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How To Create A Feeling Of Suspense In Your Story

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I’ll be writing about the video How To Build Suspense – Writing Advice and Tips for authors and screenwriters, from the writing advice series I’m doing on YouTube with Jonathan McKinney.

If you are writing a scary story, or a thriller or a mystery, suspense is one of the key things you need to make your story appealing to your audience. It will keep them excited and intrigued so they will want to stay with you and keep watching or reading to the end. I’ll be explaining the technique to use to build suspense in your story, and referencing 13 Reasons Why, Season 3.

Questions Build Suspense

The best way to build suspense is to give your characters, and your audience, questions about your story that you then delay answering. Slowly, through your story, your audience and your characters, will start to learn the truth as you drip feed the answers they want.

When you’re posing these questions, such as who killed someone and why, you have to make sure you live up to the promise you make to answer most of them.

Leaving some unanswered questions is fine—things that leave your audience pondering when the story has finished—but most should all be answered. Answering them slowly and strategically is key to suspense. Not answering them at all is the key to being irritating.

Whodunit

If you look at a mystery story as an example, you’ll likely have one central question: your “whodunit” question. Who, or what, is responsible for this murder? It won’t necessarily be a murder in the centre of your story, but I’ll use that as an example here.

      That “whodunit” question will be what occupies the mind of your Protagonist so much that they change their behaviour and set about finding the answer through the course of your story.

From the initial “whodunit” question, you then spread out to more questions that dominate your story:

Who killed the guy?

Why did he kill the guy?

What did he use to kill the guy?

Where did he kill the guy?

Who was the guy connected to?

Who witnessed the guy being killed?

These questions can spread and spread out from that central “whodunit” question that your story pivots on, and through the story you slowly reveal the answers, building up the tension and pressure to find out more answers. As you reveal certain answers, more questions can spring up. Keep the questions coming, and make your audience desperate for the answers.

Suspense In 13 Reasons Why

An excellent example of this slow question answering to build suspense around a murder is in 13 Reasons Why, Season 3. If you’ve not seen it, this next section will contain spoilers.

The season surrounds the central question of who killed Bryce. Slowly through the story you start to learn details, such as that he was murdered and other people were on the scene, which give you more questions. These questions build up, you learn that some characters have answers to some of the questions, whilst others know the answers to others.

As the story moves forward, you learn some of these answers, you’re ahead of some characters and behind others and you keep asking more. All these questions pivot around the central “whodunit” question.

The suspense is built throughout this season until you reach the final episode, because slowly you’re learning answers as the pressure builds so you’re constantly waiting and eager for more, and desperate for the final answer. Who killed Bryce?

Build Suspense Around One Central Question

Placing one central question to hang your story off, then surrounding that question by a spiderweb of other questions to answer as the story moves forward, is how to build up your story suspense.

Making sure you answer these questions, slowly but surely, is one difference between suspense and confusion. You want your audience to be desperate for answers because they’re intrigued, not because they’re confused.

So, remember, ask a big central question, pose several other questions around that central question that you slowly answer through the story, so your audience gets more and more desperate for the final big answer, and that is how you’ll write suspense.

You can find more writing advice on our YouTube channel where we’ll help you become a better and more confident writer. If you have any writing questions, comment below and we will try to do a video for every question we get. If you’ve found my work helpful, please consider dropping me a tip in my Paypal tip jar to help me keeping bringing you free writing advice!

how to write suspense, JJ Barnes Writing Advice
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JJBarnes

I'm author, writer, screenwriter and filmmaker. I've always been passionate about stories, both on the page and on the screen, and now I'm lucky enough that I've been able to turn that passion into a career.

Myfirst novel, Lilly Prospero And The Magic Rabbit was the first release from Siren stories and launched the Siren Stories Universe (the SSU). Now there are multiple stories, on page and screen, all connected and exploring the world I first began to develop all those years ago. Find all my books here.

Hollowhood, the first independent film from myself and my writing partner, Jonathan McKinney, is currently in post-production. Making my own film has been an incredible experience and only affirmed my love of all things to do with film. From the camera to the costumes, I will always love everything about being on set.

As well as releasing my own stories, I'm hoping to spread love and passion for the art of story telling to others, by guiding you through different aspect of writing. I do a series of Writing Advice videos for adults, and a Creative Writing For Kids series, both on YouTube. I'm also releasing regular Writing Advice blog posts explaining different writing techniques and advice for how to get the most out of your writing experience.

Other than writing, my life is mostly spent with my partner, Jonathan McKinney, our three children, Rose, Ezekiel and Buffy, and our extremely foolish Springer Spaniel, Molly.

I love reading books, watching TV, and falling asleep during movies. When Jon comes to bed he usually finds me face down with my face on a book, or hiding under the duvet waiting for him to protect me because I've got myself in a dither reading a ghost story.

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