The Suspense is Killing Me


I am in the throes of writing my first thriller. The problem? How to make it thrilling. Enter the solution- Suspense.

Easy, right?


I am a bit of panster when it comes to first drafts. I have a vague, broad outline that keeps me pointed in the right direction, but the details are left to chance. It gives me a certain freedom, and I love when characters or plot twists surprise me, but it's not exactly conducive to building suspense. Unless you count the suspense of not having any idea of what is about to happen until it shows up on the page- THAT will get my heart racing.

So I'm about to let you in on my unproven and untested method to building suspense.

You're a risk taker right?

You can try this at home, but your individual results and satisfaction will vary. Manuscripts may be injured.

Okay, here it is: My secret to building suspense is....

*drum rolls*

*pretty girls in brightly colored costumes wave scarves*

*black covering is ripped away to reveal-*



Yeah, I know, the payoff wasn't big enough. But that's what revision is for!

It's only after I know for sure how the story ends that I can plant seeds of doubt along the way. For me, building up to something requires knowing what that something is, and more importantly, what that something is not (but the character might think it is).

When I start a first draft, I usually have a concept, some characters, and three or four major plot points. I may even outline a few scenes that need to happen along the way. But to really create tension and suspense, I need details.

Its through details that a mystery builds. It's through revelations that a secret is uncovered or a character is changed.

Building suspense during a revision is not as exciting as it sounds. For me it's a methodical, analytical process. It's the lawyer in me.

First step: outline all scenes in the WIP with one sentence that describes the major plot points.

Second step: identify the key conflicts in your story and their resolution (note: you should have external and internal conflicts- but conflict is another post).

Third step: For each of the above, identify scenes in which this conflict is presented, complicated or resolved.

Fourth step: (don't have all three?) Brainstorm new scenes and where they fit in overall story.

Fifth step: Are there scenes where you can't identify the main conflicts? Consider revising or (Sob!) cutting.

Sixth step: Now review the scenes you've identified and make sure the conflict really is presented, complicated or resolved in the course of the scene: revise accordingly.

Seventh step: Do you have enough complications? Can you add more? Where in the story? In what scenes can conflict be intensified? Revise some more.

Seventh step: Repeat.

Voila! Conflict is the key. Conflict builds tension naturally. Complications (or setbacks) keep the reader turning the page. And resolution? Makes the trip worthwhile.

For now, I'm still working on the first draft of my thriller, but as I throttle towards the end, I am already dying to know how it turns out. I don't have long to find out.

And then I can fix it.

In revision.


Yes! It's certainly ironic that adding suspense is so time consuming and boring, isn't it? =) This is a really wise post, though. I do something similar but not nearly as organized as all this. I'll have to refer back to this post the next time I go about revising. Thanks!

I found my way here via the Blueboards. This is a great post. Very helpful for someone trying to figure out plotting, pace, and keeping the tension throughout. Thanks!

Anne and Laura, I'm so glad you found this helpful! I'm notorious for deconstructing things before I can figure out how to fix them. It is so hard to keep things moving forward in a 300 page book. The chapter by chapter approach seems to work best for me, since I write relatively short chapters (5-7 pages). But I think you could just as easily do this by scene or page.

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