Who’s Behind That Door? How to Create a Sense of Suspense in a Novel
All the antagonist is doing is walking around in the forest, collecting samples.
It is the middle of the day, in the book, and reality. Yet, as you turn the page, you can’t help but feel like there might be a jump-scare, just waiting to startle you from your seat. But, there is nothing. The antagonist goes back to her tent, carrying the story along. But you are uneasy. Something is about to happen; you can feel it.
If you have ever felt this way while reading a suspense novel, the writer has done an excellent job.
Even without depending on all the classic suspense elements like conflict and red herrings, there are ways you can pace a novel, so it carries the story while staying true to the high stakes game your characters are playing.
The book does not have to be based on global annihilation. Or it can. But starting small can set the scene.
Taking the book Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer as an example, the author uses subtle pacing and creates an interesting dilemma. What is wrong on that island, what was in that light tower? What is causing everything to change?
How Vandermeer turns the tide in his favor is by using subtle touches to make the writer feel uneasy. He does not use character names, for starters. There is a psychologist, an anthropologist, and others. It is a complicated situation, yet time seems to stop when the team is in the zone. But as the book progresses, something slowly but surely, starts to create problems.
And the great thing is, these problems are not disguised as great monsters ala Scooby-Doo. There are animals, creatures, lights. The villain in the book only makes an appearance at the end. But it does not have an intimidating persona. Its aura alone, its effect alone creates its personality. That is how you write suspense.
As one of the romantic suspense writers and the author of trilogy, I used such examples in my new fantasy books, The Black Shade of White. You do not have to write specific scenes. Setting the atmosphere, little details, and elements here and there is enough to get readers on the right track. Even with an atmosphere as serene as heaven can get a sinister feel if you set the stage with no people or angels in sight.
If there is nothing at stake, your readers will not want to read further. But, this does not mean you should start with, “We have a day to save the world!”
Starting with a smaller conflict of interest and taking it to the next level, so it will impact a larger crowd also works. As with many superhero movies, it is always something small that ignites a global problem.
A great trait of suspense novels is that you do not need to give it a happy ending. Tying the story with a neat bow might seem like the easy way out. But with suspense, you want to keep that quality until after the book is finished. How did it happen? What will happen next? Not just providing all the answers but leaving some out, so your readers can discuss. That is how you can create suspense.
So, Who’s Behind that Door?
I do not know, because you do not usually hear someone knocking on the inside when the door leads to an empty house!