1. Long sentences - (1) writers create a list of fearful or worrying details, which creates an overwhelming, claustrophobic or intense feeling. (2) Writers build suspense by leaving the most shocking thing to the end of a long sentence. + Get more on how to build tension through sentence construction here.
2. Short sentences - punchy dramatic or abrupt facts are delivered in a shocking way that visually stands out. This can be particularly shocking after a long sentence.
3. Fragments - an incomplete sentence. Sometimes this gives the effect of confusion, ragged thoughts. The incompleteness of the utterance or phrase can create mystery, which increases suspense.
e.g. My leg!
Here, we know something's very wrong with his leg, but we don't know what.
4. Create mystery by giving incomplete information. Writers often give characters' reactions, before letting you know what happened, i.e. emotions, mood or reactions first, then facts.
e.g. Everything was still, silent. My thoughts raced madly. (but we still don't know how badly he's injured).
5. Exciting, uncommon and dynamic verbs create a sense of danger. This may also use onomatopoeia to create a violent effect:
e.g. hit, saw, facing, locked, struck, shattering, bones splitting, screamed, catapulted, slid, thought, felt, confused, ripped, couldn't, screamed, jerked.
6. In the first person, we feel very close to the danger, as if we're experiencing it too. Writers may include characters' thoughts.
7. The present tense e.g. running, or runs. This makes it feel as if it's happening right now.
8. Fear/action/violence contrasted with silent pause. This builds a foreboding (ominous) mood, as if something bad is about to happen. Do this in your own writing and see how effective it is. It's like varying short and long sentences.
9. Vary focus, zoom in on different aspects: Here's a summary of how Touching the Void by Joe Simpson, varies the pace by zooming in on different aspects. I've broken a passage down into chunks in the order in which they appear.
1. character falls down hill bodily: external action / powerlessness
2. character thoughts: internal action
3. character pain: internal action
4. describes setting/ objects around him: zoom out to set events in context
5. analysis of situation: shows significance of danger, i.e. he will die if he can't solve this - reader is emotionally invested
6. he tries to escape: external action / struggle
7. he thinks about how people will feel when they find his mangled body: this refocuses on danger/death
Now you know how to create suspense!
The author, Melanie Kendry, is an Oxford graduate, outstanding-rated English Language and Literature teacher and of ages 10-18 in the British education system. In 2012, she was nominated for Pearson's Teaching Awards. As a private tutor, she raises grades often from C to A. Her writing is also featured in The Huffington Post. She offers private tuition in the Haywards Heath area, West Sussex.