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How to Write a Suspense Story

Instructor: Jennifer Carnevale

Jennifer has a dual master's in English literature/teaching and is currently a high school English teacher. She teaches college classes on the side.

What keeps a reader engaged? In most cases, it's the possibility of what could happen next. In this lesson we will learn how to write a suspense story by breaking down the steps of the writing process and exploring how to build tension in a story.

Page Turners

What makes a story hold your attention? What makes you keep reading? When it comes to mystery, horror, and science fiction genres, the literary device called suspense is usually the key element. However, suspense can also be found in romantic tales and dramatic readings alike.

Suspense is the build up of tension in a story that keeps the reader invested. How a writer creates that tension is what we will focus on in this lesson. Read on to learn the fundamentals of writing a suspense story.

How to Write a Suspense Story

Before we can become professionals at writing suspenseful tales, we need to break down the parts to learn how each literary element works together to create the story as a whole.

Sequence of Events

When we think of suspense, we think of tension building over several pages in a book or minutes in a movie. The longer this tension builds, the more possibility the writer must create. For example, if I can only think of one possible outcome for who might be knocking at the main character's door at 2am and/or why one might be knocking, there are not enough unknown elements to keep me invested.

We want to keep our readers guessing, which in turn, creates suspense. So, how do we create these moments and make them valuable? First, start with the plot. Plot is the logical sequence of events that form a story. When writing your story, ask yourself: What story are you trying to tell, and what will happen at each turn? Does each main event connect to each other and the overall story as a whole?

Start simple. Paint yourself a clear picture of the sequence of events first. Create the bones of the story, then fill in the gaps. Once you have a clear picture, begin to think about possibilities, plot twists, and other elements that will keep your reader guessing at every turn. Go slow, and add as much detail as possible. These details are what will create tension and keep the reader turning the page.

Imagery

Once we have established a clear plot that makes sense, then it's time to add the details. An excellent way to think about detail is using show, not tell. Show not tell means exactly what it sounds like; don't tell us about a character's feelings, show them. Don't tell me the plot step by step; write your reader directly into the action.

For example, which sounds better?

Example A: The girl was in the library. It was nighttime. She had been working hard on a paper for English class when all of a sudden, the lights started to flicker and went out. She felt nervous, then scared.

Or

Example B: She knew the library was only open for another 20 minutes and was typing up a storm to compensate. She couldn't afford another D in her English class. As she began to type 'In conclusion,' the lights flickered and buzzed. She froze. Maybe it was just an electrical issue. But before she knew it, the library was pitch black. She could feel the darkness on her skin, and it started to consume her mind. If she took a breath, she thought the whole room would cave in on her. She waited...

In the second example, we get the same plot, but the feeling is implied in the wording. Instead of hearing the story second hand like in the first example, the reader is put directly into the action, feeling as though they are right there with her in the consuming darkness.

To create this type of effect, go through your main events and ask yourself: Am I telling or am I showing? Can I add more detail in between events or dialogue? Can my reader clearly paint a picture from my description? If you think you are telling, you probably are. Try and create a feeling instead of using emotion words. Paint a picture of the setting instead of simply describing wall colors and objects.

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