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JJ Barnes – Writing Advice

Free writing advice – writers supporting writers

By - JJBarnes

How To Write Suspense

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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.

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

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:

  1. who killed the guy?
  2. why did he kill the guy?
  3. what did he use to kill the guy?
  4. where did he kill the guy?
  5. who was the guy connected to?
  6. 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.

An excellent example of this slow question answering to build suspense around a murder is in Thirteen 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 questions. These questions build up, you learn that some characters have answers to some of the questions, others have answers to other questions. Slowly through the story 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.”

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 question of who murdered Bryce to be answered.

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 the 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!

Click the picture to find details about all the books written by JJ Barnes and where to buy them.

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