I infuse a lot of suspense into my novels, since in addition to romance, each of my books also involves some type of paranormal mystery: either spooky hauntings that need to be unraveled, or supernatural secrets that pose a dangerous threat. Recently, I was invited to meet with a local writing group as a consultant, and one of the topics they asked to cover was methods of injecting suspense and tension into a story. Here are some of the tips we discussed:
*Conflict is key. There should be conflict in every genre of commercial fiction. To increase tension, load on the conflict, both internal and external, to keep characters from their goals.
*Escalation of story problems, which add new questions beyond the hook (ex: the mystery of Brandy’s disappearance in Silver Lake—questions move from “Could be ghosts be real?” to “Is Brandy’s ghost really trying to communicate?” to “How can we help her communicate?” to “What really happened to her five years ago?” etc.).
*Stack the odds against the protagonist. People love to root for the underdog (ex: In The Hunger Games, Katniss is from a very poor district and goes into the games with inadequate training from her mentor and little support from sponsors).
*Make the stakes high. This does not necessarily mean the entire world will end if the character does not meet his or her goal, but the consequences of not meeting a goal should be extremely negative or even disastrous for the character.
*Give characters impossible choices (ex: Katniss in The Hunger Games—she either must kill other kids (both morally reprehensible and potentially difficult) OR be killed herself. Neither is a good choice, but she could decide morals take precedence over her own life. However, her family’s existence depends on her survival, as she provides the source of food. Plus, she’s promised her sister she’ll survive. So now we have a truly impossible choice: Kill other kids, who are trying to survive themselves and kill her, including the friendly boy from her district, OR be killed herself, break her promise to her sister, and possibly condemn her family to death.)
*Have some plans fail (ex: In The Martian, the abandoned astronaut’s first attempt at creating a water source fails spectacularly, decreasing his odds at survival).
*Create urgency. A time constraint is useful for this (ex: The Finest Hours—the Coast Guard rescuers will have to reach the foundering tanker before it sinks into the stormy ocean, or everyone on board will die.)
*Use foreshadowing. Foreshadowing is used to both build suspense and prepare reader for an event or scenario that otherwise might come out of nowhere. There are many methods of foreshadowing, from blatant to extremely subtle.
*Make readers care about the protagonist. Again, there are many ways to do this, including using deep POV to connect reader to character, creating engaging characters with realistic flaws, and avoiding “Mary Sues”.*Use dramatic irony to create apprehension. This can be employed when writing from multiple POVs. (ex: In Gull Harbor, the reader sees what the bad guy has planned for Claire from his Point-of-View chapters. However, neither Claire nor Max know—this knowledge is only between the reader and the villain.)