Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Up the Ante to Build Suspense

By Debby Giusti

No matter the genre, suspense is what keeps the reader turning the page. According to Webster’s Dictionary, suspense is mental uncertainty, anxiety or a pleasant excitement as to a decision or outcome. Whether you’re writing sweet romance, historicals, paranormals, thrillers or mysteries, that excitement about the story and uncertainty about the characters achieving their goals is important. Readers need to be anxious about the outcome and doubtful the happily ever after can be reached. Keep them guessing and you’ll keep them reading.

Let’s look at some ways to up the ante. Since I write suspense, my main focus will revolve around that genre, but the tips and techniques are applicable to other genres as well.

Start with a hook. Take the protagonist from his everyday world and shove him—perhaps unwillingly—into an adventure from which he can’t turn back. Throw in multiple escalating problems and watch him suffer.

Need another way to look at it? Think ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. Then complicate the situation and make it worse. Nothing should be easy. When one hurdle is cleared the next looms twice as high. As the race continues toward the ending, obstacles increase in difficulty, the pace becomes more intense and, especially at the black moment, a happy resolution seems impossible to achieve.

Keep the opening fast paced. Add a ticking clock or time limits.

Sprinkle in red herrings that distract the reader and keep her guessing.

Camouflage a clue by placing it in a list of insignificant information or insert the clue when the reader is distracted.

Create false alarms. The heroine comes home and suspects something’s amiss in her apartment. She opens closet doors, one after another, expecting the unexpected but finds nothing. Shaking off her jittery nerves and laughing at her foolish fears, she steps into her kitchen and finds a dead body. The reader remains tense as the heroine searches. When the character relaxes, the reader does as well. Both reader and character are caught off guard when the body is found.

Play on universal fears. Remember Indiana Jones’ fear of snakes? Tap into our common dislike of insects and vermin like roaches and rats. Inanimate phobias work as well, such as fear of fire or heights. Weather can be a factor. Everyone understands the seriousness of a lightening strike, the danger of an approaching storm, a tornado, a tidal wave or tsunami. Frigid cold or scorching heat can up the tension as well.

In Harlan Coben’s blockbuster, TELL NO ONE, the hero wanted to share a secret with his wife, but she was killed first. Coben keeps the reader waiting until the end of the book to reveal the secret around which the entire story revolves. (Remember the longer the reader waits for a secret to be revealed, the more important that secret needs to be. )

Each scene should end with a hook. End chapters with a cliffhanger or plot turning point. Start the next chapter in another character’s point of view, and the reader will race through the pages to get back to the character out on the cliff.

Give the reader enough information to anticipate the danger. Think about a rather boring scene with two women talking at an outdoor café table. Ho-hum. Now place a villain in the shadows with a gun pointed at one of the women and the dynamic changes, the suspense escalates and you have the reader’s undivided attention.

Remember to create a compelling villain or antagonist. Give him reasons to act the way he does. Don't forget to add a humane dimension to round out his personality.

Isolate your characters--physically, socially or politically--as danger mounts. The heroine ends up alone in the isolated mountain cabin. The hero loses friends when he blows the whistle on the company where he’s worked for a decade. The CIA agent is falsely identified as a spy and must prove his innocence as he runs for his life.

Distract the reader during an information dump. I used this technique in KILLER HEADLINE, to be released Feb 2010. My hero adds logs and stokes a fire while important information is added piecemeal in his introspection. Hopefully, as the fire sputters and cracks and sparks light the night, the reader focuses on the fire instead of the information.

Handicap the hero. Give him a physical problem such as a limp or a broken leg, or take away his cell phone, have his gun jam or his car breakdown on a deserted road far from town.

Ensure the heroine has a justifiable reason for getting herself into trouble, such as chasing her runaway dog into the dark woods or the condemned building. When trouble follows, take away every opportunity for her to call for help. (Cell phones can be a problem. Did the heroine forget hers at home? Did she fail to charge the battery or is she out of range?)

