There are so many great suspense novels out there these days that coming up with an original plot can seem, well, a nightmare. But ‘what happens?’ is only the first step in writing your bestselling thriller: ‘how do I actually make it suspenseful?’ is a different challenge entirely. Here are some tips to consider.
1. An unreliable narrator is always a good bet. There’s a reason why we’ve seen so many of them in recent years (The Girl on the Train, The Woman in the Window, Gone Girl, Before I Go to Sleep): it just works. Whether they’re an alcoholic, a fantasist or suffering from amnesia, if you can’t trust the person telling the story, can you trust that anything they’re telling you is fact? (Spoiler: probably not.)
2. Interspersing your main narrative with flashbacks (or, if you can make it work, flash-forwards) is a quick-and-easy way of gradually teasing out some dark and awful thing in the protagonist’s past or future – something that is only fully revealed as we reach the denouement and everything suddenly makes sense.
3. Or, more subtly, hint at something dark in the protagonist’s past or future. ‘This all happened before— well, before.’ Or ‘Of course, that was the last time I saw her alive.’ Peppering these through your chapters will keep the reader guessing – and, most importantly, reading.
4. If your novel has a villain, interruptions from his or her viewpoint can be very effective: short chapters in the first person that show the other side of the story, revealing elements of the villain’s motivation and plans. These can be as unhinged and ambiguous as you like – the more distinct they are from the hero’s narrative the better, as you’ll be showing the disparity between good and evil as both sides race to win the day.
5. A first-person narrative really ramps up the tension, making the reader feel stressed or relieved in tandem with the hero. There is far more impact and immediacy in ‘I froze with terror’ or ‘Was I losing my mind?’ than in their third-person alternatives. And it really pays off when the hero begins to work out…
6. What’s really going on? As the author you’ll know from the start where the story is leading, which ‘facts’ are red herrings and what surprises are in store for the characters and the reader. If the hero is gradually going to put the pieces of the puzzle together, it can drive the reader mad with anticipation (in a good way!) to tease out the realisations. ‘Wait – where had I seen that little girl before?’ or ‘I heard a voice – and suddenly it all fell into place…’
7. If it fits your story, a ticking clock will pile on the pressure – a sense that time is running out for the hero or the world, and that it’s almost impossible for the hero to win. Whether you reference the passing of time in the narrative – ‘only twelve minutes until he was due home, regular as clockwork’ – or use time stamps at the head of each chapter – ‘Ten to midnight’ or ‘Three days before the disaster’ – is up to you.
8. Write a hero that we want to root for. It sounds simple, but if we really, truly care about your character, we will feel every obstacle or joy along with them. They can still be flawed – indeed, flaws will make them more relatable – so long as we’re absolutely convinced they deserve to make it out OK.
9. If your novel has an unknown villain, throw in several characters who seem too good to be true, to keep readers wondering whether even the best friend or the sweet old lady down the road could be behind the intrigue…
10. For a real ‘NO WAY!’ moment, you can’t beat a massive twist somewhere in the middle, a revelation that turns everything on its head and makes the reader see the world of your novel in a totally new way. Perhaps avoid ‘it had all been a dream’, but is a seemingly kind and reliable character lying, or delusional – or dead?