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Short Fiction: Writing Suspense

Updated: Feb 23, 2023

Writing suspense fiction short stories can be an exciting and rewarding experience for writers and readers alike. Short fiction offers the perfect opportunity to craft a tightly woven plot that will keep readers on the edge of their seats from start to finish. And it can be a fun challenge for the writer. In this post, we will explore some key tips for writing suspense in short fiction that will have readers eagerly turning the pages.

1. Start with a strong hook

The opening lines of your story are critical to grabbing your reader’s attention and setting the tone for the rest of the story. A strong hook will draw your reader in and make them want to keep reading. Consider starting with a dramatic event, a thought-provoking question, or a surprising revelation.

One of my favorite opening hooks in a film is the opening scene of the screaming woman who realizes her jewels were stolen in To Catch a Thief (1955). For written fiction, the first line of Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier still haunts me: "Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again."

2. Create compelling characters

Compelling characters are key to writing any successful fiction, and writing suspenseful fiction is no exception. Readers want to care about the characters they are reading about and become invested in their struggles. Consider creating characters with distinct personalities, backgrounds, and motivations. Give your characters unique quirks and flaws that will make them feel like real people.

One of the reasons The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris is one of my favorite books (and the 1991 film of the same name is one of my favorite films) is because I cared about and identified with the story's young female protagonist, Clarice Starling. As she explored the dark, labyrinthine mind of Dr. Hannibal Lecter and then later that creepy basement where people put the lotion in the basket, I was on the edge of my seat with true visceral worry for her. I couldn't take my eyes off the page or screen because Clarice Starling had become a real person to me through outstanding storytelling (and acting).

3. Establish the stakes early on

In suspense fiction, the stakes must be high to keep readers engaged. Establishing the stakes early in your story will help build tension and keep readers invested. Consider what is at stake for your main character and how the story's events will impact them.

A story that keeps raising the stakes that I love is the one of John McClane in Die Hard (1988). First, his job and marriage are on the line. Then there are terrorists and a hostage situation. Then there are explosives planted in the building. Then the terrorists realize one of the hostages is McClane's wife...the stakes keep rising and they keep you watching. In my upcoming 2023 book release, Will and the Clan of Shadows: A Ninja Squirrel Adventure, I take an innocent young rat and turn his happy life inside out when a dangerous enemy attacks and destroys his home. Will and his parents try to escape only to run into trouble, and Will's parents are kidnapped. Complication upon complication builds to the point where a happy ending for young Will may never be possible.

4. Use tension and pacing to keep readers engaged

Tension is the key to writing successful suspense fiction. Consider building tension through pacing and plot twists. Introduce new obstacles for your characters to overcome, and keep readers guessing by introducing unexpected plot twists.

When I think of tension, I think of the movie JAWS (1975). There's the personal tension between Quint and the "rich kid" marine biologist. There's the moment when the children swimming in the "pond" realize a very big shark is in the water with them. And for tension in books, I think of Jean Valjean in Victor Hugo's Les Misérables and his unhappy relationship with the man hunting him, Inspector Javert. Going back to du Maurier's Rebecca, I think of the chilly tension in each scene between the new Mrs. de Winter and the old Mrs. de Winter's housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers.

5. Use descriptive language to create atmosphere

Descriptive language can be used to create an immersive atmosphere that will draw readers into your story. Use sensory details to paint a vivid picture of your story’s setting and create a mood that reflects the tone of your story. Consider using metaphor and simile to add depth and complexity to your descriptions.

When I think of a skillful use of atmosphere I think of gothic novels like Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre or Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House. Cue the creepy, dark, crumbling mansions built on a rotting dynasty. Cue misty moors, shadowed hallways, and dark nights in places you shouldn't be. Both books give a claustrophobic sensation when the main characters are in danger. The atmosphere becomes a character itself, endangering the heroines or reflecting their lonely inner turmoil in a world of vast vacuum and coldness that seems to try and swallow them up.

6. Build to a satisfying conclusion

The conclusion of your story is just as important as the beginning. After building suspense throughout the story, it’s important to have a payoff that will leave readers feeling satisfied. Consider what your reader will expect from the conclusion of your story, and build to a climax that will deliver on those expectations.

Love wins! The villain is brought to justice. An orphan child finds their family. Not all story conclusions are positive for the main characters, but those are a few story endings that leap to mind when I think of "a good ending".

7. Edit and revise your work

Once you’ve finished writing your story, it’s important to edit and revise your work. Look for ways to tighten your plot, eliminate unnecessary details, and clarify your language. Consider asking a trusted friend or fellow writer to read your story and provide feedback. I've found professional editors an asset as well.

In conclusion, writing suspense fiction short stories can be a thrilling and rewarding experience. By focusing on creating compelling characters, establishing high stakes, building tension, and delivering a satisfying conclusion, writers can craft stories that will keep readers on the edge of their seats from start to finish. With careful attention to detail and a willingness to revise and edit your work, you can create suspenseful stories that will captivate your readers and leave them eagerly anticipating your next work.

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