Writing nail-biting suspense

This post is addressed to writers, but I’m sure readers will get something out of it, if not merely a good chuckle.

You’re sitting alone watching a late night movie (such as DIAL M FOR MURDER by Alfred Hitchcock) and for some strange reason your heart races, you cling to your spouse or pet, you want to cover your eyes, but you just can’t.  And even if you do, you’re peeking between your fingers.  And at some point you scream at the TV, “DON’T OPEN THAT DOOR!”

You might not actually scream, but when it comes to that moment, you want to, right?
What makes grown adults’ hands grow clammy,  breaths grow short, and hearts race? 

One word:  Suspense.

We all love the experience, don’t we?

To illustrate the point: Don’t you just hate it when someone is telling a great story, or even a funny joke, and then just before it’s done, another person who knows the ending, or the punchline just blurts it out?  It makes the people in the room want to assassinate that person with throw pillows, doesn’t it?

We all love the rush of watching or reading (in the safety of our living rooms or beds) someone else facing danger, dismemberment, or certain death.  Some of us love the feeling of not knowing whether our hero or heroine will survive the impending event.

But what makes this experience so good?  It’s not the shock of something completely unexpected.  True, some of us love that, it’s the thrill of sudden danger.  Some don’t like shocks, though and prefer knowing what is lying beyond that door.  It’s being a step ahead of our heroine, watching her unknowingly turn the doorknob to the door behind which she heard something fall.  And all along, we know, we see the ax-murdered, weapon poised, waiting for her to enter. 

Just as she turns the doorknob, and the door creaks open…

Cut to a commercial break!  (Nooo!!)

Or the chapter ends and though your eyes are red and sore from sleep deprivation, you can’t help but turn the page.  Only, the next chapter is a different character’s subplot.  And if your friendly neighborhood author has done his/her job well, this chapter will leave off on yet another cliff hanger.  Before you know it, you’re following 2-3 different story lines, the chapters of which all leave you literally hanging from a ledge. 

Now since you can’t possibly sleep knowing that three of your favorite characters are about to face certain disaster—AND each chapter is really only 2-3 pages, so it will not take long to get to the next fix—er.. I mean chapter—you might as well read “just one more chapter.”

It’s now 4AM, and you haven’t put the book down.  You figure, it’s too late to get enough sleep anyway, you’ll probably just call in sick (ah, yes—brilliant idea!)  That way, you can just finish the darn book without interruption, right?

The whole point of suspense, be it in film or on the written page, is to keep your audience on their toes, addicted to the story, and coming back for more.  As a writer, we can’t give our readers just what they think they want (resolution) until the story is over.  The moment you resolve anything, it’s over.

In my books, I like to resolve conflicts only to crack open another bigger complication.  So while my reader thinks something is going to be resolved, and indeed, it may be—it’s really only a teaser to a bigger problem. I keep doing this till the climax (deny resolution almost to the point of delightful frustration) then make sure the payoff is huge.  I want my readers to feel emotionally, even physically drained at the end of my books, and yet satisfied. 

If I’ve done my job well, they are going to want more.

DISCLAIMER:  I am not responsible for any parallels you may draw from the analogies in this post.  Any such comparisons stem from your own imagination, for better or worse :) , and yet, if I evoked imagery or emotional memories of things other than the superficial meanings of my words, then perhaps I have done my job again.

Guest post by Joshua Graham. Joshua Graham is the award winning author of the #1 Amazon and Barnes & Noble legal thriller BEYOND JUSTICE.  His latest book DARKROOM won a First Prize award in the Forward National Literature award and was an award-winner in the USA Book News “Bests Books 2011” awards.

Connect with Josh at the following:


Joshua Graham


  1. Great post Joshua! Writing a good suspense is certainly a delicate balancing act.


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