Shorten your sentences and chapters as the suspense heightens. In the fight-for-your-life scenes, keep the writing tight and focused. Cut description.

Draw out the climax. James Patterson often has a pre-climax just before the big bang ending. The reader is lulled into thinking the problem is resolved and the bad guy has been captured, then the real villain appears.

Build tension, increase the suspense and up the ante to keep readers—whether contest judges, editors or critique partners--turning the pages and eager to read more.

Happy writing!
Wishing you abundant blessings,
Debby Giusti
I’m giving away a copy of PROTECTING HER CHILD, the second book in my Magnolia Medical series on sale May 12th. Leave a comment and your email address to be included in the drawing.

Debby Giusti
Wealthy heiress Eve Townsend is close to death. But before she dies, she has to know: what happened to the daughter she gave up for adoption twenty-four years before? Did she inherit her mother’s life-threatening disease? Medical researcher Pete Worth is ready to find answers by tracking her down. And when he finally locates Meredith Lassiter, he finds her widowed, pregnant and on the run. The loan sharks who killed her husband want her dead…and Pete is the only one standing in their way.


  1. Good morning everyone!
    I put on a pot of coffee and hot water for tea. English muffins, bagels and sweet rolls are on the table as well as a fruit tray and chocolate covered strawberries.

    Be sure to leave a comment and your email to be included in the drawing for a copy of my latest book, PROTECTING HER CHILD.

  2. Hi Debby,
    Thanks for a great post! I'm going to be a good girl and take some fruit rather than a sweet roll. I'm thinking there is something sinister in those strawberries . . .

    OOOoooo I love suspense plotting! What fun!

    And here's a chance to publicly thank you for the wonderful suggestions --and encouragement you gave me on my Maggie entry this year. I'm sure that those who know you well already see what a giving person you are. You took the time to do more than just 'judge'.

    Everyone -- enjoy this day. 50s this morning in upstate NY. I think the only snow left are those ugly piles in the parking lots. SPRING!!!

  3. Hi Debby!

    Thanks for the savvy post on building suspense. Whether that's the genre we write or not, we all need to up the stakes and keep the reader turning pages. Excellent suggestions for accomplishing that goal.

    Your blurb hooked me. I can't wait to read Protecting Her Child!

    I'm diving into the fruit. No sweet rolls for me after overindulging St. Patty's Day.


  4. OOOOHHHHHH, this is very good stuff, Debby. I am printing this out!!!

    Thanks, and just what I needed ..English muffins. Thankyou.

    So tell me, Madam Suspense, when a story "comes to you" is it usually the characters first or the plot?

  5. Debra,
    Thanks so much for your sweet comments about the Maggie. It's a wonderful contest, and I hope my suggestions helped.

  6. Hi Janet,
    You had great suspense in your historical woven in so perfectly--proof that suspense works in that genre. Plus, the tension between hero and heroine made me keep reading to the wonderful ending. Looking forward to your next story!

  7. Good question, Tina. I usually get a plot point and weave the story around that tiny first idea.

    For PROTECTING HER CHILD, I learned about Von Hippel-Lindau disease from Pat Rosenbach, a dear friend of mine. She had a friend named Eva who had VHL -- it's a genetic disease that causes tumors to grow throughout the body. They are non-cancerous until they hit the kidney. Usually the folks have multiple surgeries to remove the tumors and debilitation when they strike certain organs, the retina, spine, etc. I wanted to do an article on VHL for the medical lab publications I wrote for, but the editors weren't interested. Once I sold to Steeple Hill, I knew a VHL story would be a future project.

    I met Eva on her 59th birthday. She died a few days later. The book is dedication to Pat and Eva, and I've included information about a great VHL foundation and information source Eva's sister started. Nine members of her family have VHL, and they want to help others who may suffer as well.

