This is the HANDOUT for my recent 50-minute workshop, "Spark up Your Story - Adding Tension, Suspense, & Intrigue" at When Words Collide conference in Calgary, Aug. 8-10, 2014.
All genres of fiction, not just thrillers, suspense novels, and action-adventures, need tension, suspense, and intrigue to keep readers eagerly turning the pages. And of course, you’ll need to ratchet up the tension and suspense a lot more if you’re writing a fast-paced, nail-biting page-turner.
A. Some “big-picture” techniques for adding suspense, tension, and intrigue:
~ First, make your readers care about your protagonist by creating a likeable, appealing, strong, smart and resourceful but vulnerable character, with some inner conflict, regrets, and secrets. If readers haven’t bonded with your character, they won’t care what happens to him.
~ Put your character in motion right away. Start right out in the head and body of your main character, in an active scene with others, with some discord and tension.
~ Get up close and personal. Use deep point of view (first-person or close third person) to get us into the head and body of your main character. This makes readers care about the character and worry about him. A worried reader is an engaged reader.
~ Challenge your protagonist. Now that your readers care about your main character, insert a major threat, challenge, or dilemma within the first chapter or two that won’t be resolved until the end. Create an over-riding sentence about this to keep in mind as you’re writing your story:
“Will (name) survive/stop/find/overcome (ordeal/person/difficulty/threat) on time?”
~ Create a cunning antagonist. Your villain needs to be as clever, determined and resourceful as your protagonist – or even more so. Make him or her a serious force to be reckoned with!
~ Create a mood of unease by showing the main character feeling apprehensive about something or someone or by showing some of the bad guy’s thoughts and intentions. For a thriller, establish a sense of urgency, a tense mood, and generally fast pacing.
~ Show, don’t tell. Show all your critical scenes in real time as they’re happening, with action, reaction, and dialogue. Show your main character’s inner feelings and physical and emotional reactions. Don’t have one character tell another about an important event or scene.
~ Use multiple viewpoints, especially that of the villain. For increased anxiety and suspense, get us into the head of your antagonist from time to time. This way the readers find out critical information the heroine doesn’t know, things we want to warn her about!
~ Keep the story momentum moving forward. Don’t get bogged down in backstory or exposition. Keep the action moving ahead, especially in the first chapter. Then work in background details and other info little by little, on an “as-needed” basis only, through dialogue or flashbacks – not as the author telling the readers.
~ Every scene needs conflict and a change. There should be something unresolved in every scene. Your character enters the scene with an objective or goal (agenda), but she encounters obstacles in the scene, so she is thwarted in her efforts to reach her goal. But circumstances or the character have changed by the end of the scene.
~ Put tension on every page. Every page needs some tension, even if it's just disagreement, resentment, doubt, or questioning simmering below the surface.
~ Vary the tension. But of course, you can’t keep up tension nonstop, as it’s tiring for readers and will eventually numb them. It’s best to intersperse tense, nail-biting scenes with a few less tense ones.
~ Withhold information. Don’t tell your readers too much too soon. Dole out critical information little by little, through dialogue, thoughts, and brief flashbacks, to tantalize readers and keep them wondering.
~ Delay answers to critical plot questions. Look for places in your story where you’ve answered readers’ questions too soon, so have missed a prime spot to increase tension and suspense. Draw out the time before answering that question. In the meantime, hint at it from time to time to remind readers of its importance.
~ Use foreshadowing to incite curiosity. Tease the readers with innuendos. Drop subtle hints of troubles to come. Hint at the main character’s past secrets. What is the character worried about or afraid might happen? Capitalize on this.
~ Add in some revelations and epiphanies to put a twist on things and reward readers for their interest and involvement.
~ Use the setting to establish the mood and create suspense. This is the equivalent of ominous music, harsh lighting, strange camera angles, or nasty weather in a scary movie.
~ Make use of compelling, vivid sensory imagery to take us right there, with the protagonist, vividly experiencing and reacting to whoever/whatever is challenging or threatening him.
~ Use brief flashbacks at key moments to reveal your main character’s childhood traumas, unpleasant events, secrets, emotional baggage, hangups, dysfunctional family, etc.
~ Keep hampering your hero or heroine throughout the novel to increase worry, tension, and suspense. Stir in some of these ingredients: a ticking clock, obstacles, chases, traps, restrictions, handicaps, injuries, bad luck, etc.
~ Keep raising the stakes. Keep asking yourself, “How can I make things worse for the protagonist?” As the challenges get more difficult and the obstacles more insurmountable, readers worry more and suspense grows.
~ Plan a few plot twists. Readers are surprised and delighted when the events take a turn they never expected. Don’t let your readers become complacent, thinking it’s easy to figure out the ending, or they may stop reading.
See Jodie’s book Writing a Killer Thriller for a lot more detail on each of the points mentioned above.
B. Revision stage:
Amp up, condense, or delete any scenes that lag, and tighten up your writing. Now go back and make sure every scene and paragraph drives the story forward. Make every chapter, scene, page, paragraph, sentence, and word count!
See Jodie's Fire up Your Fiction for lots of concrete tips with examples for tightening your writing
and revising your novel or short story to make it more compelling.
Do you have any good ideas to add for adding tension and intrigue to your stories? Please share in the comments below! Thanks.