How to increase suspense in your novel was the topic of a Saturday panel at Sleuthfest. Speakers included Laurence P. O’Bryan, Chris Pavone, Charles Salzberg and Alison McMahan as moderator.
What you want to do as a writer is to raise questions in the reader’s mind. You say things, but you don’t explain all of them. Follow the principle of R.U.E.—Resist the Urge to Explain.
Start out the story with a bang. Don’t give all the backstory right up front. Respect the reader to figure things out on his own. Create situations to make the reader care about your character’s backstory. This history can come in during “down” times in the pacing but only in small doses.
Contain mini-mysteries within the overall plot. Give solutions along the way to keep the reader interested, and then raise new questions.
Guide the reader down blank alleys but not too many of them.
Sentences should have velocity.
Leave out the paragraphs readers will skip over. Don’t dump info like descriptions of places or people unless it serves a purpose.
Spread out character background. Reveal things sparingly in terms of character and place.
Mood and temperament of the sleuth can add to the suspense. How is he going to behave? Will he act morally? Relationships add tension. Action shows a character’s true motivation.
Adding a ticking time bomb or a deadline or using bait and switch tactics are other methods to raise suspense. So can a sense of menace, but be subtle. For example, you mention that a character is meeting someone on Monday. Who is he meeting with? What’s going to happen?
“Our job is to keep people reading. Each chapter should have an arc that doesn’t resolve.”
Disclaimer: These notes are my interpretation and are subject to errors which are mine alone.
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