  8. Here's the website for the VHL foundation:

    Eva's sister's name is Peggy. She can be reached at:

  9. Just fruit for me. I'm trying to lose weight.

    What a great post! This one is a keeper. I've been playing with building suspense in my first attempt at a mystery, and you've given me a better understanding of the process. I've bookmarked it for future reference.

    I love your writing in the post, and would really enjoy reading your book. (hint, hint)

    barbearly at aol dot com

  10. Debby,

    What great tips that can be used right away. I like the one about having them look for trouble in the apartment, give up, and then have it right in front of them.

    Count me in on the book drawing.

    Cathy underscore shouse at yahoo

  11. Deb, this is a keeper. You kept me reading the INSTRUCTIONS for building suspense, for crying out loud.

    Oh my stars, that's rich right there! I'm saving and printing.

    And I'm totally into coffee and sweet rolls today. I'm lovin' it, girlfriend.

    And I'll be back for chocolate-covered strawberries. Sounds like brunch to me!



  12. thanks for the great posting. i love reading suspense novels even though i don't think i'd be any good at writing one. i don't think i'm devious enough.
    all the examples you present are great jumping off places for ideas for me in other genres.
    thanks for sharing, i'm saving this info for down the line as i continue to practice my writing.


    nm8r67 at hotmail dot com

  13. Thank you Debby for a very informative post. Have a great day!

  14. Debby, this is an excellent article that I will refer folks to often.

    I see this problem a lot in beginner mss for contests, etc.

    I plan to bookmark this page as a reference not only for others, but for my action scenes.

    I think I'll pull a Debra and take the fruit too. Too many green cookies yesterday. LOL!


  15. One thing I forgot to mention too, is that even if folks don't write suspense, this article is helpful. Because every book needs to have the ante upped and upped and upped as the story progresses.

    Can't wait to read this book, Deb!

  16. What a great article. I'm printing this one out! Thanks, Debby!

  17. Debby said: Each scene should end with a hook. End chapters with a cliffhanger or plot turning point. Start the next chapter in another character’s point of view, and the reader will race through the pages to get back to the character out on the cliff.

    Mary says-I love this style of writing. Mary Higgins Clark and Clive Cussler are the masters of this, cliffhangers, then jumping not just to another POV Character but to another story arc. Leaving behind that character hanging from the cliff.
    It's an incredibly fast paced, high stakes writing style and I love it and try to emulate it.

    But here's the thing about this, you've got to make sure both of your stories are of equal importance. I've read books that jump back and forth like this and find myself only caring about one thread, the other is just flat and it makes me impatient and I end up skimming big time to get back to the story I care about.

    So yes, you reach the cliffhanger chapter ending, then jump to your secondary thread...make sure these two threads are on a collision course with each other...and a reading will be mentally screaming, "No, don't leave her there, tied to that railroad track." Then they'll start the new chapter and think, "AAHHHHHHHH!!! I'd forgotten someone was shooting at the hero." Then you're riveted to that, until that ends in a cliffhanger and you scream, "No, don't leave him..." at which point you go BACK to the heroine on the railroad tracks and again, you're hooked into that thread.

  18. Good morning, Debby! Whew, I'm breathless just reading about how to make the reader breathless, LOL!!

    I so envy your ability to write suspense. Raising the stakes, compounding questions, waiting to reveal the secret until the end of the book...I have a hard enough time not telling folks what I bought them as Christmas gifts!!!

    I love the concept of playing on universal fears. And camoflage. What wonderful elements to include in any type of fiction.

    Thanks for sharing some of the secrets to your writing success, Debby.

    Hmmm, I think I'll choose fruit this morning. Way too much corned beef last night : )

  19. Hi Debby, What a great post with tons of important info. I love suspense and you do such a great job with it. Thanks for the bagels too and the coffee hits the spot.

  20. Very, very practical. Thank you! As you said, whether writing thrillers or mysteries or historicals, we all need to spice up our conflict with suspense.

    I would love to win a copy of your book. jjhedlund (at) aol (dot) com.

