A thriller novel is nothing without elements of suspense and edge of their seats, pulse-pounding plot lines. Learn how to create suspense in your books?
For a thriller novel or a murder mystery to work, you need to build suspense. Without suspense, your story will turn into a damp, disappointing squid which will have lots of negative disappointed reviews on Amazon. But creating suspense is an art form and like all art forms, it must be practised religiously and persistently before you can call yourself a master. It can't be done with the first draft – or even the second for that matter. Many argue that suspense is one of the hardest things to do in creative writing.
Even after 17 spy thriller novels, I consider myself an apprentice in the suspense writing game.
I’ve learnt a lot about suspense writing during the past five years, which I can now pass to you in your quest to build tension, add red herrings, and write the perfect cliffhanger.
What Is a Suspense Story?
With suspense plot lines, you’re playing with your readers’ expectations of time. They know information is coming in the story. They just don’t know when. Will bad things happen on the next page? The next chapter? The next three chapters?
They just don't know what will happen next. Crime thriller authors know the right type of suspense makes the ultimate page-turner and piques reader interest.
11 Steps To Create Suspense In Your Thriller Novels
As an author, though, how do you build up that suspense? Here's a step-by-step guide to the ultimate suspenseful scene.
1. Place Your Main Characters In a Perilous High Stakes Situation
The central premise of a suspense story is a dangerous situation swirling around your main characters. They have to figure out how to deal with various dilemmas in that situation before something terrible happens. The Marvel superhero movies such as The Avengers are good examples.
A foreshadowing of a perilous situation can be started with something like a ticking clock to a nuclear bomb, a time limit to solving a riddle before something catastrophic occurs (Dan Brown-style), or the theft of an item that has the potential to cause untold damage in the wrong hands.
You can also let your readers experience a problem through the point of view of one of the characters. Put the reader in the character's position and, if done properly, they will feel what your characters are feeling. As the story progresses, readers' curiosity will keep them going to see if your main characters manage to save the day.
2. Introduce a Credible Bad Guy
Character development is a must in any good story. They can't be one-dimensional and stereotypical, like Doctor Evil in the Austin Powers movies. They have to be believable for the reader to be nervous of them – this is especially true of the bad guy in the story.
Every suspense novel has a bad guy – it's the minimum requirement for stories like these! But if you take it too far and use all the usual tropes like the white cat on the knee, the scar above the eye, holding the world to ransom for one million dollars, and the cackling minions, the reader is going to roll their eyes, groan, and stop reading.
Instead, give your bad guy human qualities, but with serious flaws and shortcomings, and a complicated life. Show the reader perhaps how the criminal got to where he or she is right now (that's right, it can be a bad girl too). Give the character a personality with problems the reader can perhaps relate to.
The reader might actually end up rooting for the bad guy in the end – it did happen in the TV show Breaking Bad, after all. Who were the viewers cheering for by the end? Walter White the drug dealer suffering from lung cancer, or the hapless DEA agents in pursuit?
3. Invent a Credible Protagonist
OK, so you have your bad guy all set up and ready to attempt world domination. Now you need a protagonist (a.k.a. good guy) to stop them. Apologies to all female readers out there – I don't mean “guy” literally! After all, the main protagonist in my spy thriller books is a woman. I'm all for female empowerment.
Like the bad guy, the protagonist needs to be relatable and human for the reader to care about what happens to them. The character needs to have human flaws, frailties, demons, and conflict. One good example is Lieutenant Horatio Kane in CSI Miami (played by David Caruso). When he's not pursuing criminals, you can see he has a pain deep inside of him, and later it's revealed he went through a violent childhood, an experience that drives him on when encountering the dark side of the world.
Another excellent example is Ian Fleming's James Bond. Timothy Dalton and Daniel Craig both played Bond as a ruthless and efficient agent, but with a conflicted dark side that no one could penetrate.
Likewise, your protagonists should be the same. If they are not relatable and likeable, the reader won't cheer them on.
4. Consider bringing in a Shadowy Puppet Master
In many suspense books, you have your criminals running around, creating havoc. But in the background is a mystery character pulling the strings. To use James Bond as an example again, the shadowy puppet master, in this case, would be someone like Ernst Stavro Blofeld. The SMERSH agents would be doing his bidding and we would be watching what they're doing. But ultimately, it's all at the behest of the man “behind the curtain”.
By introducing a shadowy, mysterious figure calling the shots, you're heightening the tension for the reader. Who is this person? Is it someone we think as one of the good guys? Are they in fact playing for the other team? Dan Brown is a master at this thing, and Angels & Demons is a classic textbook example.
5. Create Puzzles and Riddles For The Reader To Solve
Dan Brown also did this one to perfection with The Da Vinci Code. As well as a cracking good story, the reader also had clues to follow and puzzles to figure out. He cranked up the suspense by putting time pressure on the book’s characters to solve puzzles and riddles before a disaster.
