We all know that thrillers and other fast-paced popular fiction need lots of tension, suspense, and intrigue. But so does any other compelling story that’ll create a buzz and take off in sales. No matter what genre you write, it’s all about hooking your readers in, engaging them emotionally, and ensuring they keep eagerly turning the pages.
Here’s a handy checklist for ratcheting up the tension and suspense of your novel or short story. Use as many of these elements and devices as possible to increase the “wow” factor of your fiction.
Plan and set up a riveting story:
__ Give readers a sympathetic, charismatic, but flawed protagonist they’ll identify with and start worrying about.
__ Create a nasty, cunning, believable villain (or other antagonist) to instill fear and anxiety.
__ Devise a significant, meaningful story problem, a serious dilemma for your hero, preferably a threat with far-reaching consequences.
__ Make it personal to your protagonist. She and/or her loved ones are personally threatened.
Bring your protagonist and story to life on the page.
__ Use close point of view (deep POV) and stay in the head of your protagonist most of the time, for maximum reader engagement.
__ Show your main character’s reactions to people and events around him.
__ Evoke all five senses – what is she seeing, hearing, smelling, touching, and tasting?
__ Show his inner fears, anxieties, anger and frustrations.
__ Use occasional brief flashbacks in real time to reveal her secrets and fears, deepen characterization, and strengthen reader involvement.
__ Use alternating viewpoints – put us in the head of your protagonist and antagonist (or, in a romantic suspense, the female and male leads).Give them each their own scenes or chapters, so readers find out what the antagonist is thinking and planning, too. But stay mostly in your protagonist’s POV, to keep us bonded with her.
Pile on the problems:
__ Keep raising the stakes for your protagonist. Just as he solves one problem, he’s confronted with an even worse obstacle or dilemma.
__ Hamper your hero or heroine at every turn – the gun is jammed or falls into the river, the door is locked, the cell phone battery is dead, the car runs out of gas, there’s a roadblock ahead, …
__ Give her tough choices and moral dilemmas. The right decision is the most difficult one; the morally wrong choice is the easy way out.
Set the tone with style, mood, and pacing:
__ Show, don’t tell. Don’t intrude as the author, and minimize explanations and backstory.
__ Write tight. Make every word count.
__ Vary your sentence structure to suit the situation and mood.
__ Use distinctive, vivid verbs and nouns rather than overused, generic ones, like “walked” or “ran.”
__ Use strong imagery and just the right word choices to set the mood.
__ Vary the pacing and tension level. Nonstop action can be exhausting.
Pay attention to chapter and scene structure:
__ Don’t spend a lot of time on lead-up or wind-down. Start chapters late and end them early.
__ Make sure every scene has some conflict and a change.
__ Use cliffhangers frequently at the end of chapters – but not always.
__ Employ some jump cuts – end a chapter suddenly, without resolving the issue, then start the next chapter with different characters in a different scene.
__ Show all critical scenes in real time, with tension, action, reactions, and dialogue.
__ Skip past or quickly summarize transitions and unimportant scenes.
Experiment with these devices to increase suspense and intrigue:
__ Sprinkle in some foreshadowing – drop subtle advance hints and innuendos about critical plot points or events.
__ Withhold information – use delay tactics, interruptions at critical points.
__ Stretch out critical scenes – milk them for all they’re worth.
Surprise or shock your readers:
__ Add in a few unexpected twists. Put a big one in the middle and another big one at the end.
__ Use surprise revelations from time to time – reveal character secrets and other critical information the reader has been dying to know.
__ Have your main character experience at least one epiphany – a sudden significant realization that changes everything for them. Try putting one in the middle and one near the end.
__ Write in some reversals of feelings, attitudes, expectations, and outcomes.
Keep adding more tension. Increase the troubles of your protagonist by using these plot devices:
__ Ticking clocks – every second counts.
__ Obstacles, hindrances – keep challenging your hero or heroine.
__ Chases – your protagonist is chasing or being chased.
__ Threats or hints of more possible danger ahead.
__ Traps and restrictions – your character becomes somehow trapped and must use all their resources to get out of the situation.
Create a memorable, satisfying ending.
__ Write in a surprise twist at the end.
__ Leave your readers satisfied – the hero wins by a hair, the main story question/conflict is resolved.
Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor and the award-winning author of three craft-of-writing guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: Captivate Your Readers, Fire up Your Fiction, and Writing a Killer Thriller. She has also published two clickable time-saving e-resources to date: Quick Clicks: Spelling List and Quick Clicks: Word Usage. You can find Jodie at www.JodieRenner.com, www.JodieRennerEditing.com, http://jodierennerediting.blogspot.com/ and on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.