  21. I'll have to pass on this morning breakfast offerings. I already had a bowl of Fruit Loops.

    Thanks, Debby, for the post. I'm not a suspense writer, but I really want to layer in more tension--and suspense. These tips are print-worthy.

  22. Mary, I like your point about boring threads.

    If the reader has no sympathy for the second or third thread, they skim and that alters the overall impact of the book. That's an important thing for an author to realize.

    I think in line with that is that a book isn't the place to air our pet peeves or pet projects. Authors that get on a soapbox with their second or third threads seem less professional to me. I don't mind the concept, it's the way it's handled on a book-by-book basis. If your story is about gang slayings and arbitrary turf wars, then don't second thread me about gum disease because your daughter is a dental hygienist.

    But you can have a character die of complications of gum disease, leaving wrack and ruin in their wake. Then I care. Give me your author intrusion subliminally and I won't even notice I'm being taught.

    Ruthy (taking another sweet roll since everyone else is eating fruit and I don't want the pastries to go to waste. Very magnanimous of me.)

  23. WOW, great tips, Deb, and great blog!! And I know from first-hand experience in reading your books that you are a master at upping the ante!


  24. Hi Everyone! Sorry, I was at a class this morning and just got home.

  25. Hi Barbara,
    So glad you got something from the blog. I love suspense and always try to analyze how the BIG authors make it work. I've got a lot to learn, but it's fun picking up tips as I read their work.

  26. Hi Cathy,
    False alarms are fun to write. The heroine's frightened and cautious. Then she lowers her guard and BAM! Something happens. It's often more effective than if she'd been hit hard initially.

  27. Hi Ruthy,
    You're always so good to provide snacks for the Seekers and friends. Put your feet up today, relax and enjoy!

    I've replaced the sweet rolls with a tray of deli meats and cheeses. Make a sandwich with the whole wheat or multi-grain bread. Chips and pretzels are on the table.

  28. Hi DebH!
    As I mentioned in the post, many of the tips can be applied to other genres. Certainly any love story needs tension between the hero and heroine. The reader should question whether the characters could ever get together. That tension should escalate to the black moment.

  29. Hi Jill,
    Thanks for stopping by! Hope you have a great day.

  30. Hi Cheryl,
    You've mastered that escalating pace in your stories. Love your fast first draft technique. Don't know how you do it! You're our marathon writer, which pays off with wonderful books.

    RT gave Cheryl 4 1/2 stars! That's big! Congrats!

    Janet got the same rating as well. Way to go Seekers!

  31. Hi Erica,
    I always love seeing your face smiling at me from my computer screen. Thanks for stopping by!

  32. Debby, great post on how to up the ante.

    Question for everyone: when using common fears such as a fear of fire, or say maybe...drowning, do we need to plant that ahead of time, like the producers planted Indy's fear of snakes?

    I mean, pretty much everybody I know would go ballistic if trapped in a burning building or drowning (shudder!), so would a writer need to allude to that type of catastrophe/fear earlier in the book? Would the reader feel cheated if the author didn't?

  33. Also, Debby, Protecting Her Child sounds awesome!

  34. Mary,
    Thanks for bringing in separate threads that weave through a story. So true when you mention both plot lines need to have fairly equal weight. I'm like you, I've skimmed through some chapters that don't hold my interest in order to get back to that cliffhanger where I've left my heart on my sleeve.

    So you like Clive Cussler? I've never read him. Probably should. Thanks for another author-to-read tip!

  35. So, Audra, have you bought my Christmas present yet?

  36. Mary, I didn't mention "have the character do something unexpected."

    You did that when your heroine jumped out the window, which shocked me in a good way when I read it. Well done. But then your books are always great!

  37. Thanks Debby,

    I do try to add the suspense, and at times I think I'm actually getting it. Sometimes I think I overdo it on my poor characters.

    Having said that, I'm working on a time travel suspense and your thoughts for the day will come in quite handy.

