Creating Suspense

October 5, 2018



Sometimes suspense more about what's not there than what is. Think about places that are usually full of energy and people -- playgrounds, amusement parks, shopping malls, train stations, etc. Then think about what they would look like empty.


OK. Let's take this one step further. Think about what those places would look like if they had not be used in years. Think about the cobwebs, the rust, the rotting boards. Creepy, huh? 


If you watch suspense or horror movies, there's always a scene where the main character walks into an empty room, down an empty hallway or into an empty alleyway. The music gets louder. And you are on the edge of your seat, just waiting for someone (or some thing) to jump out of the shadows. 


Building suspense is not easy and it's not just for mystery writers. We know all writers need to build tension and conflict. That includes an element of suspense -- the suspense of not knowing how everything is going to turn out. The key is -- we don't know. It's something that is missing in the story. A missing piece that has not yet been discovered. 


As writers, we don't have creepy music to build the scene. We build tone through our words. "The floor creaked." "Her breath caught in her throat." "His heart pounded." Those are simple sentences, only a few words each. What emotion do they build for you, as a reader?


Sometimes, the short sentences carry the most impact. When tension is building, you can heighten that tension but using shorter, choppier sentences. Because they are short and simple, readers can read them faster, and it feels like the scene is moving quicker. Hence, tension is building. 


As a writer, you are in control the tone and mood of your story with your choice of words and sentence structure. I encourage you to give it a try. Your writing will become much more powerful regardless of what type of story you are working on.

WRITING PROMPT: Take a scene from one of your stories (or a story/movie you love) that has tension. On a clean sheet of paper, write the scene from memory using wordy compound sentences and long paragraphs with a lot of adjectives and details. Set it aside. Now, on another clean sheet of paper, write the same scene again. This time, cut the adjectives. Use short, choppy sentences and short paragraphs, using only the details you need to set the scene. Read them out loud. How is the mood different? Which creates more tension? 




Photo Source: Brock DuPoint on




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CAROLYN BENNET FRAISER is a published writer and creative writing instructor in Brevard, North Carolina, where she enjoys helping youth find their passion for writing. 

Carolyn is available to speak to children and youth about creative writing at your school or special event. 

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@ 2019 CAROLYN BENNETT FRAISER. All Rights Reserved.