Maybe it's an ancient code to the location of an earth-shattering document that will rewrite the history books if it comes to light? Or a fresh bloody handprint in a room that has been locked for over a century? Giving your readers a sense of satisfaction when they figure the puzzle out – especially if they do it before the book character does – is going to make them want to read on.
6. Give The Reader More Than One Plot At The Same Time
This takes a lot of work to get right – and it's not something you're going to perfect in the first couple of drafts. But if you can weave in a “sub-plot” or two into the main plot, that gives the story even more excitement.
So if your hero is looking for a hidden nuclear bomb on a timer – which would be the main plot – a possible sub-plot would be that an assassin dispatched to kill the hero before they can find the bomb.
Or the bomb and the assassin can be unrelated to one another. You could have a secondary sub-plot where an unknown traitor in the hero's camp is busy betraying his people and the reader has no idea who the traitor is.
But these sub-plots shouldn't come at the expense of the main plot. If you can make them effortlessly work together, then great. But if you see your main plot trailing away because you're too wrapped in an exciting sub-plot, then you need to stop and re-evaluate the direction of the story.
Need help? Read our storytelling guide.
7. Set Your Characters To Always Race Against The Clock
Suspense is all about “can they do it in time? Can they achieve X before Y happens?” So obviously, you need a tight time constraint. Don't spread the story out over a month, where the characters can leisurely figure things out while having a long lunch and a nap. If you do, the reader will be having lots of naps too, and you'll have permanently lost the story's momentum.
So instead of a month, make it a week. Even better, make it two days. There's no time for sleeping, eating, having a personal life, personal hygiene, or blinking. They have to keep moving before something explodes, someone dies, or a maniac takes over the government (or all three!).
8. Throw In a Few Flashbacks For Good Measure
Done properly, flashbacks can also help with moving the story along. Viewpoints from different characters related to past events can put the reader into the character’s mind, making them feel what the character is feeling. Anger? Resentment? A desire for vengeance? The flashback can help explain why the character is feeling this way. By recalling a past incident, it can be explained, for example, why a character hates another of the characters.
Brief flashbacks are an excellent way to introduce new elements of the story without resorting to “info-dumps” where you introduce those elements but, at the same time, kill the story's momentum.
9. Mess With Your Readers’ Minds With Red Herrings
No, a red herring is not a delicious fish. It’s an element of the story that messes with the reader's mind. You build something up in the story to make the reader believe they've figured out what's going to happen. But then you do a sudden one-eighty degree and make them realise that they are wrong. They'll realise you deceived them with a false clue and that while they were looking in one direction, the real action was happening behind them.
Crime suspense is where the real red herrings are. The Sherlock Holmes stories, for example, are full of red herrings, where Holmes and Watson uncover evidence that convinces them they know the identity of the criminal. But then something suddenly happens, which up-ends all of our expectations.
10. Look To The Movies and TV Shows For Inspiration
I always turn to the movies and TV shows when I want to practise my suspense writing craft. After all, you only have to look at the Internet Movie Database to see how many suspense movies and TV shows exist. The ones I study the closest are ones like John Wick (Wick being chased through New York is a classic in suspense scenes), CSI Miami, the Die Hard movies, and of course James Bond.
You should also find the scripts for these movies online. Seeing how scenes are set up on the page and how the dialogue is written can help enormously. Just Google for your desired movie or show and scripts usually turn up in some shape or form.
11. Turn The End Of The Story Into The Ultimate Cliffhanger
The end of the story is arguably the most important part of the story. All of your suspense plots and sub-plots need to converge neatly at the end for the “big reveal”. The name of the traitor or puppet master. Whether the good side managed in the end to prevail.
But don't build up the suspense to unbearable levels – and then let the reader down at the end. If a bomb has been ticking down throughout the book, the last thing you should do is for the hero to saunter in casually, flip a switch, and the bomb has been deactivated – with a couple of hours to spare. Talk about anti-climatic!
Instead, as the seconds count down to zero, the hero's sweaty hands should be fumbling the wires wondering which one to cut. He could be on the phone to his loved ones saying goodbye, convinced he's about to die. A bad bullet wound in the leg could be preventing him from escaping the scene. In other words, have the reader wondering right up to the last minute if the hero is going to get out alive or not.
Readers also love cliffhangers – after all, it's what compels them to buy the next book in the series. So instead of everyone living happily ever after at the end, finish with a shocking and dramatic scene. So when the bomb has been defused and the hero breathes a sigh of relief, there's a click and a suppressed pistol is pointed to their head. “It's you!” said the hero – and the book ends. Now the reader HAS to get the next book to find out who that person is.
The Final Word On How To Create Suspense
Suspense isn’t something people can write straightaway, and certainly not in one draft. It takes time and patience, and lots of studying relevant books, movies, and TV shows to see what works and what doesn't. But once you've nailed it? You'll have readers eating out of the palm of your hand.
If you want help writing a thriller book, read our review of David Baldacci’s Thriller Writing Masterclass.
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