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The Best Way to Create Suspense Is…

by Keith Pyeatt

KeithPyeatt206SSuspense is an emotion. It’s that feeling when you don’t know what’s going to happen next…but you want to. Using that definition, it’s easy to see why creating suspense is an effective way to keep readers turning pages.

I write in the broad category of suspense/thriller, and I was already scheduled to write this article when the print galleys for my novel Dark Knowledge arrived. While I searched for typos, I also noted the different ways I generated suspense so I could share some of my favorite methods with you.

1. Use setting to enhance or create suspense. I mention setting first because I used it to build suspense right from the opening paragraphs of Dark Knowledge. My mentally challenged protagonist, Wesley, enters a world inside his mind that’s shrouded in fog, radiates a “bad color” that terrifies him, and proves it can hurt him. The mind-world became a steady source of suspense because I kept it mysterious, dangerous, and full of paranormal surprises, but suspenseful settings certainly don’t need to be supernatural ones. A boat on rough seas, a job interview, or a packed department store during a bridal sale can all add tension and suspense, especially if there’s a pregnant passenger on the boat, the interviewee needs the job to feed his family, and there’s a good reason why the bride-to-be needs a certain gown.

2. Withholding information from readers can generate suspense, but be careful not to be too obvious and cheesy about it (like I was with the title of this article) or the reader will feel manipulated. Withheld information works best when it’s natural. For example, the point of view (POV) characters introduced so far don’t know the information, so they can’t relay it to the reader. This method is a clear favorite of mine, and it works well because I normally have multiple POV characters in my novels, which helps me control when information is presented.

3. Withholding information from the protagonist is another great way to create suspense, especially in novels with multiple POV characters. Let that antagonist reveal his dastardly plans to the readers. Doing so creates the classic “Don’t go in there!” response when readers know the bad guy is waiting behind the door with a knife but the hero doesn’t. Note that this type of suspense pretty much defines the difference between suspense and mystery novels. In a mystery, we know Professor Plum was killed from the beginning pages, but we don’t know who bludgeoned him to death with a candlestick until the end. The fun is trying to figure out who did it and why. In a suspense/thriller, the professor is alive, but the readers know Miss Scarlet’s plans and motivations to kill him. The suspense is whether the hero will discover the plan and be able to stop Professor Plum from meeting his death in the library.

4. Impose a time restraint. Whether the bank will repossess Grandma’s iron lung if money isn’t raised in time or the wormhole that leads to present day Earth is about to close, a hero’s race against a ticking clock adds urgency and suspense.

5. Complicate things. For an added shot of suspense, start the ticking clock mentioned above, and just when it looks like your hero might actually succeed in time, drop a delay or complication on her. Now will she make it? Yes? Drop another complication on her.

6. Be unpredictable. Readers are smart, and once they get used to the flow of a story, they may start thinking they know where it’s going. Add an unexpected twist, and now they’re in suspense about how this new development, revelation, or character will change the course. The only way to know is to keep reading.

7. Mind games are another of my favorite ploys, which is probably why my paranormal thrillers can also be classified as psychological thrillers. I love a good dilemma, and there’s a whopper of one in Dark Knowledge that stands out as a suspenseful element. Wesley doesn’t know whether to sacrifice his life to save his soul or if he needs to sacrifice his soul to protect mankind from evil. With a big dilemma like that, readers get a whole new element of suspense. In addition to wondering “can he succeed?” and “can he succeed in time?” they wonder along with the character which course of action leads to success. Smaller dilemmas add suspense too, so experiment with them. Create a reason your protagonist can’t, won’t, or shouldn’t do something, then make sure he must do it to get what he needs. Or give him options, but make sure every option has a serious downside.

8. Create a convergence where separate lines of action meet, combine their energies, and shoot the story forward. In Dark Knowledge, there’s a point where three scenes, each written from a different character’s POV, bring story-lines together as the characters charge into the mind-world for the climactic battle. Different motivations drive each character to the same point, and the convergence supercharges the tension and suspense.

9. Make the hero act alone or at a disadvantage. There’s strength in numbers, so isolate your character when he needs help the most. Wesley has friends who would do anything for him, so I…Well, I’m not telling, but isolating the main character is a technique I frequently use to beef up suspense. A variation of isolation is to impose a disadvantage on your hero at a critical time. Maybe your urban fantasy heroine left her sword on all night and discovers it’s out of juice just as a shape-shifting monkey demon attacks. Now how’s she going to fight it?

10. Make the reader care about the characters. Sure, determined government hit men in helicopters chasing a desperate man through an active minefield is high action and may grab a reader’s attention, but the suspense you need to hold interest comes from giving the readers reasons to care what happens to the desperate man. Let readers into your hero’s head. Better yet, into his heart. Flesh out your antagonists and other major characters so readers care what happens to them, too.

Remember, suspense is an emotion.

daeva front 145Keith Pyeatt served as an officer of SouthWest Writers for three years and received the SWW Parris Award in 2009. He writes paranormal thrillers that he calls “Horror with Heart.” He now lives in Tucson, Arizona, and he recently released his fourth novel, Daeva. Other published novels are Struck, Dark Knowledge, and Above Haldis Notch. Find out more about Keith by visiting his website at or his blog at

This article was originally published in the November 2012 issue of SouthWest Sage and is reprinted here by permission of the author.