    I'll pass on the goodies today myself, hubby set a donut on my desk to be kind. I keep trying to tell him that while behind might love it, the rest of me shouldn't indulge. Oh well, got to love him.
    Although those strawberries do sound heavenly . . .

    Thanks again

  38. Hi Audra,
    I love universal fears as well and try to include them in my stories.

    As an aside, Donald Maass, in his WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL WORKBOOK, talks about adding universal truths in our stories. I've tucked that into the back of my brain and pull it out whenever I'm writing.

    If you've read Jodi Picolt, you know how she adds something of value in each scene, something that hits home and makes me say, "She's right! That's the way I feel or how I react in a certain situation."

    Whenever we tap into a universal truth or a universal fear, our writing resonates with readers.

  39. Hi Sandra,
    Thanks for stopping by! Always nice to hear from you! How's the weather in the Southwest? We're warm and sunny in Georgia.

  40. Hi Jody,
    I've added your name to the drawing. Thanks for leaving a comment with your email.

  41. Hi Gina,
    How's your writing going? Don't know how you find time with your sweet little ones. Gina's a wonderful writer who's so, so close!

  42. Ruth, good point about needing all the threads of the book to weave seamlessly together. We can't put anything into the story if it doesn't serve a purpose or we cheat the reader.

  43. Hi Julie,
    Hope all's well with you! You're a master at maintaining that important tension between hero and heroine as well as a secondary character or two. You keep the reader guessing and turning the page to a very satisfying ending. Congrats on your well-deserved success!

  44. Great post. Very helpful stuff. Even for us paranormal writers **smile** Great advice.

    Did someone say chocolate covered strawberries. OMG, I love those.

  45. Hi Pam,
    You asked if universal fears need to be introduced early in a story. Suspense builds when the reader anticipates what's going to happen. So sometimes foreshadowing the climax can be very effective and actually increases the tension in the reader.

    Screenwriters talk about movies starting and ending in parallel scenes. I always think of SWEET HOME ALABAMA where the young kids are on the beach when the lightening strikes at the opening. The all-grown-up hero and heroine end up on that same beach toward the end of the story.

    I don't think our books need to start and end in the same locale or situation, but a subtle foreshadowing usually works well.

  46. Thanks, Debby, for the compliment. Right now I'm so so so close to whacking a few chitlin upside the head.

    What idiot educational system directer came up with the lame idea of a half-day of school?

    Writing wise, I'm working on some revisions my agent asked me to do. Just when I think I'm ready to move onto the next chapter, some Seeker chick post about indexing scenes or tips to build suspense. And I'm all in a whirl about indexing and suspensing.

    Yes my word verification looks like "flaketh." I think Mr. Word Verification dude has it out for me.

    Of course, I've always said (at least since 2009 began) that once you accept conspiracies are all around us, you'll be far less paranoid.

    Debby was one of my Maggie judges. I'm considering requiring Debby judge my entry in any contest I enter.

    BTW, RWA's inspirational chapter just opened it's unpubbed contest for entries. I expect every Seeker to volunteer to judge, even if it's only two entries.

    If not...well, imagine Ruthy not happy.

  47. Hi Tina,
    A time travel suspense. You'll be juggling lots of balls in the air on that one. Good for you.

    Is your character going back in time or forward?

    I read an article online yesterday about handling futuristic fight scenes. The author talked about the difficulty of including specialized powers along with regular weapons in the battle scenes. I have enough problems with a hero or heroine and villain. Add a gun or knife and that's the extent of my characters' prowess! :)

  48. Great tips, Debby! I'm looking forward to reading this story. :-)

    jessica_nelson7590 (at) yahoo (dot) com

  49. I think I get the gist of universal fears and such . . . those are the things that we all fear in common so to speak. Like death, financial ruin, cancer, etc . . . GUM DISEASE . . .

    It's a good thing you're so magnanimous, Ruthy. My hubby just set some hazelnut latte before me. Now I may not be able to have the strawberries either.

