If you’ve made it through your first draft of a novel and want to edit for suspense and pace to give your book a page-turner feel, below are questions to ask yourself.
1.) Did you begin your story at the right point? Opening in the middle of action is an attention getter, but don’t spoil it with excessive back story. You can also add an element of mystery or intrigue to your opener that will draw readers in if action doesn’t exactly fit your story, but remember that less is more. You’ll always have the opportunity to weave in back story if it’s necessary as the story progresses. It might be helpful to ask yourself if the start of your book is the last possible moment before your main character’s life is changed. Change is an excellent starting point. I sometimes start the story where I think it should, then consider adding either an inciting incident by way of Prologue or a standalone jumpstart to the story that precedes where I began.
2.) Have you picked the right setting for your story? I love an evocative atmosphere or setting that adds intrigue to stories. A plot set in West Texas would have a different tone than one set in New York City, for example. Pick which might make your novel work best and do your research. If your book feels flat after it’s written, it may not be an easy fix to move the story setting, but it can make a big difference and really enhance your book.
3.) Are your subplots helping or hurting you? Subplots can be used like good harmony when it comes to ramping up the stakes. A cold case murder mystery can add a smoldering element of suspense that builds and can add unexpected twists at the end. And while the main plot is slowing down to give the reader a breather, a subplot can be just the right element to infuse a page turning feel. Subplots can also feed off the energy building in the main plot to give a rush to the reader. So be the maestro of your own orchestra of tension.
4.) Do you have flashbacks that work or drag down the pace? Flashbacks can be tricky. We’ve all read books where flashbacks drive the novel and do it effectively, but make sure yours have a purpose and build on the tension of the main plot going forward. Flashbacks aren’t just another way to sneak in back story. Give the reader insight into the main plot with an effective and brief look into the motivation of the characters, if the flashbacks are necessary.
5.) What is your black moment, when does it occur, and does it create a major reversal or dark moment for your characters to deal with? Whether you’re writing action blockbuster movie-type books or family dramas, black moments (where all seems lost) are vital for an emotional story. If you write the black moment too soon, you have a long way to go toward the end that can slow the pace. I tend to write mine midway or 3/4 through, depending on the plot. It’s also important to make sure the dark moment itself is a twist or your protagonist learns something major that he/she figures out to turn the tide in their favor. The darker the moment, the bigger the triumph.
6.) Do you use foreshadowing to your advantage or is it a detriment that deflates your tension? The right balance of foreshadowing can add a sense of pace to your story. It can propel your storyline from scene to scene, but too much can burst the bubble of any mystery and telegraph your punches. Sometimes I look at my scene endings and see if I can stop them sooner at a more critical suspense moment. Or I split up an action scene at the bottom of a chapter and carry it over to the top of the next chapter. This simple idea of splitting scenes or cutting them off at a more appropriate spot can add a sense of pace, without any major rewrites.
7.) Have you been patient enough to hold back your twists and vital information that can kick start an exciting ending? It is really hard to be patient when it comes toward the end of your book. But holding off for the big reveal for as long as possible, can save an ending. Savor the clues too and reveal them at the last possible moment. Readers will appreciate it.
8.) Are your stakes high enough? Don’t be afraid to punish your characters for failure. That’s your job as an author, to raise the stakes and abuse your characters because they can take it. They have a starring role in your book for a reason. Let them show their stuff.
Please share your tricks of the trade on adding suspense and tension to your first draft. What would you add to this list? What’s worked for you?