Suspense and Tension Writing Tip: Start your scenes and stories at the action

Posted: September 30, 2013 in Craft
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Fiction lives and dies by tension and suspense.  That may sound like artsy fartsy bullshit, but hear me out for a minute.

Usually, we think of suspense as that breathless feeling you get in the action movie when the bomb is about to go off, or the thrill of fear as the woman in her  runs through the forest at night being chased by the serial killer. These are indeed suspenseful moments.

Will the bomb go off or will the hero cut the correct coloured wire in time? Will the lady get away from the serial killer or will he catch her and butcher her with the carving knife from her own kitchen? Can she somehow turn the tables against him?

These are the kinds of questions that we ask ourselves as we watch or read these scenes.  But they are not the be all and end all of suspense.

Similarly there are other moments of suspense that are more mundane.  We have the “will he get the girl” moments in romance novels or that feeling of “What is gonna happen now?” when the war hero returns to his homeland only to find his family and world has changed in his absence.

This is the suspense of story.  How suspenseful your tale is, overall, really defined by the story itself and the kind of conflicts and obstacles faced by the protagonists, and how you as the writer execute those events and presents them to the reader.

So you already have a kickass story in mind, but how do you best execute it ? What craft techniques can you employ when writing the events your characters go through to really turn up the tension and suspense to 11?

There are a few and over the next few weeks I’ll be making some blog posts which describe them and give you examples of these in action.  You should be able to use them to make an impact on your own writing.   Hope you enjoy, feel free to comment.

Start scenes at the action.

This is particularly important in short stories but is worth remembering for longer work as well.   In novels you can be a bit more verbose and have a few more pages up yourself before a reader will give up on you, but in essence, the theory is here is the same and applicable to longer form writing as well.

If you’re writing a story about a couple of kids who go to a haunted forest for some weird sacrificial rite, please don’t start the story 3 days before they arrive at the woods.  Don’t start it in the middle of their family Christmas dinner and then waffle on for 2000 words to expose some back story.  By the time the reader gets to the actual interesting part – scary forest of bloodletting – they’ll be asleep.

Instead start the story with the one of the protagonist’s feet snapping a twig as they take their first skulking steps into the forest in the dead of night, causing their friend to jump out of their skin.  It’s instantly a much better.


A twig snapped under Jared’s boot.

“Shhh” Alice hissed and motioned him to be quiet. The moonlight barely made it through the canopy and the trees around them looked  like great charcoal pillars.

Jared grunted and slowly navigated his way through the brush until he was next to her. He leaned close and whispered.

“Sorry. This place is a jungle. If we crash through here like a stampede of elephants we’ll be caught before we even reach the tower”

What did I tell you in this one passage?

1.  There is a boy and a girl together

2. it is night time

3.  They’re out of their comfort zone, or at least the boy is.

5. they’re concerned that they’re going to get caught by someone, so they’re sneaking.

6. they’re trying to get to a tower for some reason

7. they’re worried about being caught

That’s a lot of information teasing the reader within the opening lines. In fact, most readers wont even conciously take in all of those 7 points although all 7 should register with them subconciously.  This should draw the reader in quickly. This uch better than starting the story earlier than this point and should pique your reader’s interest. They’ll want to know about these two characters and who might catch them and what this tower is and this will create suspense for them.


The reality is, all our stories have some level of back story and if we want to get nitpicky, the start of that back story is technically the start of our greater tale. This however is the worst place to start. We want to skip any back story and move to the first clear event or “inciting incident” as it is often referred to by literary boffins, and start the story there.  If you find yourself saying “but what about such and such event that happened before, it needs to be shown for context and so readers understand and blahblahblah”  just shut your inner dialogue right up.  All that kinda stuff can be tactfully exposed through the introspection of your protagonist or through some well written dialogue.  You don’t need to bore a reader and chew up your word count by writing that stuff out.

Come up with an idea for a short story.  Don’t ask yourself “Where does the story begin”, ask yourself “Where does important stuff actually start happening” and start your story there.


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