Are you in the process of writing a novel? Crime or suspense thriller? Or some other popular fiction you hope will grab readers attention? Besides a great character and a fascinating plot, you need to keep readers engaged and eagerly turning the pages. ALL genres of fiction, and not just thrillers, need tension and intrigue—and a certain amount of suspense. But how do you break away from other writers in your genre? You must ratchet up the tension, intrigue, and suspense. Create a fast-paced, nail-biting, page-turner. Okay, but how?
First, create a protagonist your readers will care about, and give him/her some worries and secrets. Make your hero or heroine intriguing and complex, clever, and resourceful. But not perfect. Perfect is too boring and you’ll lose your readers once they realize this. Make them vulnerable. Whether physical vulnerability or some inner conflict, regrets, and secrets. In most cases, you want your protagonist to be likeable too, or at least have some endearing traits to make readers worry about and want to root for. If readers can’t identify with or bond with your character, it’s pretty clear your story needs work.
Next you want to get up close and personal. Use deep point of view (first-person or third person) to get us into the head and body of your main character right from the opening paragraph. Show their thoughts, fears, hopes, frustrations, worries, and physical and sensory reactions in every scene. Most new writers want to start with opening their story with description, background info, or even flashbacks. Instead, open with action. It’s best to jumpstart your story with your lead interacting with someone else who matters to them, preferably with a bit of discord and tension. And show his/her inner thoughts and emotional reactions, maybe some frustration or anxiety. Give your character a problem to solve right from the start. This creates an early conflict that throws your lead off-balance and will make your readers worry about him/her. A worried reader is an engaged reader. Remember—act first, explain later.
Another way to create suspense is to withhold information. There’s no surprise for the reader if they know everything up front. This is so important and a common weakness for new fiction writers. Hold off on critical information. Give a hint of a traumatic or life-changing event early on. But reveal fragments of info about it little by little, through dialogue, thoughts, and brief flashbacks. This will keep your readers wondering and worrying—keeping your reader engaged as they need to know but have to read further.
Keep the story momentum moving forward. Don’t get bogged down in lengthy descriptions, backstory, or exposition. Keep the action and interactions moving ahead, especially in the first chapter. Dialogue is your best friend early on. This isn’t to say dialogue is not needed later on, but new writers tend to overuse narrative description. This usually results in a slower pace and bogs down the action.
Then introduce a significant, meaningful story problem for your protagonist. Now that your readers care about the main character, insert a major challenge, dilemma, goal, or threat within the first ten chapters, a big one that won’t be resolved until the end. The tension will keep the reader engaged throughout the story.
Every page needs some tension, even if it’s just doubt, questioning, disbelief, disagreement, suspicion, or resentment simmering below the surface. Add in tough choices and moral dilemmas. Devise ongoing difficult decisions and inner conflict for your lead character. Besides making your plot more suspenseful, this will also make your protagonist more complex, vulnerable, and intriguing.
Insert several plot twists. Readers are surprised and delighted when the events take a turn they never expected. Don’t let your readers become complacent, thinking it’s easy to figure out the ending, or they may stop reading. To keep the reader engaged, establish a sense of urgency, a tense mood, and generally fast pacing.
Utilize cliff-hangers. Put your hero or heroine in danger at the end of some chapters. This will incite reader curiosity and questions and compel them to go to the next chapter. James Patterson is a master of short chapters with lots of suspense that forces the reader to turn to the next chapter.
I hope you find these tips to be helpful.
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