Building Suspense, by Kathy Stewart
When writing crime, or any other novel, for that matter, how do you create and maintain suspense? That was my question as I set out to write Clear Island Murder.
I did some research and the subject is complex, but here are a few ideas.
The first one is to create a ticking time-bomb, not literally, but figuratively. If all the action takes place against a background of a countdown to a terrible consequence the stakes for the protagonist and antagonist rise inexorably.
It’s also a good idea to reveal information slowly. Make your reader worry – and wait. That doesn’t mean the action can be slow, just that you allow the information to leak in tantalising snippets for your reader to absorb. Suspense comes from anticipation so delaying feeding information to your reader for as long as possible will keep him turning the page. Make your reader wait; anticipation is half the pleasure.
If you’re going to have internal thoughts, then don’t simply churn over ideas which have already been planted in your reader’s mind. Instead fill these passages with conflicting emotions. Contrasting emotions and warring ideas are the essence of true tension.
A fourth and possibly most important point is to create micro-tension in every scene. This is easier said than done. Micro-tension is born of conflict between characters, an underlying clash of emotions. This needs to pervade each scene, so that your reader is kept spellbound by what will happen every second of your story. Somehow, you need to create tension between your characters, even between people who are lovers or friends. Pure emotion does not of itself create tension. It’s the conflicting emotions that do that. In every scene, try to have contrasting emotions, so a character might be happy and sad at the same time, or be pleased for someone but also feel regret or jealousy at the loss of his own goal.
I also came across a few things to avoid.
Backstory, unless it is revealed carefully and in small dollops, can sap the tension right out of a scene. So only include backstory if it needs to be told. The secret to making backstory work is to use past events to create present conflict.
Don’t have long passages of travel. Get your characters from A to B in a sentence or two, or start ‘in media res’ with them already at their next location.
Lengthy descriptive passages also drain suspense from a scene. Landscapes lack tension until they are peopled with characters with problems.
Use foreshadowing wisely because it doesn’t of itself add suspense. It only works if it brings about a change of emotions in your characters.
So, in summary, probably the most telling thing I found is that true tension comes from inner conflict, not from outer actions. To build true suspense you need to find the contradictory emotions in your characters. Make your readers care, make them worry, build in a ticking time-bomb, make them feel. Have plenty of conflict, whether it be in dialogue, action, exposition or description. Tap into the emotional conflict within characters or between characters to make your reader want to turn the page.