Posts Tagged ‘suspense’

Today, for my weekly(ish) writing craft blog post, I’m going to talk about one of the key techniques you can employ to raise tension and suspense in you stories.

One of the best ways to raise tension and suspense is to write sparely. What do I mean by sparely? I mean:  direct, to the point, compact prose that puts the reader in the moment, gives them what they need – and nothing more – prose that’ll really make the pages turn.

This is one of the very best ways to keep the pages turning, keep the tension up and keep readers excited and wanting more.

It’s often said, that in horror “Less is more” – but this is just as valuable advice at the prose-level as it is when talking about whether or not to show the blood and guts on the page or whether to leave it up to the reader’s imagination.

So when I’m referring to this prose-level “Less is more” , what am I really saying?  I’m literally saying  less words (and possibly even short words) is better.

Waffling on with paragraph long descriptions of character’s appearances or individual sword blows is one fast way to kill tension and suspense and the momentum in your story, particularly during critical scenes where action should be happening and pages should be turning fast enough to give your readers RSI.

Think about it:

The antagonist walks into the bar where a fight is about to break out.  If you write a whole paragraph describing his black leather pants and his handlebar mustache, then you’ve already killed the mood. All that tension that the reader felt in knowing that the bad guy was coming and all hell was about to break loose got lost as you described the intricate leather workings of his riding boots.  Don’t do this.  It would be much better, for example, to have an argument break out and use that argument as a vehicle to keep the reader excited, set up your fight scene and you can dribble in a bit of extra information if you require.

Remember we want to keep tension up, reader interest piqued and pages turning. To that end, we want to keep our sentences tight. Only give the reader what they need to know and not waffle on or describe unnecessary details.

Check out the following examples.. they may be a little bit extreme, but I really want to show you the difference in the effect.  In the “what to do” example, you should get a feeling of tension straight away as though “uh oh, shit is gonna hit the fan”.  In the second example, you’ll probably get so bored you’ll start considering self harm.

What to do:

The bar doors squealed and banged against each other and everyone looked up, ‘cept  ol’ John on the harpsichord. He always was deaf as post.

“I’m lookin’ for Billy Bloggs, lads; and you’re gonna tell me where to find him!”   The man was big, his face hard. His hands rested on silver pistols holstered at his hips.

Old Ted pulled up a shotgun from behind the bar. Glasses and bottles fell and shattered as men jumped out of the way.

“I ain’t givin’ him up, not to the likesa you, Grimmit”

Grimmit’s guns were in his hands before Ted had finished speaking.

“Well, seems as though we’ve got a problem on our hands. I’s got two reasons here why ya’ll should be reasonable, Ted.  You want to be reasonable, dontcha?”

What not to do:

We were sitting the bar, when we heard the doors bang against each other.  We looked up to find a large gentleman had entered the room. He was wearing a brown leather jacket over coarse denim pants, that were tucked into leather boots.  His face was hard, as though it had been cut from granite and he his eyes were a steely grey.  On his hips were two silver smith and wesson pistols, holstered in black leather. His belt was a bandolier of bullets around his waist.

“I’m lookin’ for Billy Bloggs, lads; and you’re gonna tell me where to find him!”

Old Ted stood behind the bar, his fat white mustache sat atop a wicked sneer.  He reached under the counter and pulled out a double barrel twelve gauge.


Cool tidbit about these two scenes:  They both have the exact same word count, 130 chars. check for yourself if you’d like. The good one however moved much quicker, was tense from the get-go and the content was far more exciting,

So remember folks, when you want your pages to turn and tension to build up.. either before and during your critical scenes – write sparely.




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.