How Fiction Writers Can Use Narration and Plot Dynamics to Create Suspense

Dawn Bevier

By using some tried and true plot techniques, the reader can’t help but follow your spine-tingling text along to its ultimately satisfying conclusion.

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Image by Nicole Wolf on Pixabay

A writer's first point of focus in order to develop suspense is not manipulating what happens in the story, but focusing on who tells the story itself. Once that is accomplished, there are many other plot techniques that work together to leave your reader hanging on the edge of their seats.

And isn't that what every writer wants? Then read below to make it happen.

Create unreliable narrators.

To add suspense to a piece of fiction, create characters with flaws, temptations, and unmet needs. These human foibles give characters three-dimensionality and thus make them unreliable or unpredictable. Make the “good guys” prone to human mistakes or errors in judgment or morality, and make the bad guys occasionally suffer pangs of conscience or regret that lead them to intermittent “good deeds.” In this way, you are creating characters that readers care about as well as establishing a baseline of dubiousness about their future actions and development.

To add additional suspense to your plotline, it is also advisable to create an unreliable “narrator.” This narrator, for whatever reason, is not capable of giving the audience the whole truth or a reliable version of characters or events in the novel. Perhaps this narrator is mentally or emotionally unbalanced. Maybe he or she is partial to a particular character and biased against another character. Then again, he or she could have Alzheimer’s or be a naive child. What about the possibility that he or she is suffering from physical exhaustion, sleep deprivation, or even alcohol or drug abuse?

The unreliability aspect doesn’t even have to come from the character’s personality. It could arise from the fact that he or she provides only a singular perspective to the events of the story. For example, any time an author uses first-person or third-person limited point of view, the reader is unable to discern the totality of events in a plot sequence. This fact adds suspense.

Create a huge central conflict for the story’s characters.

All writers know that conflict is the cornerstone of suspense. The main characters must be involved in a physical, emotional, or mental struggle. Remember, creating these “high stakes” conflicts does not apply simply to the protagonist of the fiction piece. The antagonist could be in the same “high stakes” conundrum. Repercussions of not solving said conflicts may not only place the protagonist and/or antagonist in some sort of danger but other innocent bystanders could also be involved as well. The most possibilities of damage to the most number of people substantially increase the suspense quotient, as it creates the likelihood that many people’s present and future outcomes will be impacted by the events of the plot.

Build a pyramid of suspense to the central conflict by creating smaller conflicts or complications.

Shakespeare once said that “the course of true love never did run smooth.” Well, neither did the hero’s [or the antagonist’s] plans. Complications are an essential aspect of escalating suspense.

Take for instance Tolstoy’s novel Crime and Punishment. Going to commit murder on an ornery pawnbroker, the protagonist Raskolnikov plans to grab his murder weapon, an ax, from the kitchen. He is stunned when he finds out that Natasha, who is usually out and about at this particular time every day, is at home in the kitchen at the exact moment he must grab the ax. There is no time to wait and come back because his window of opportunity to successfully commit the crime is upon him. The clock is ticking [we’ll talk about the “ticking time bomb” technique of creating suspense next], and his plans are thwarted at the very start.

He gets the ax [ I won’t give out spoilers] and then goes to her apartment. When he gets there, he rings the bell. Again and again. It appears to be that she is not there. [Another complication.] But she is.

He commits the murder, cleans himself, and a second person arrives at the ghastly scene because he accidentally forgot to lock the door [and just so you know, the problems don’t stop there].

Successful suspense should be like the act of eating an excruciatingly hot pepper; there is a slow tingling, a subtle heat, a stinging eye, a sweaty brow, then an intensity of feeling that explodes viciously in your mouth. It is a slow burn that eventually sets the reader on fire with curiosity.

As such, the creation of suspense is not simply evoking tension concerning one specific “looming” event. It is a series of complications, each one leading stealthily to the ultimate heart-pounding, nail-biting moment readers have been waiting for.

Add a time limit.

Suspense is upped when there are time constraints on solving or overcoming the conflict. The protagonist must act in a very limited amount of time or negative consequences will multiply. When additional complications befuddle the protagonist, unravel his progress, or work against his success, the fact that “the clock is ticking” ratchets up the reader’s anxiety. Not only does the protagonist have to successfully navigate around these new problems, but he or she must be able to do so in a timely manner or all is lost.

Add “breaths and pauses” in the action.

This technique is the not-so-secret ingredient in every writer’s repertoire. Leave the reader hanging. For a few pages. For a chapter. For a season. In Steven James’ article entitled “6 Secrets to Creating and Sustaining Suspense” in Writer’s Digest, it states the fact that “suspense happens in the stillness of your story, in the gaps between the action sequences, in the moments between the promise of something dreadful and its arrival.”

Think of a pianist building in pitch, in volume, in tempo, to a breathtaking crescendo. Just before the moment of climax, the notes, the volume, the intensity decline, and the tension drops, teasing the listener with more to come. This regression into calm is the place where reader anticipation grows.

For example, the protagonist might hear a threatening echo of footsteps in the background, which he later realizes was an animal, not a human. The scene may switch at the point of highest danger to another character or interaction. The reader knows conflict is inevitable but must remain in a suspended period of anxiety and stasis until the writer initiates the conflict. This created impatience is the heart of suspense.

Create a Satisfying Climax.

This is the moment of “do or die” or “put up or shut up.” The protagonist directly encounters the major conflict readers have been anticipating. This is the moment of highest suspense. How to create this satisfying conclusion?

No more stalling. No more “breaths and pauses.” Go for the gut. Or the heart. Reveal the “truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” Let the hero revel in his triumph. Let the antagonist stew in his suffering.

Make it satisfying. Reward your reader for taking the long, harrowing journey with your characters. Tie up loose ends. Or leave some questions floating around for the sequel.

In short, if you combine these literary tips and tricks and include them into your fiction, there's little doubt your readers will be desperate for more.

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