Yes, what about suspense...?

The whole point of writing is to get readers to read what you’ve written, so you, the author have to provide a reason for the reader to continue once they’ve picked up your story.  In other words, you’ve got to write a ‘Page Turner.’

The two points of vulnerability in a novel are; the opening (where you set the hook – but that’s another story in itself), and the end of the novel.  If either doesn’t work, you’re done for! Either they won’t read your novel, or, they won’t read your next novel.  In addition, if the ending of a chapter gives the reader an excuse to put your novel down, they might not pick it up. If that happens, they won’t recommend your novel, or worse, give it a bad recommendation. 

Yikes!  Let’s figure out how to avoid that fate!

This means you must write with a style that is easy to read and free from mistakes…

Golly, gee whiz, all this stuff about writing techniques before we get to the sly tips, tricks and techniques to increase the level of suspense in your story. 

Was that a suspense trick or what?

You should end the opening chapter, or the second chapter (no later) with the protagonist in trouble.  Then, you the author, get him or her into even more trouble.  Never give your protagonist a break.  Pile on the problems.  Sure, the protagonist will solve the problems, as he or she grows or develops throughout the story.

When you get your protagonist in a lurch, leave him or her there while you, the writer, go to or introduce a different character or scene.

Look, you the writer needs to create an ‘itch,’ but by not letting the reader ‘scratch’ that itch, you will hold their attention.  So, how do you create this ‘itch?’

Arouse the reader’s curiosity, create anxiety by setting up a situation that the reader wants stopped, or make the reader uncomfortable (just don’t go too far).  Don’t violate the mores or norms of society, particularly by the protagonist.  Putting a sympathetic character into physical trouble or harm can do this.  You know:

-                     something the reader doesn’t want to happen

-                     an old fear about to become a reality

-                     prolong the anxiety (ratchet it up another notch)

-                     if the problem is solved, replace it with another!

Psychological problem: Do the same thing by replacing one problem with an even greater problem – keep turning the screws.  For example, obsessive compulsive behavior, an alcoholic teetering on the edge, having to choose between two lovers, betrayal by a sibling or a close friend, hair-trigger temper, episodic depression, etc. 

In suspense, 1st person POV makes it more difficult to dribble out the clues or pieces and maintain suspense, but it can be done – if you’re good.  A good example of this technique is Joe Haldeman’s novel ‘The Coming’.  He switches between characters who have chapters to themselves in 1st person POV, and thus reveal information that otherwise is not available.  He ends the chapters on a point where, you the reader, need information from someone else.  Guess what?  You have to read the next chapter, in another person’s 1st person POV to find out.

Sneaky writing tricks or techniques:  Consider ending the chapter with a cliffhanger, and then don’t pick up where you left off in the next chapter (that’s why there are subplots!).  Jump to another character in another location with a different set of problems.  Make the reader go through a chapter or two to see if the protagonist gets out of the sticky situation.  Another chapter ending technique that can work is one that ends with foreshadowing, the implication of things, action, visit, whatever, to come.  Something that makes the reader wonder and worry, but continue to read.

Slip into the antagonist’s POV to reveal something deadly that’s about to happen to the protagonist.  Then back to protagonist who has no idea what is going on, but you, the reader does.  Something that raises your anxiety level and makes you read on.

Use short sentences and short paragraphs.  Short chapters tend to pick up the tempo of the story.  Have you noticed the chapters in James Patterson’s novels are typically less than three pages long?  How about JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series?  Short chapters, right?  Why?  More opportunities to leave the reader hanging, forcing the reader to go on to the next chapter.  The faster the reader reads, the more likely the story is a ‘page-turner.’

Cut the last two or three lines from the ending of the chapter – leave something hanging.  However, never break up an action scene, because the goal of suspense is to give the reader a thrill, not to frustrate. 

For example, in a fight scene, you have to finish it.  However, if your protagonist is hanging from a fraying rope, good, leave him or her hanging there. 

Don’t take your reader where he / she wants to go

Don’t tell / describe everything; make your reader think and draw conclusions from the clues / information provided.  Dangle an obvious clue in front of the protagonist, but have him or her not notice it.  Control or manipulate the reader’s emotions – raise their level of anxiety, get them involved.

Readers need a reason to read your novel!

Fill it with suspense, make it move fast, keep ‘em guessing, make them worry, cry, or whatever for your hero / heroine, but all along, leave clues, hints, foreshadow what might happen.  And never make it easy for your protagonist.

Keep multiple themes or subplots going, all moving in a convergent fashion toward the climax, each providing a piece or clue as to the resolution of the plot.  Keep the protagonist in the dark. 

Which brings us to the ending.  The climax or resolution must be consistent with the clues and the subplots throughout the novel. 

DON’T:  Never, ever surprise your reader with a Deus ex Machina solution (God from a box), an act of divine intervention to get your protagonist out of trouble; a sudden inheritance, a lightning bolt that kills the villain, the aliens all catch cold and die; an event out of nowhere.  Never, ever do that!

Some writers provide a denouement or chapter where they explain what happened.  If you write well, place your clues properly, foreshadow as needed, your reader won’t need an explanation.  What you can do is set a hook or a possible opening for a sequel or follow-up story....   That, too, is a form of suspense.

Remember, increased levels of suspense make readers ‘turn the page’ and ‘Page Turners’ make best sellers!