The exhilaration of terror: tips for creating tension and suspense

This week I return to the Sydney Writers’ Festival for my wrap up of the session on Tension and Suspense, where authors Caroline Overington, Hannah Richell and Julienne van Loon revealed their tips on how to keep readers turning the pages. And they should know – take a look at their author websites by clicking on the links if you’re interested.

In thriller and suspense novels we fear because we care

Keep turning the pages! Photo courtesy of stock.xchng
Keep turning the pages! Photo courtesy of stock.xchng

Putting a character into nail biting circumstances might cause a reader a second glance; throwing the character they care deeply about into strife will keep them from putting the book down. So if you’re looking to create a great story full of tension where readers won’t want to put your book down – may not be able to put it down! – first create characters you care about. Invest time in characterisation. It’s the ‘caring’ part that will pull a reader in, not just the car chase, the murderer outside the door or the heavy breathing at the end of the phone line.

Anticipation junkies do not like predictability

I think it’s safe to say that readers don’t want predictable (unless you’re writing a happily ever romance and then you had better ensure a happily ever after of course!)

In thrillers and suspense, it’s the thrill of the ride and the not knowing where the book is going that keeps us involved. We’re anticipation junkies, hooked on turning pages until we’ve had our fix.

It’s that delicate balance between knowing and not knowing – for both the reader and the writer!

What do breadcrumbs have to do with timing?

If you’re a suspense or thriller writer, you should have a steady stream of breadcrumbs stored in your pocket for the eager readers. Then when it’s the right time – careful, not too soon or too late – you reveal the next breadcrumb to your reader. Watch them gobble it up voraciously! You might even have to slap their hand away when they come back for more, because, dear reader, it’s just not the right time yet…

A warning for thriller and suspense writers: DO NOT let the bomb go off!

I still have vivid memories of the 90’s movie, Speed. One bus. Keanu. Sandra. A bomb. What have you got? A blockbuster movie. I’ll leave it up to you decide whether it was good or bad, but it sold movie tickets (around $350 million, which in ’94 was nothing to be sneezed at) and a couple of Academy Awards.

Simple concept, but it works.

Alternatively, consider this scenario: you’re at a baseball match and a bomb goes off OR you find out a bomb is going to go off in ten minutes. Tell me, which option would be more suspenseful to write about?

Set the scene

So we’ve considered characters, the scenario, but as thriller and suspense writers, we should also give thought to the landscape where our drama is going to unfold. The importance of atmosphere shouldn’t be overlooked.

When the beginning is the end

While the majority of thriller and suspense books work on the premise that the reader has no idea what is going to happen next or how everything will end, there are a few writers who turn this concept on its head. They start out with readers knowing exactly how the story is going to end and tell the story leading up to that point.

Now that all sounds rather obvious doesn’t it? Consider Hannah Kent’s novel, Burial Rites. I’m yet to read it, however, at the outset of the novel you start with the knowledge that the lead character is condemned to death (it’s 1829 by the way). Apparently the beauty of this novel is how you grow to care for the character and the tension builds as her death nears. Rather torturous sounding, but you can’t deny it’s a recipe for tension.

Why are we addicted to the rush of thriller and suspense?

I don’t think any of us really want to be trapped on a bus when there’s a bomb about to go off (with the exception of Keanu rescuing us perhaps), or to have our death sentence looming…

So what is it that keeps us picking up suspense books?

One of the authors on the panel suggested it was our desire to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and to see what the character would do in that situation. It’s a safe way of adding some excitement, thrills and danger to our lives without having to leave our armchair. I can attest to that.

Right. Off to read about a possible arson attack that almost killed a family member and has left the survivors wondering who would undertake such an attack…you know, just the usual.

Do you agree with these tips for creating tension and suspense? And are you an anticipation junkie?

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