  50. Hi LynnRush,
    As you know, writing paranormals requires lots of creativity. You set the rules, but you have to make sure the reader understands how everything works in the paranormal world.

    What problems have you encountered, Lynn, in writing your story that you never expected when you started?

  51. Gina, the submission I read didn't need any improvement. You blew me away, girl!

  52. Debby,

    My characters can go forward and back. As long as they the portal is open. The good guys go back and try to set history aright while the bad guys are trying to rewrite it. The BG's (they sing too, just kidding) Are trying to open a portal to the past and kill Christ. That's what I'm toying with anyhoo.

    You're right lots of juggling.
    My main weapon is disease.

    The heroine was born in the future and hid in the past. She is the antibody to her sisters. (Triplets) They've manipulated their cells so that they can carry the disease or antibody and strike one person or more at will, through a kiss or a touch.

    The the powers who are trying to change the past, don't know that my heroine is alive. When they do . . . well she high on the hit list and doesn't even know it.

    Did you say juggling?? I've been working on this for sometime.
    One day I might get those characters in line...

  53. Hi Jessica,
    Thanks for leaving a comment and your email. I've got you in the drawing. Love your blog!

  54. WOW, Tina! You had me at disease! I love medical stories. Past, future and present ... triplets ... Sounds fascinating!

    Do you have a medical background?

  55. Here are a few questions I'd like to throw out...

    Do you read differently now that you're a writer? Do you see those hidden clues, the foreshadowing, the red herrings? How does that effect your reading enjoyment?

  56. The comments today have also added a lot of good ideas on top of Debby's post. I have to make notes on my print out.

    What do I read?
    I will always take a mystery or suspense over any other choice - I love chasing the answers and being correct on some and surprised on others.

    Thanks for all the good ideas, everyone!

  57. I find I can tell you how several stories and movies will play out, when they surprise me I think it's great. I try to lead people one direction and leave them flummoxed, or guessing, because I know how much I love it when the twist and turns leave me mystified.

    As for being in the medical area, I like to read alot about it, and I think I do because I'm the one running for the chair when I have to sit in the hospital with anyone else. Just so I won't faint.

    My mother has been having chemo, (keep her in prayer if you could) and when they put the needle in her arm I have to turn. Now they use the power port, (the little device under the skin) it powers my nausea, and I find myself wincing whenever they do their draws or put the chemo cocktail in. I'm a weeny when it comes to that kind of stuff.

    And yet, I'm the one they keep sending to taking to the hospital.

  58. Tina,
    I will pray for your mother. So many folks I know have cancer. The good news is the progress medicine has made in treatment.

    Aren't you wonderful to be with her when she has her chemo! I'm sure you offer her much support and love.

  59. Debra,
    I'm a big suspense reader and love being surprised as well. I do read differently now that I write. When an author hides a clue, I'm aware it's there for a very definite purpose. Usually it plays into the resolution or in solving the mystery.

    Writers read with a critical eye and some say they can't enjoy books as much as they did before they learned the craft. Of course, when they find a good book that makes them forget to analyze the writing, they're overjoyed.

  60. What a great post, Debbie!! So informative! Thank you.

    And I love your book blurb at the end!! I can't wait to read it!


  61. Hi Debby,
    Great post! I'm going to print that one and add it to my files. Lots of great information. Distracting the reader was something I never thought of before.
    Please include me in your drawing.
    usleann at hotmail
    Thanks :)

  62. Thanks for so much useable info. You've given us a clear blueprint. I'm working on my scene log and see where I need to amp -up, and change the action. Seek and ye shall....

    warm hugs,
    Marevawrites (@)gmail dot com

  63. I loved this post, Debby. I'm working on a first draft now that I can definitely apply this to! Thanks!


  64. Hi, Debby! Sorry I missed this post. You make some good points about suspense. Sometimes I have a hard time drawing things out. I want to wrap things up too quickly.

    Your new book sounds really good!