You ever wondered how mystery/suspense/thriller writers create suspense in a novel? It doesn’t happen by accident. In fact, there are some tried and true techniques that you can use to punch up the suspense in your story.
Set the Stakes. I almost always open with a prologue that not only introduces a likable character but also a dangerous killer. Almost on page one I show the reader the killer’s capacity for violence, so that the reader knows the detective is up against a threatening foe. Even if you opt not to write a prologue show the reader quickly what’s at stake.
Setting. I always consider the book’s setting a character. I think about not only the novel’s location but also the time of year and the weather conditions. What if your detective is working a crime scene in the middle of the hottest summer on record and thunderclouds loom? What if the scene is set during a frigid cold snap in an accessible area on the banks of a wind-swept river? Take time to craft your setting and you’ll not only put pressure on the characters but also kick up the novel’s suspense.
Pacing. How fast or slow you move the story controls the suspense. I like to begin my novels about 30 seconds before trouble begins. I don’t spend a lot of time initially on back-story or the events leading up to the book’s opening. I might take a moment to offer a glimpse into the character’s normal world but very quickly trouble arrives. There are times when you can slow the pace. In romantic suspense, I often use the less frenetic times to develop the romance. This also gives your reader a chance to breathe—a little. But as the book progress, especially the last 20%, the pace again picks up.
False Clues. In real life, the police shift through genuine and false clues so I force my fictional detective to do the same. Not only do the detectives (and the reader) have lots of forensics to process, but they also might have many characters to interview. Nothing like a misleading bit of evidence or a character that lies to keep everyone guessing and the suspense high. Don’t forget to put in the real clues. Your reader needs to be able to go back and flip through the pages and find what they missed.
Mini-Mysteries. Not all the story questions have to be big to keep the reader turning the page. Who’s on the other side of the door? What’s inside the box? What happened to the woman living at the end of the road thirty years ago? These might be small questions that can’t sustain a story but they are still interesting enough to keep the reader reading. Make sure you answer all those questions because you’ll frustrate your reader if you don’t.
Character Flaw. Find out what your character is most afraid of and then use it against them. If your hero is afraid of heights, send him up a tall rickety ladder to retrieve a clue. If she’s afraid of snakes, put her in room full of snakes. If the hero or heroine is on edge, the suspense will be higher. Remember a character flaw is a belief or fear that is holding back your character.
Ticking Clock. All my chapters are date-stamped because I want the reader to know that from the first page we are on the clock to catch a killer. I also keep the time frame of the book short. My books rarely span more than a couple of weeks because again, I want to maintain pressure on the detectives and the reader flipping through the pages to the end of the book.