he’s doing it, someone bad is after him, big time. Don’t be afraid to make your villain badder than bad, but do give him a redeeming quality. Even Hannibal Lecter had one, you know. Only psychopaths and sociopaths have none. And even some of them love dogs or cats or someone in particular. Make sure villain has motivation, even if it isn’t clear to hero or reader at first. Greed, anger or revenge are perfect motivations.

4. Use the five senses and make them sharper and more honed toward the danger that lurks offstage. Mood and tone can be set by using these senses. Perhaps a smell that calls up a memory might help the hero; seeing something that isn’t quite there, or referring to rose petals on a table top or wine in a glass as blood red. Think of all the descriptive words that suggest death, danger, loss, fear, and use them within the action. A cloudy, rainy day is much better than a sunshiny one for certain scenes. Use contrasts to give hope. Like a rainbow slicing ominous storm clouds.

5. Scenes should be fast moving. Use short terse sentences and paragraphing to help with the rhythm of danger. NO LAZY VERBS. Sequels should be short so the reader doesn’t get a chance to relax much. Use longer flowing sentences there and use them to make any time pass where nothing is going to happen. Or allow hero and heroine to realize something new about each other, hold a child and kiss it goodnight, something calming before the next onslaught.

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About veldabrotherton

I'm primarily a writer, but I also speak and teach workshops and co-chair a large critique group. My brand is SexyDarkGritty and that applies to my western historical romances, mysteries, women's fiction and horror novels. After almost 30 years in this business, I still have something to learn and attend conferences to network with other writers, publishers, editors and agents.
This entry was posted in characters, five senses, scenes, suspense, villains, Writers. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Writing Hair Raising Suspense

  1. Vivian, that was an excellent post. I want to read more “how-to’s” from you. Just this bit right here:”In a mystery the hero pursues the killer, in a suspense a killer pursues the hero. “I’ve never heard a more succinct and plain explanation over a distinction I’ve often puzzled over. Cool.The whole blog was good sound advice on writing. Nice job.

  2. Dang it, I MEANT Velda! Sorry (Marvin tippie toes out of the room with a cheesy chagrin on his face)

  3. BTW, I forgot to add – I’m nominating (awarding, actually) you and your blog to receive the “Brilliant Weblog” award tomorrow on my blog at Free Spirit. Tune in and receive!

  4. Helen says:

    Nice post, Velda. I agree with Marvin, I like your explanation of the difference between mystery and suspense. Very succinct!Helenhttp://straightfromhel.blogspot.com

  5. zhadi says:

    Marvin, you’re so right about the description of mystery versus suspense. Another excellent post with some great advice! Go, Velda, Go!

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