Tips for Establishing Suspense in Fiction

I listened to an incredible Freakonomics podcast over the weekend about suspense.  The podcast started with its ordinary pomp and circumstance, but when the conversations veered toward writing, I became enthralled and struggled to keep the car on the road.  It’s not every day you get writing tips from the radio, so my heart skipped a few beats.

On the podcast, author Harlan Coben defined suspense in this way:

[…] Suspense is to me, keeping people engaged and gripped and turning the pages.  Someone can put a gun to your head, and you will want to read.  That’s suspense.

Imagine suspense so great that you keep reading when a lethal weapon’s pressed to your ear.  Those are the types of experiences readers crave, and there are several strategies that writers can employ to establish this level of suspense in a narrative.

Missing People, Not Dead People.

So many stories operate on the premise of solving murder mysteries (CSI, anyone?).  The setup is typical — an extraordinary opening scene leads to the “unexpected” death of a trivial character, and subsequent scenes follow two or more gritty detectives on a hot pursuit for the truth.

The trouble with this approach is that dead people aren’t mysterious.  When a character dies, questions may surround the death, but the death itself is without suspense.  From the first scene, we know the character is dead, and he/she is not coming back.  But what if there was more to the story?

When writing a mystery, try letting your characters go missing instead of killing them off.  In this way, you establish hope, a powerful emotion for developing suspense in later paragraphs or chapters.  The potential of finding a character alive is more suspenseful than the reality of knowing a character is dead.

Work Backwards From the End.

Great mystery stories leave readers looking forward to the end.  The reason is because many mysteries end with a twist or an unexpected deviation from what the reader anticipates.  This feeling of the unknown creates suspense in every scene leading to the final page.

Writing twists at the end of a story require planning.  Unless you bleed perfect plot lines, it’s nearly impossible to write a believable twist without some idea of how the story might arrive at that destination.  Given the complexity of most plot twists, what can a writer do to ensure a potential twist is believable and well-planned?

Work backwards.  Begin with the final plot twist, and map how events could lead to that outcome in the end.  It’s as simple as writing down what you wish to accomplish and then charting the course that will lead you there.  It’s much easier to arrive at a destination if you’ve been there before and know the general direction you’re traveling.

Fiction is Stranger Than Truth.

It’s been said that truth is stranger than fiction, but the opposite is more accurate.  If a person is accused of murder in real-life (and if the person is actually guilty of the murder), the evidence is straight-forward and dull concerning the fact.  The knife has the accused person’s fingerprints, and a shred of the person’s DNA is found at the crime scene.  The world locks up another criminal, and no one bats an eye.

Consider the same scenario in fiction.  If the accused person’s fingerprints and DNA are all over the crime scene, the reader’s first instinct is to believe the person is innocent.  Why do we do this?  The reason is simple: We know the author must sell the reader on suspense, so if something uneventful occurs, we anticipate it must be a decoy.  Years of reading suspense has wired us that way.

Writers can use this wiring to their advantage.  To establish suspense in a story, the obvious solution is usually not the correct one.  Just when the reader thinks he/she has it all figured out, the writer can flip the script and prove nothing is as it seems.  Writers must remain mindful of where the reader thinks the narrative is going and then change it at the last possible moment to evoke suspense and surprise.


Suspense can be used with great success if employed in unpredictable ways.  Think about your own experiences with fiction and the twists and turns taken by a particular author.

In the comments section, let me know your favorite narrative twist and why it was so effective in establishing surprise and/or suspense.


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