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.