Innovative Literacy - Teach students to create tension and suspense when writing

Create Tension and Suspense

Readers today have a lot of options when it comes to novels. This means you need to keep your audience on the edge of their seats. You can’t afford to lose them or they might move on to the next novel. One way of keeping their attention is to create tension and suspense. This needs to be done from the beginning of the book. Pacing and cliffhangers can also be used to keep your audience reading.


Beginning the Book

Beginning a book is difficult to do correctly. Starting with two pages of description about the weather usually isn’t a good idea. I say usually because some writers can make it work and in some cases, it might actually be necessary. However, as a general rule, I would introduce the main character and some type of action on the very first page.

Don’t introduce a minor character in the book for the first chapter and then in the second chapter switch to the main character. You want your readers invested in the main character. If they believe the other character is going to be the hero of the story, they will feel upset that they wasted their time in the first character.

You need to establish the setting, the main character, and at least hint at a problem in the first few pages. You are creating a new world for the reader. Make it an interesting one instead of a boring one. After all, your audience isn’t reading your book to be bored.



Generally, if you were reading the book and would skip reading a section, you don’t need to write that section. For example, if you are in the middle of an action scene, would you stop to read a couple of paragraphs about how tasty a bagel looks? More than likely, you would skip those paragraphs to get to the good stuff. Readers are going to do that to your writing.

I would suggest you find a few test readers once you are done with the book. This should probably be done for several reasons, but we will get more into that in a different chapter. For the purposes of this chapter, the person reading your book can highlight the areas of your book that they felt an impulse to skip. You can then go back and see if you really needed that section or if it is simply getting in the way of the story, much like someone stepping in front of the television when you are watching an exciting game or the climax of a movie.



Have you ever watched a season-ending of a show and they leave you with a cliffhanger ending? They do this for a reason. I can’t tell you how many shows I have stopped watching because of the long break between seasons. A cliffhanger is an author’s way of getting you to stick around and read what happens next.

Books are long. When most readers stop reading a book, they stop reading at a chapter break. They simply don’t come back to read the next chapter after they put the book down. You, as the writer, need to be aware of this. You want your reader to feel like they can’t put the book down. They have to find out what happens next.

While you can’t have a huge cliffhanger at the end of every chapter, I would suggest you include something that will tempt the reader to continue reading. Consider the news. They will tempt you with a big interesting story later, but first, you have to watch the less interesting stories. The same is true for your story. You have to build up to the best part. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t tempt them with tantalizing tidbits throughout the book, however.

Think about your chapters as the news. You want the reader to come back after the commercial break. To do this, you give them a hint of something interesting that might happen in the next chapter if they stick around. You need to do the same with your chapters. Give them something at the end of the chapter to make them want to come back. Hint at what might be coming next. This is called foreshadowing.

Use Cliffhangers To Create Tension and Suspense

One way to create tension and suspense is with a cliffhanger. You can place your main character into situations where the reader worries about the hero. For example, you might end with the character entering a cold dark cavern. That doesn’t bode well for the main character. In fact, it sounds like something bad could happen there. You can even make the main character worry about something bad happening, which makes the reader worry.

Another example might be having the main character finally manage to scrape up enough courage to go ask his or her crush on a date. The reader wants to know if the hero gets the date or is completely rejected. These type of situations are great chapter stopping points. The reader wants to know what happens next.


A Secret to Create Tension and Suspense

Let the audience know more than the main character and use this to create tension. The hero might not know the significance of some guy glaring at them after the prettiest girl in the school agrees to a date. The hero might just think that was odd, and then go back to being swept up in the moment of joy. The reader knows there must be more to it than that, however. Authors generally don’t introduce characters unless they are important in some way. Is the other guy an angry ex-boyfriend, a protective brother, or a jealous rival? The reader wants to know who that person is and what is going to happen.


Plan on Keeping the reader’s attention

Once you have an outline for your book, try to create some type of reason for the reader to keep reading the next chapter. End on a cliffhanger. Tease the reader occasionally. Let the suspense build with hints. That way when you end a chapter, they will continue reading to find out what happens next.

You need to know what will keep your audience reading at the end of each chapter. If you don’t know why they should keep reading, the audience probably won’t know why either. Be able to explain what will motivate the audience to continue reading. For example, “I want my reader to worry about what will happen to the character in the cold dark cave. I will make sure that I include details such as the rocks being slippery with moisture with the character worrying about falling down. I will also include details such as no one knowing the hero is in the cave, which will make the reader know that it is unlikely anyone will be there to help the hero if something bad happens.”

Now, try it yourself. You will find when you do this, it will often provide you additional details to flesh out your story. It will definitely create tension and suspense.  Hopefully, it will provide enough of a cliffhanger to get the readers to continue reading the next chapter.


If you are interested in novel writing prompts, check out the Magic Mirror novel writing prompts.