Writing Suspense Part II by Lillian Duncan

Each genre has certain identifiable characteristics and rules that should be followed. When a reader picks up a novel, they should know fairly quickly whether they’re reading a category romance, a women’s fiction, or a mystery. If you’re new to the writing game, it can be hard to figure out these unspoken, yet commonly agreed upon, rules. Yesterday suspense author, Lilian Duncan, shared some guidelines for writing suspense novels for the CBA market. (Read them here.) Today she continues to lay out some bare-bones guidelines for writing suspense. At the end of her article, I’ve posed a sample paragraph intended to stir your creativity. I encourage you to try your hand, using Lillian’s guidelines, at writing suspense by adding to the paragraph in the comments. Next week, I’ll post the initial paragraph, along with your additions and we’ll all vote on our favorite.

Come back tomorrow when we take a look at her suspense novel, Pursued, to see how these rules come together to form a gripping novel.


In Part I we looked at Pacing, Vocabulary, and Violence. Today we are going to discuss Overwriting and Creating Tension.


There’s a fine line between excellent writing and overwriting. Overwriting tends to take a good plot and turn it into melodrama. Unfortunately, many unpublished suspense/mystery writers (and some published) mistake melodrama for good writing.

Sometimes the more emotional the scene the better it is to keep your “flowery” writing to a minimum. Here’s a checklist of things to be careful about.

  1. Word choices. I’m sure a lot of my fellow writers might disagree but I think simple better when it comes to word choices—especially in suspense. In suspense, it’s all about the action, not how fancy the writing is. Why say veranda when it’s really a deck?
  1. Exclamation points. Most writing experts do not like exclamation points. They say it’s a mark of an inexperienced writer. Personally, I love exclamation points, but I save them for emails—not for my manuscripts!
  1. Too many adverbs and adjectives. This is good advice for any genre you write in, not just suspense. I have no problem with an adverb or an adjective, but it gets to be too much when you use two or three or four in every sentence or even every paragraph.
  1. Too much emotion for the situation. Suspense is supposed to be well…suspenseful and that means lots of emotional situations. A writer would be remiss if they didn’t include emotional reactions, but be careful of keeping the emotional reaction equal to the event.
  1. Don’t use ten words when you only need five. We are writers and we love words so we like to use them—a lot. Unfortunately when you consistently use more words than you really need, it makes the story drag. Look at this: The huge black dog looked at her, then barked at her, and finally ran toward her. Let’s look at it rewritten. The Rottweiler charged toward her.

Bottom line when it comes to overwriting, write your story and then cut every word you don’t need!!


Every writer knows you must create tension in your story or it becomes…boring. And we never want that, especially in mystery/suspense.

Let me start by listing what tension isn’t (in my opinion.)

  1. Tension isn’t having an argument in every scene. For some reason many writers think this is the only way to create tension. It’s not. Use it by all means but use it sparingly.
  2. Tension isn’t having angry and bitter internal thoughts in every scene. A little of this goes a long way. Too much and it becomes tiring and makes the character unlikable.
  3. Tension isn’t using a trumped up excuse why the heroine doesn’t like the hero. 

Now that you know what tension isn’t, let’s talk about what it is. Tension is creating scenes that will make the reader want to know what happens next. Donald Maas talks about it as “microtension” in his book, The Fire In Fiction.

Every scene in your story should have tension in one form or another. Some scenes will have “big” tension and others microtension. It may be internal or external. It may be real or imagined, but there should be a sense of unpredictability in every scene to some extent.

So, you’re writing a breakfast scene. Everyone’s happy, they’re talking about their schedule for the day…blah….blah…blah. Who cares?

She turned from the stove with a smile. “Here’s your eggs, dear.”

He didn’t glance up as she set the plate down in front of him. “Thank you.”

Taking her own plate of eggs, she moved to her chair. “By the way, it’s Tuesday so I’ll be home late.”

“That’s right, almost forgot. It’s your day to volunteer at the hospital on the children’s wing.”

She sat down and waited.

But what if you add some internal thought to the scene and a little pepper to the eggs? Oh, and that’s right the husband is allergic to pepper. Let’s see what happens with the scene now.

She sprinkled just the right amount of salt on his eggs. He was so picky. It drove her crazy. Three shakes of salt and no pepper. Couldn’t use pepper-had to remember all his allergies. She set the salt shaker down and glanced around. 

