Suspense Tips for Novelists

You may not read suspense novels. You might not write them. But each of us has had the experience of not being able to put a novel down. Why? Besides well-written characters, and great plotting, the author likely used some suspense techniques.

Don't spoon-feed your reader. Readers love to figure things out for themselves. It pulls them along in the story. Whether it's description of a setting or character, or the complex relationship between a sleazy banker and his ex-girlfriend, find ways to hint at the situation. Remember dot-to-dot pictures? Somehow they were more satisfying to color than a "regular" coloring book, because you participated in figuring out what the picture was.

Go for the bread-crumb trail. Instead of plopping a big chunk of backstory to clue your reader in to the past, leave little bits here and there. Readers will stay on the trail to pick up every crumb. In other words, don't have your protagonist discover her middle-school journal and think, "It all started with that mean girl in the sixth grade." and spend three pages detailing what's happened between then and now. Have that adult "mean girl" make a snide comment or two, referencing your character's ineptness in those years. Bring back snippets of her memories by using what's happening in the present.

Try some twists and turns. Don't let your novel proceed in a predictable straight line. It's refreshing to read a book where you really don't know how it's going to end. Ask yourself at key points in the manuscript. What's the worst thing that could happen right now? Or who is the most unexpected person to enter the scene at this moment?

Gail Gaymer Martin is writing an excellent blog series right now, on suspense techniques. Check them out for lots more information.

Part I-What is a Suspense Novel?

Part II-What is the Structure of a Suspense Novel?

Part III-Suspense: Characterization

Part IV-Suspense: Red Herrings

Part V-Suspense: The Opening Sentences

Part VI-Plotting a Suspense Novel

Part VII-Suspense: Setting and Atmosphere

Part VIII- Suspense and Point of View

Part IX- Suspense: Backstory

Martin will post the next blog on goals and motivation, as related to suspense.

It might surprise you that Martin is a romance writer. From her long list of published books, she's figured out how to keep a reader hooked. Try a few suspense techniques yourself.

Are there any you use that you'd like to share?


  1. Thanks for the links--I agree that the same techniques can be used for other genres, so I'll definitely check these out!

  2. You're welcome, Jess. For me, I need all the help I can get!




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