As a romantic suspense and mystery author, writers and readers are always asking me how do I make my stories scary or fill them with mystery and suspense. Unfortunately, the answer is there is no secret formula. However, fortunately, there are a multitude of ways to put the characters in our stories on edge or to make the reader feel tense or frightened through our stories. To me the basic answer is the unknown. We all fear what we don’t know, simply because that opens up our imagination to the worst that could happen. That can be useful in igniting your readers’ fears or setting your readers on edge. Think of the various things that frighten us all and write with that in mind and you can write suspense. Make your characters vulnerable to their own fears and danger, and you can get your plot off and running and bring readers into the story. What are some of those elements of suspense?
When I asked my sister what frightens her most, she admitted it is that fear of the unknown, so let’s start with that. Not knowing what’s around the next corner, an unusual shadow in a dark, lonely location, a sudden appearance by something or someone can frighten just about anyone. We don’t know what’s ahead. That fear of the unknown will frighten us and heighten any suspenseful situation.
As a TV news producer, I often worked the late shift at various television stations. I was never fearful when I walked out of my building alone late at night to go to my car in the guarded parking lot, even if we were on the edge of Hollywood. Help was only a shout away. We had guards. But walking to my car in the parking lot that was around the corner in downtown San Diego or Denver was a little scary. Luckily, there were usually several of us making that walk so that lessened the fear and that brings us to another element of suspense.
Being alone or Isolated
Nothing can make a person feel more vulnerable than being totally alone and facing something or someone without anyone else around. At times like this we’re going to see danger around every corner, or have a greater fear of what is out there in the darkness. But that is not true for everyone.
Different people see things different ways so writers get to decide which of their characters will react to this sort of feeling depending on the plot. As a child, I hated going camping because it meant being in the mountains where only a few people were around us. My dad preferred that sort of lonely location so we could all enjoy the campfire and the stars and being isolated. My brother and sister enjoyed the lonely, quiet dark as well, but I was always waiting for the Martians or space creatures or Godzilla to appear over the mountain before sunrise. To me, I was surprised to wake up in the morning, especially after the night a bear did raid our camp and beat up the ice chest. But it gave me a great idea, and I used that fear to write a short story for my high school English class.
Whether it is friends, relatives, money or belongs, this is a fear of a situation that can bring on fear and anxiety. It’s not just the loss of possessions or position, it is again that feeling of having to deal with the unknown. Some people might thrive on the unknown or a situation like that, but to others, it is the worst thing that could happen. Having put myself in that situation several times, I know it’s not easy to do. I packed up and moved to several cities all by myself and suddenly had to deal with finding a place to live, finding a job and finding new friends. To me, the fear could never outweigh the benefits, but to more settled people who have lived in the same location all their lives dealing with what they know, the idea of this situation is terrifying. A writer can do this with characters. Having that person who lived at home suddenly thrust into a strange town or situation can build suspense. How will she survive? Can she survive? How will she make her way? It’s up to the writer to build that suspense and throw those roadblocks at the character.
are also good ways to bring in suspenseful action. People our heroes or heroines don’t know are just like that fear of the unknown. We don’t know what these new people are capable of – either good or bad – so there will be questions and until we get them answered, they can be doubted. We don’t know their motives so our characters might question them, and that can add to the suspense. Even friendly, seemingly likable characters might bring in elements of doubt if they appear too nice or too understanding. We want motives for their actions and a few well-placed hints of danger can raise the level of tension or concern.
who are actually villains can also help to build suspense. How many times in suspense stories have we seen the character our hero has been helping and relying on turn out to be the actual villain? Have we been suspecting him or her? As the writer we get to decide how we are going to use and show that character. We might be dropping little snippets or clues along the way before the final reveal, but using this type of character is also a good way to build suspense. If the writer reveals the character ahead of time and the reader knows, that can add to the tension. Will the hero figure it out before he or she enacts the final evil plan? What will it take to make the hero turn on him/her or will that in itself set up a deadly confrontation at the end that could turn out heartbreaking no matter which way it goes? These are questions and suspenseful situations the writer gets to answer through the story plot.
Sudden, Unexpected Action
is always a good way to bring in suspense and to instill fear or heroism in your characters. To me, one of the most suspenseful scary scenes in a movie was in the movie, Alien, when we first get to see the monster. It’s not very big, but it pops out in such a violent fashion it sets the stay for its future invulnerable actions. By the time we see it again, we’re still not ready for its evolution into a huge creature that we know can’t be destroyed. It will take extraordinary action to get rid of it.
All of these elements can help you to build suspense in your writing. Fear of the unknown, fear of losing everything, whether in financial ruin or the loss of a loved one—all these things are useful when writing suspense. Currently the fear of the coronavirus has a lot of people on edge, whether it’s traveling or even being out in public when someone around starts to cough or sneeze. Yes, we can wash our hands or wear masks, but that fear is there. That sort of suspense has driven many thrillers or suspenseful medical stories. Think of Robin Cooks’ books.
The unknown can also relate to people too. Those strangers who just moved in next door seem to be coming and going all night long, and they don’t seem to have a regular routine. That can also be used in suspense.
I hope you’ll join me next week as I begin a class at Savvy in writing mystery and suspense. We’ll not only go into details of your writing but work on developing those scenes and characters as well.
Creating Memorable Characters: Let’s Write a Story (Volume 2)
Creating great heroes, heroines and villains doesn’t need to be a mystery if you take the time to build your characters using this step by step guide. Learn how to make your characters unique individuals who are both human and heroic, or thoughtful but troubled or cunning but courageous. Find out how you can use a simple procedure to come up with a character who will keep readers turning the pages.