The paper hid his face. She picked up the pepper—the white kind—and sprinkled.

She turned from the stove with a smile.“Here’s your eggs, dear.”

“Thank you.” He picked up his fork.

“By the way, it’s Tuesday so I’ll be home late tonight.”

“That’s right, almost forgot. It’s your day to volunteer at the hospital on the children’s wing.”

So he thought. 

She sat down and waited.

I hope you can feel the difference in the two scenes.

Here are some ways to add tension into your story:

  1. Unpredictability. Don’t feel the need to resolve an issue in the same chapter it occurs in. Let the reader worry about it for awhile.
  2. Have chapters end with a cliffhanger. Using the above scene, that would be a great way to end the chapter and then move to a different POV so the reader has to wait to find out what happens. The reader will be wondering if the allergy is so bad, he’ll end up in the hospital? Or dead? Or just some wheezing and hives?
  3. Ticking clock. By adding a time limit to an action can create tension. Hunting for a bomb is good, but hunting for a bomb that you know will detonate in fifteen minutes is even better.
  4. Surprise yourself—surprise your readers. All that work on that wonderful outline—but that’s all it is an outline—not the story!
  5. Foreshadowing. This is a tried and true technique. If you’re not familiar with the term, it means to add some subtle clues in about what might happen. I add my foreshadowing in during the edits and revisions since I don’t use outlines. And remember not all foreshadowing clues have to come true.
  6. A red herring. This is used most often in mysteries but can be an effective way to add tension in suspense as well.
  7. Keep the reader guessing. In suspense, we often know who the bad guy is early in the story. Hold off on letting the reader know for sure as long as possible. One way to do this is to add in a few characters who might be the bad guy.
  8. Make things more difficult for your Main Characters. I’ve been told I’m really mean to my characters.. That’s what creates tension. If life is good for them, who cares. We want to see how they act in adversity.
  9. Keep the stakes high. If the heart of your suspense plot is whether Janie will pass her tests and graduate from high school, ho-hum. But if Janie doesn’t pass her tests and graduate, she’ll be deported and separated from her true love—that changes everything.
  10. Add a new character. If the story seems to be dragging, adding a fresh face can get your creativity flowing again.

So, there you have it. When I was developing this class I tried to think of some areas that make suspense writing different from other genres. These are some areas I’ve discovered and I’m sure there are many more that I didn’t include. Take a minute and share with the group a strategy that improves your suspense writing.

Thanks for the opportunity to share my ideas with you. God Bless and Good Writing!

Lillian Duncan lives in a small town in the middle of Ohio Amish country with her husband, four parrots, one Jack Russell, and a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel. Whether as a speech-language pathologist, an educator, or as a writer, she believes in the power of words to change lives, especially God’s Word.

Lillian believes books can be entertaining without being trashy. She writes the types of books she loves to read, suspense with a touch of romance. Her newest release is PURSUED and her fifth novel, DECEPTION, will be released later this year. Her website is: www.lillianduncan.net and her blog is www.lillianduncan.wordpress.com.

And now it’s you’re turn. See if you can’t add a suspenseful paragraph or two, using Lillian’s tips, to the following paragraph:

Tiana glances at her watch and quickens her step, as she winds her way around the glassy lake. The sun is starting to set and according to a thick band of clouds advancing across the sky, a storm is brewing. A cold breeze pricks her cheeks, carrying with it the scent of freshly turned earth. They pass a man sitting on the park bench and Tiana’s dog lunges forward and bears his teeth, the hair on the back of her neck raised. The man looks up and a shiver crawls up the Tiana’s spine as she stares into his shadowed eyes. In his thick, hairy hands, he’s holding…

Leave your addition below and next week, I’ll post them so we can all vote on our favorite. The winner will be honored with an interview and loud hoorahs! the following week.


About Jennifer Slattery

Novelist and speaker Jennifer Slattery, also writing as Jen Pheobus, uses humor, grace, and truth to inspire God's children to live abundant, Christ-centered lives. She does content editing for Firefly, a southern fiction imprint with Lighthouse Publishing of the Carolinas, and is a regular contributor to Crosswalk.com; Internet Cafe Devotions; Faith, Friends and Chocolate; and manages the social media for Takin’ it to the Streets, a ministry that serves Omaha’s working poor and homeless. She’s placed in numerous writing contests and her work has appeared in numerous compilations, magazines, and e-zines.

Posted on October 13, 2011, in suspense, writing and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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