5 Ways to Create Suspense and Keep Your Readers Engaged

Learn how you can use tension, rhythm and foreshadowing techniques as well as setting deadlines for protagonists and introducing unnamed characters into dangerous situations in order to create suspense.

5 Ways to Create Suspense and Keep Your Readers Engaged

To keep readers' attention throughout the book's long midsection, you need to continuously develop the conflict and advance the plot by following logical steps without making the story predictable. What keeps readers moving on is suspense, which you can create using a variety of techniques, such as tension, rhythm and foreshadowing. The atmosphere is especially important because it will destroy suspense if used incorrectly. Your wicked forest will seem less threatening if the midday sun falls in abundance and rabbits frolic in the flower patches.

A story must be crafted in an environment suitable for the plot and characters; a disjunction between the atmosphere and the plot can cause your readers to move directly away from the story. You can create suspense using myths or second-hand encounters to take advantage of your monsters and villains. These stories will create an aura of mystery surrounding the threat. The hero hasn't faced the threat yet, but he's already scared because, damn it, he breathes fire and shoots lightning with his eyes.

Remember that your antagonist must live up to expectations or the real conflict will fail. Although useful in many stories, mystery is fundamental to film noir. Noir introduces detectives and they need a problem to solve. Use this focal point to drive the story forward and give your protagonist a tangible goal.

Setting a deadline for your protagonists is an easy way to add suspense. It's an easy and straightforward method with the added advantage of driving the plot. Deadlines don't just hang over the protagonists, but they also provide a clear and concise end goal. This openness and efficiency make it an attractive option for generating suspense.

Failure to meet a deadline should have consequences, just like any other threat. Just like a toothless villain fails to impress people, it's going to be disappointing if nothing serious happens when the clock hits zero. Villains pose an obvious threat, but antagonists aren't the only way to promote danger. An environment may present a turbulent climate or malevolent fauna. Sometimes, it's not the journey itself that is dangerous, but the destination.

The hero may need to make a sacrifice to succeed, or perhaps the final conflict will endanger his life. Either way, suspense must be created before the climax. Danger is especially important when it comes to horror stories, because they often feature monsters and villains that are supposed to seem insurmountable. They should be both dangerous and difficult to defeat. Whether or not there is a weakness must depend on the type of story told.

Do heroes overcome all odds and succeed, or do they fall short and succumb to powerful forces? It's going to be difficult to develop suspense if the heroes don't encounter any difficulties. You can only create a certain suspense by exaggerating your obstacle. An easy way to fix this problem is to force your heroes to suffer some kind of loss or setback. There are several types of losses that you may experience. Regardless of how you use loss in storytelling, the losses must be noticeable. Superficial wounds don't create much suspense and can even take it away, as escaping with minor injuries can make your hero look more like a real injury.

The climate is the archvillain and antagonist of many books, and provides all the suspense necessary for a good story. One of the best applications of short-term suspense is to create chapter endings or suspended scenes that leave the reader desperately in suspense. Creating suspense is really about evoking an emotion in the reader, an emotion similar to happiness, pain or anger. When the reader encounters what is truly strange, out of this world, what is beyond comprehension, that creates an automatic suspense. To create suspense, all you have to do is introduce unnamed or underdeveloped characters into a tense or dangerous situation. This cyclical way of creating suspense over and over again uses repetition in an ingenious way to captivate the viewer. Mother Nature can create continuous suspense (such as “Endurance”) or it can work on the basis of anticipation (such as “Salvage the Bones”).

Watch Michel Faber create suspense in “The Book of Strange New Things”, in which a missionary goes to a new planet to evangelize aliens. Every time you make readers curious about what comes next, you're creating suspense in writing. In fiction, suspense is created by hiding information, and the best type of information to hide is usually the backstory. If you can't create suspense in your book, readers will always feel disappointed and indifferent to your story.

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