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I have always loved suspense fiction, and as a lifelong horror lover, my favorite kind of horror is the kind that has a suspense engine under the hood. The kind of edge-of-your-seat story that has your heart pounding and your hands gripping the book for dear life. Let’s call it the literary equivalent of a rollercoaster ride. 

When I sat down to write my novel Before He Wakes, I knew I was embarking on perhaps the most suspense-driven book of my career. I wanted it to one of those fast-paced rollercoaster ride reads that would have people staying up all night to turn the pages, desperate to find out how it all comes out. So I put a lot of thought into what makes good suspense, what elements are required to make that engine work. I thought I’d share some of those thoughts here.

First and foremost, character. I think that might be true of almost any type of fiction, but I do feel it is particularly true for suspense fiction. You have to give readers characters that they can relate to, empathize with, root for. Once you’ve done that, given the reader characters they see themselves in and care about, you then put those characters in dangerous and potentially deadly situations. Might seem like a simple formula, but it works like gangbusters. This equation results in a sort of instant suspense, because the reader will not want any harm to come to these characters and will be tearing through the pages to see if they make it out okay.

And how do you create characters that will elicit this response from readers? Well, that is going to vary from author to author, but I will tell you what I do is always aim for authenticity. I don’t necessarily create these perfectly likable saintly characters, idealized versions of human beings, because I think that often rings false and makes it harder for readers to relate. I want my readers to like my characters, yes, but I feel a character is easier to like when they have some flaws and don’t always make the right decisions. Because that makes them feel more real, like people we actually know. Let’s face it, like people we actually are.

Another important element to suspense is pacing. I sometimes enjoy a nice leisurely pace in a novel, full of description and philosophy, but when I sit down to read something that is built as a suspense machine, I want something tight, something that constantly keeps the heat on, that is unrelenting. That doesn’t mean you strip away all description or philosophy, but you can never let it distract from the narrative drive. With Before He Wakes, I envisioned something I coined an “obstacle novel.” Meaning that for my characters to get themselves out of danger, there was a series of obstacles they had to get past, multiple hurdles they had to jump if you will. This kept the pressure on and the momentum of the story going because every time they’d clear one obstacle, they ran up against another.

That said, sometimes the most suspenseful thing a writer can do is cut away from the main action for a chapter. Get your characters into a life-or-death situation, end a chapter with a cliffhanger where their very lives hang in the balance, then for the next chapter, switch the action to a character outside of that situation. Might seem counterintuitive, but delayed gratification can actually be an essential tool in building suspense. It makes the experience even more intense for the reader when they have to make it through an entire chapter with the fates of the main characters unresolved. 

And when it comes to resolution, a writer should always play fair. If you are going to put your characters in precarious situations, if they do in fact get out of them, they have to get out of them in ways that are realistic and plausible. No deus ex machinas allowed. That is the quickest way to kill the trust between writer and reader and leave the reader feeling cheated and unsatisfied. You should make your characters clever and full of ingenuity, and maybe the solutions they come up with will surprise and delight the reader in a way that makes them think, “I never would have thought of that.” But it is important the reader feel they could have thought of that, that it is something that could happen and could work in a given situation. 

So those are a few of the tools in my arsenal that I pull out when I’m writing suspense. I think they can work for any writer. Of course, if you are looking for a sure-fire way to create effective suspense without even really trying, there is a secret that most suspense writers know. It never fails. Come closer and I’ll whisper the secret to you – 

Later.

Mark Allen Gunnells

Mark Allen Gunnells

Author

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