Are you a lover of suspense novels? I know I am. I read and write them. There are many authors I admire but those I crave and anxiously anticipate their next novels are those that have so much tension on the page, you can barely keep the book in your hands without throwing it aside because you must read but can’t bear to read the next sentence.
That is perfection.
As a debut author myself, I want to create that experience for my readers. Tension. Angst. Worry.
Here are five tips to increase the tension in your suspense manuscripts. How many have you tried?
1. There must be death or danger of death in the first chapter: Recently, I reviewed a manuscript that’s major plot surrounded children being kidnapped. The first chapter had a father and son at an amusement park. The son goes missing for a short amount of time (maybe 1-2 hours) then is found and returned back to the father. Not a scratch on the child to be seen. Video showed an employee took the boy somewhere he shouldn’t have. Hmm—okay. Nothing really too frightening is happening. How do I know it just wasn’t an employee being helpful when the boy lost sight of his father? Too slow. Particularly for suspense, the reader must be worried in the first chapter—first page is best. Most agents/editors make a decision about your ms after reading only the first page.
2. If you’re bored, the reader is falling asleep: If the passage you’re editing bores you as the author, use this as a signal to change the scene. Possibly, it needs to be outright discarded. Another option is to write the chapter in another POV. Bring in a character that can add conflict. Or, as James Scott Bell says—have someone walk in with a weapon.
3. Say what shouldn’t be said: For this, I’m not talking about vulgar language. In my second novel, Poison, I have two characters (Nathan and Lee) that were part of a hostage situation in my first novel, Proof. It was one of my favorite scenes to write and you can find it here (Chapter 2). In the second novel, these two are teamed up working a case. In Proof, Lee disagreed with Nathan about when SWAT should respond and people died. In the original scene, Lee says, “Nathan, I don’t blame you for what happened.” Then I thought, why shouldn’t he blame him? Adds tension. Adds conflict. Adds dimension to their relationship. So—no more Mr. Nice guy and Lee let Nathan have it. Warranted or not. I love dialogue in fiction for this reason—you can say things that in real life you would normally stay mum about or gloss over in a PC way.
4. Use descriptive elements to add spookiness. The challenge of the fiction author is to use your prose to engage all five senses in a way that will add tension for the reader. The master of descriptive, tense prose (in my opinion) is Dean Koontz. Here’s one example of his from The Moonlit Mind. “His breath plumes from him as if he’s exhaling ghosts.” I just love that. Does that not add to the tension? This also speaks to a concept that Donald Maass (his books on writing are a must read) teaches about called microtension. In a suspense novel, there’s the overall story arc of murder and mayhem. Microtension is ensuring that each sentence in the novel propels the reader forward to the point that they cannot set your novel down.
5. Make it look structurally pleasing: There are several techniques you can use in the structure of your novel that will quicken its pace. Short chapters. Good use of sentence fragments. James Patterson is famous for this. But also, long sections of description will make suspense readers eyes gloss over. Shorter paragraphs interspersed with dialogue. Not every sentence of dialogue needs a tag as well.
Who are some of your favorite suspense authors and why? What are some techniques you’ve used to increase the tension of your manuscripts—suspense or otherwise?
Jordyn Redwood is a pediatric ER nurse by day, suspense novelist by night. She hosts Redwood’s Medical Edge, a blog devoted to helping contemporary and historical authors write medically accurate fiction. Her debut novel, Proof, garnered a starred review from Library Journal and has been endorsed by the likes of Dr. Richard Mabry, Lynette Eason, and Mike Dellosso to name a few. You can connect with Jordyn via her website at www.jordynredwood.net
Proof: Bloodlines Triology 1 (Bloodline Trilogy) by Jordyn Redwood (Kregel Publications)
Dr. Lilly Reeves is a young, accomplished ER physician with her whole life ahead of her. But that life instantly changes when she becomes the fifth victim of a serial rapist. Believing it's the only way to recover her reputation and secure peace for herself, Lilly sets out to find--and punish--her assailant. Sporting a mysterious tattoo and unusually colored eyes, the rapist should be easy to identify. He even leaves what police would consider solid evidence. But when Lilly believes she has found him, DNA testing clears him as a suspect. How can she prove he is guilty, if science says he is not?
Today Jordyn is giving away THREE copies of Proof to THREE LUCKY commenters. Winner announced in the Weekend Edition. Thank you, Jordyn!!!