How do you create suspense in a novel? Since I’m attempting to write a scifi thriller, it is the number two question on my mind these days.
A couple of years ago, I read a New York Times article written by Lee Child, the author of the popular Jack Reacher series. In that article, he revealed his secret sauce to create suspense. I still like his pithy advice. More on that later.
More recently, I read an old bestseller that’s an impressive example of suspense. I’ve never read another novel that’s as effective in maintaining tension. Whether or not one likes the story, the book is a superbly crafted thriller, at least on a technical level. I should’ve read it long ago but kept putting it off, thinking that the story was ruined because I’d seen the movie.
When I finally read the book, I noticed this: many chapters end with a mystery. When I write, my intuition is to wrap up each chapter neatly – conclude the scene before starting the next chapter. You know, tidy. The thing is, while sphincteralness may be great for the sock drawer, it may not be the best way to create suspense.
What this author often does is to end a scene at the beginning of the next chapter. For example, one chapter might conclude like this (I totally made this up):
“Luke,” Darth Vader wheezed like a 20-year-old Hoover clogged with cat hair. “I’m going to tell you who your father is.”
“OMG,” Luke squealed. “It’s Obi-Wan, isn’t it? I swear we have the same cheekbones. LOL. Don’t tell me it’s the Emperor. He doesn’t look like he ages well. No, it’s gotta be Yoda. That’s why the Force is strong within me. Wait, does that mean I’ll turn green if I don’t get enough sun? Spit it out, you bastard. I gots to know!”
Are you gonna stop there? Of course not. Like Luke, you gots to know, right? You glance at your clock on the nightstand: 12:03 a.m. You promised yourself to read only one chapter before going to sleep. Cursing, you flip over to the next chapter, which might start with:
“I am your father,” Darth Vader said.
Nooooo, you mutter to yourself, eyes wide. Bookmark that page and go to sleep? Uh, no. If you’re like me, you like to finish a chapter. Thus you read through the current chapter. By the end of that chapter, the author baits you again. Damn it. The evil cycle repeats. Again and again. The clock now reads 2:14 a.m., and you have to get up at six to go to work. Massively screwed up the … well, you know.
To sustain this continuous suspense, you have to create a series of mysteries to string the reader along. But that’s really hard and a lot of work. Merely thinking about it makes me tired. Also, this setup wouldn’t be right for every story. Nevertheless, it’s good to know.
If you’re still reading this, then perhaps Lee Child’s advice worked: you create suspense by dangling out a question and delaying the answer. What is this novel I’ve been babbling about? Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code.
- The first question being why does my story suck zonkey sphincter, but that’s a different post for a different day when the
self-loathingDark side is stronger. (A zonkey is the offspring of a male zebra and a female donkey. A female zebra and a male donkey produce a zedonk.)↵
- If the next chapter switches POV, then the scene might continue in the chapter after that, when the original POV resumes.↵