Halloween is just around the corner, which means it’s prime time to read — and write! — some spooky, scary stories. And whether you’re a fan of the classic ghost story à la M.R. James, the darkly imaginative tales of Stephen King, or Gillian Flynn’s unique brand of psychological horror, you probably realize that all these kinds of stories have one thing in common: their tantalizing buildup of suspense.
But truly masterful literary suspense is easier read than done, so to speak. When writing horror (or mystery or thriller), it’s all too easy to rush through the aforementioned buildup, or to forget to include any suspenseful elements at all. So if you’re stepping out of your comfort zone to write a suspense story for the first time, you should know that it will likely challenge your usual methods of exposition — but if you manage to get it right, it’ll be incredibly gratifying.
To that end, here are five key tips to writing nail-biting suspense that will keep your readers enthralled from start to finish!
1) Employ flashbacks
Using flashbacks to conjure suspense is one of the oldest tricks in the book, and for good reason: flashbacks implicitly promise to reveal something important to the reader, especially if there’s a knowledge gap between past and present. A classic example of this is Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies, which mentions a tragedy in the very first chapter, but doesn’t specify what happened. The truth then comes out over the course of the novel — and many, many flashbacks.
This is probably the most common way of using flashbacks: dangling a carrot in the reader’s face and compelling them to chase it. Of course, as the narrative progresses, you’ll have to produce other, smaller carrots (baby carrots?) to feed them so they don’t get frustrated by the chase. These carrots will consist of dramatic scenes and less-important bits of information that factor into the “big reveal” without giving it away, which is especially crucial if it’s a plot twist.
Another, riskier way to use flashbacks is to not dangle the carrot at all. Sometimes authors jump into flashbacks without any apparent cause or direction, and readers just have to trust that they will lead somewhere rewarding. This can be good if you want to reduce the chances of readers guessing your ending, but it also makes it slightly more difficult to engage them off the bat.
In any case, flashbacks are an excellent tactic to sustain suspense in a story, and also just a nice way to mix up your narrative structure. The only thing I’d caution against is using flashbacks for atmosphere alone, without any plot-related payoff. While it might seem like a great way to create suspense and misdirection, it’s bound to end in them feeling cheated, and — here’s the really scary part — could even result in a scathing review on Goodreads.
2) Sprinkle in foreshadowing
Speaking of dangling carrots (I promise this metaphor won’t last much longer), another highly effective way to build suspense is through foreshadowing. Though I’m sure we’ve all come across it before, you may not know just how many types there are — from subtle symbolism to Chekhov’s gun, almost every story has some kind of foreshadowing in it.
One of the cardinal rules of foreshadowing is not to overdo it, lest the reader guess the ending too early. But if you want to create suspense that accumulates and intensifies throughout the story, your foreshadowing can’t be too subtle; otherwise, readers won’t register it at all.
How can you do this without exposing too much? The best technique is to combine specific details with vague, ominous implications. The ever-brilliant Margaret Atwood does a marvelous job of this in her new book The Testaments (don’t worry, no spoilers):
We didn’t live over the store. Our house was a long distance away… It was made of yellow brick, and it was very ordinary. There was nothing about it that would make you look at it twice. Thinking back, I’m guessing that was the idea.
This is only a few chapters in, so we don’t yet know why the house needs to look so innocuous. But this statement clearly signals that we should look out for the answer, and that it will be a big revelation when it arrives. Indeed, when it comes to any strategy for writing suspense, this is the perfect balance to strike: just enough info to keep readers on their toes, not enough for them to draw firm conclusions.
3) Include ambiguous characters
A more complex method of increasing suspense is to introduce ambiguous characters — characters that are unreadable, unpredictable, or otherwise unknown to the reader. Not only is there the constant question of “What are they going to do next?”, there’s also the larger, more pressing concern of, “Are they actually the antagonist?”
Gillian Flynn is a big fan of ambiguous characters, but perhaps her best-known is Nick Dunne, one of the main characters and narrators of Gone Girl. Though Nick’s initial narrative account seems innocent enough, clues soon begin to mount that he’s not the man he portrays himself to be. We find out the shocking truth halfway through the novel, but before that point, the reader constantly wonders whether he’s good or bad — and if the latter, to what extent exactly.
Of course, this ambiguity is carefully calculated on Flynn’s part. That’s how she’s able to maintain it for so long, even with Nick’s super-close first-person point of view, which would normally let readers in on everything. It helps that Nick’s POV alternates with his wife’s old diary entries (another example of flashbacks), which completely contradict his perspective.
So if you want an ambiguous character to boost your suspense, make sure you have their arc figured out from the beginning — seamlessly skirting the line between good and bad, known and unknown, isn’t something that just happens. That said, if you can pull it off Flynn-style, you might just be on your way to your own David Fincher adaptation.
4) Use cliffhangers (but not too many)
Speaking of movies, you probably associate cliffhangers mostly with films and TV shows — especially soap operas that are always trying to entice you to watch the next episode. While I agree that totally far-fetched cliffhangers are a cheap trick that actually degrade suspense rather than add to it, I do believe they can be very effective when done right.
A cliffhanger in a book doesn’t have to be terribly dramatic, it just has to facilitate a little tension. For example, if you have multiple narrators, one character’s section might end in a cliffhanger, then another character might take over for just a few pages before the cliffhanger is addressed. Another common tactic is to have flashback scenes end in small cliffhangers, each of which then resolves in the next flashback scene, after a bit of present-day narration.
Queen of suspense Liane Moriarty does this in several of her books, but I’m going to use Truly Madly Guilty as a clear-cut example. Just about every chapter ends with an intriguing statement or cliffhanger, like: “There was a piercing yell from upstairs.”
However, each cliffhanger is then resolved within a few pages (in the case of the piercing yell, it was just two kids getting into a scuffle). This demonstrates how cliffhangers can be a great way to provide those “baby carrots” for readers. They wait in suspense for a bit, but they’re soon rewarded with a dose of insight… which suggests that the long wait for the story’s ending will be proportionately rewarded, as well.
5) Always stay one step ahead
Of course, the number-one tip to writing amazing suspense for your readers is to stay one step ahead of them at all times. As you’re constructing a scene, not only should you be depicting those particular moments, but also laying the groundwork for the next scene and, ideally, the rest of the narrative.
This is why it’s crucial to map out your book’s suspense as much as possible before you start. Otherwise, your ambitious attempts will just lead to plot holes, pacing issues, and abandoned story elements that take forever to fix. You have to figure out what each character’s arc will be, what level of foreshadowing you want, how to intersperse flashbacks, etc. — and yes, it might seem like overkill now. But if you want your suspense to deliciously build and crescendo in a satisfying way for your readers, trust me, you’re going to need those blueprints.
If you have any doubts about your structure and planning, the best way to learn is by studying other great suspense writers! Read some Agatha Christie, some Patricia Highsmith, some Dean Koontz, or anyone else I’ve given as an example here. Try to be extremely conscious of how suspense waxes and wanes throughout the narrative — what specifically does the author do to make that happen, and how can you apply it to your own story?
Whether you write horror, thriller, mystery, or some combination of the three, suspense is imperative to your readers’ experience of the story. And indeed, learning how to write suspense is a valuable lesson for any writer who wants their narrative to be truly compelling (which, I’m guessing, is every writer). So take these tips and hold them dear; you never know when you might need them
Savannah Cordova is a writer with Reedsy, a marketplace that connects authors and publishers with the world’s best editors, designers, and marketers. In her spare time, Savannah enjoys reading contemporary fiction and writing short stories. Naturally, she’s a big fan of plot twists (when they’re done right).