An Interview with Author Olive Balla

Olive Balla is a great-grandmother, retired educator, part-time professional musician, and novelist. Her love of storytelling began as a child with inventing stories—especially ghost stories—to entertain her friends. After she got serious about writing, it took a journey of almost seven years to see her debut mystery/suspense novel in print. An Arm and a Leg was published by The Wild Rose Press in 2014. For two years of that journey, Olive shared her views on the writing life in a monthly column for SouthWest Sage. She continues in that vein in her “Life Lesson” series on her website/blog at

AnArmAndALeg200What is your elevator pitch for An Arm and a Leg? Albuquerque divorcee Frankie O’Neil dreams of having what she calls a normal life. But given her penchant for making the worst possible decisions about men, the fact that she hoards food, and hears the voices of long-dead relatives who hint at a dark family secret, her life is anything but normal. Then her brother is shot before her eyes just minutes after leaving an oddly-shaped package in her freezer, and the police suspect her of murder. Ordered not to leave town, Frankie must deal with her dead relatives’ determination to be part of her life, try not to fall in love with the deputy who suspects her of being a cannibalistic serial killer, and prove her innocence by finding the real killersideally before they kill her. And if a death threat written in children’s chalk beside a strangled bird on her front porch, a speeding car intent on running her down, and flames destroying her home are any indication, time is running out.

What sparked the initial story idea for An Arm and a Leg? I was sitting in a café with my husband near a table of young men. Around bites of egg and between guffaws, they chatted about a recent camping trip they’d taken to White Sands. One suddenly announced, “So that’s where we decided to bury Mike.” My undoubtedly horrified expression gave my kibitzing away, and the young man laughed and explained they’d buried their friend up to his neck in the sand. I was relieved at the disclaimer, but the images that initial comment evoked kept chewing at me until I had no choice but to write my own version.

Which point of view did you enjoy writing the most, the protagonist’s or the antagonist’s? Both perspectives drew me in. But I’d say the darkness of my antagonist’s soul called out to my lizard brain more than the angst in my protagonist’s. No one gets to be my age, without sustaining some fairly sizeable dings and dents. Writing about evil folks getting their due is immensely satisfying.

What unique challenges did this work pose for you? Amazing how difficult it was to plant my butt in the chair and write every day. About the time I’d get focused, life would throw some interruption in my face that demanded my “immediate attention.” That, combined with hundreds of ways to procrastinate, is why a novel that should have been completed in one year took me seven.

Why do you write in the mystery/suspense genre? In sixth grade, I managed to get my hands on a yellow-paged, worn copy of one of Richard Prather’s Detective Shell Scott paperbacks. It was the first non-school, non-religious book I’d ever read, and as such would have been thrown out had it been discovered. Hiding it under my pillow during the day, pulling it out at night, and reading it under the tent of my bedcovers by the light of a flashlight was a delicious, addicting act. The book not only mesmerized me, but planted seeds that were later watered and fed by authors like Agatha Christie, Helen McInnes, Isaac Asimov, and Louis L’Amour.

What are you most happy with, and what do you struggle with most, in your writing? I’m most happy during that initial rush of creativity, when the skeleton of a story pours itself onto my laptop screen almost of its own volition. I struggle most with my internal editor, who never saw a sentence she liked, or of which she approved. Ever.

What do you want to be known for as an author? Her stories helped lighten the load. That would be a neat epitaph.

Who do you wish you were more like in your own writing? For several years I tried writing like some of my favorite authors. But, like full-fat ice cream vs. non-fat, the resulting flavors were neither satisfying, nor real. My goal is to fully develop my own voice.

What role, if any, does music play in your creative process? Music has always been integral to my psyche – I wrote my first piano piece when I was ten. I often listen to music either just before, or during my writing time. Nothing like a little Twisted Sister to get me riled up.

Share a bit of your journey to publication and how you chose your publisher. My journey has most likely been a fairly common one. I thought, erroneously as it turns out, that I needed to have an agent in order to get into print. Had I continued to pursue major publishers, that would have been the casemost of them will not even look at un-agented work, nor will they accept unsolicited manuscripts. After I expectantly queried dozens of agents, was either rejected or got no response at all, I rewrote my pitch and edited my manuscript then sent off the second version, which was also rejected (repeat this cycle countless times). I spent a couple of years tightening, editing, and refining my prose. I found three beta-readers, paid a book doctor to help with my pitch, paid an editor to look at the first twenty pages, and revised some more. I purchased books by James Scott Bell and Noah Lukeman, put their sage advice into practice, went to the Preditors and Editors website (, chose five small-but-reputable publishers and queried them. The result was that within one week I got four contract offers. I chose my publisher based on their reputation (as reflected on the Preditors and Editors site), the number of authors they represent, and what they offered me.

What would you do differently if you were starting your publishing career today? I’d lighten up, not be so hard on myself. In a thousand years, it’ll all be dust anyway. Although Beowulf is still being taught in literature classes, no one even knows who wrote it, or exactly when.

If you had an unlimited budget, how would you spend your money for marketing and promotion of your book? I’d first pay my bills, then print thousands of copies to donate to libraries across the country. Too many people don’t have access to the short-term pain relief brought by submerging oneself in a book. Louis L’Amour pulled me through some pretty dark days.

What projects are you working on now? I have four novels in various stages of development: a sequel and a prequel to An Arm and a Leg, and a couple of futuristic mysteries.

What advice do you have for discouraged writers?

  • Bumblebee physiology is inconsistent with flight, so instead of flapping their wings up and down like a bird, they wave them in a figure eight pattern. Unwilling to walk from flower to flower, they achieve their goal by working with the laws of physics to find a way to fly. It’s the same with writing: if one avenue doesn’t pan out, find another.
  • Keep on keeping on. In the words of David Morrell, author of First Blood, if you have something interesting to say, someone will help you say it. But no one’s going to do the work for you.

KLWagoner150_2KL Wagoner (writing as Cate Macabe) is the author of This New Mountain: a memoir of AJ Jackson, private investigator, repossessor, and grandmother. She has a new speculative fiction blog at and writes about memoir at

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