Elements Authors Use to Build the Intense Suspense

Elements Authors Use to Build the Intense Suspense

You’ve just tossed a handful of popcorn into your mouth when “Bam!” the killer jumps out of the closet. You jump, choke, and rush to the kitchen for a cool drink to clear the cough and curb your adrenaline.

While that movie success is the result of a million-dollar budget, authors don’t have that luxury. Sure, they want the same results, but they only have two dimensions, one sense, and a very small budget to work with.

So, how do authors build intense suspense and achieve a similar visceral response in their reader? Through use of the following elements:

Plot: In a good heart-pounding suspense, there’s a push and pull between antagonist and protagonist. All killer genres evoke danger, tension, and twists, but a thriller will bring the fight or bold conflict scenes. In a thriller, the protagonist’s (hero’s) life is threatened by the antagonist (villain) and the hero must defeat the villain to survive. Good versus evil, as in Luke Skywalker versus Darth Vader, Batman versus the Joker, or Bilbo Baggins versus Sauron in The Lord of the Rings. Suspense plots often build gradually, and the source of the tension is not discovered until the very end. This, like a mystery or crime novel, gives the author a chance to create a cleverly disguised antagonist who’s plugging along with the rest of the characters until voilà, they are finally unmasked.

Pace: Unraveling of a story plot is either fast or slow. For example, suspense novels usually start out slow and then ramp up to a fast-paced climax. In the words of Oscar Wilde, “This suspense is terrible. I hope it will last,” and it does. While there’s ongoing tension, anxiety, uncertainty, and a looming threat, the ultimate confrontation is often delayed as long as possible. On the other hand, a thriller often has an even faster pace. It’s expected that the pace of the book will be swift with lots of twists and turns. It’s been said the thrillers thrill and suspense builds, which is also a great way to delineate the two.

Character: In a thriller there is a clear antagonist (or more than one). This character may come in the form of a serial killer or a deadly tornado, but you know who the “bad guy” is. Sometimes you even get in the head of the villain when the author tells a chapter or scene from their perspective. In a crime, mystery, or detective novel, you may get the antagonist’s perspective, but that’s not always the case. But knowing something has happened, a crime has been committed, the suspense grows until the mystery is solved. Any good suspense read couples the overarching threat with one personal to the character. They’re battling their own demons and maybe even that in a relationship with another character, and the reader gets resolution only when the character’s arc happens. In other words, they grow—personally and professionally. Because they don’t rest until the villain is stopped and their job is done.

Through use of these elements, in combination with a creative mind and heartfelt effort, an author can turn an interesting read into a riveting one.

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