7 Ways to Build Suspense

This post was originally posted by the late John Yeoman on October 4, 2012.  His title was “Seven Simple Ways to Build Suspense.”  John’s website http://www.writers-village.org has been disabled.


How many ways can you hang a page? Or a scene? Or a chapter? That old ploy, the cliffhanger, has made a comeback of late in the penny dreadfuls of Dan Brown. Every episode ends upon a note of intrigue, horror or mystery to entice us to turn the page.

His counterpart in melodrama Kathy Reichs uses so many hangers – around three per scene – that she must pluck them out of a database.

Can we use page hangers without appearing to be formulaic? 

Yes! (Please turn my page. I shall reveal the secrets soon…)

Essentially, hangers are a reprise of the Victorian three-deck novel that was delivered in monthly instalments. Each instalment ended with a little advertisement for the next one. How ever would our hero escape from that flooded cellar and those hungry red-eyed rats?

Not every novel calls for hangers, of course. If the plot itself contains enough momentum there’s no need to shake the reader awake after every episode. (If the plot doesn’t, fix the plot.)

That said, the ploy is useful when the scene shifts into a different point of view or sub plot. It buys the author time. We’ll put up with a lot of digressions if we’re sure that the mystery defined by the page hanger will be resolved a chapter or two later.

Here are seven basic page hangers and how to use them in your story to create suspense.

In fact, the list is endless! In our advanced story program, the Writers’ Village Academy, you’ll find no fewer than 31 different kinds of hanger plus worked illustrations. (And those merely scratch the surface.)

  1. The seamless transition.

This is not so much a hanger as a link between sub-plots. One character sets the scene, suspensefully, for another character to appear. S/he then introduces a further plot thread.

‘“Uh, huh, look who’s coming.”

“I thought Bill was on holiday.”

“Never trust good news.”

The man who entered looked like a bank vault, but was not as pretty.’

At once, Bill is on the set and characterised as a Bad Guy. The transition is seamless. We can look forward to a new episode, filled with conflict.

  1. The blatant hanger.

‘If only I had known!’ Today this long-whiskered hanger is best reserved for children’s stories where its young audience might still find it thrilling. It’s also dangerous. It throws the reader right out of the time line.

‘I kissed her hand. I waved her goodbye. I could not have known that it was the last time I would ever see her.’

Indeed, how does the narrator know it, unless the entire story is related from some perspective in the future? Best make that perspective clear at the start.

  1. The helpful environment.

Any element in a scene set can be given a symbolic meaning to hint, in the last paragraph, at interesting things to come. Typically, this foreshadowing is ominous:

‘The clock began its relentless tick to midnight.’

But it doesn’t have to be:

‘The sun emerged at last. It was going to be a perfect day.’

  1. The rhetorical question.

Highlight any intriguing question – it need not be integral to the plot – and let the narrator ask that question of themselves or others.

‘What could be so odd about a luxury villa on sale at a distress price that nobody would even inspect it, let alone buy it?’

What, indeed? The reader lusts to know.

  1. Foreghosting by dialogue.

‘Foreghosting’ is a subtle form of foreshadowing. In this case, a character might sound a warning or make a cryptic prophecy.

‘“I’ll tell you one thing. You’re not going to like what you find in that room.”

What’s in that room? We’ll have to wait a few pages to find out.

  1. The reader knows more than the character does.

In any story, the reader usually knows more than the characters do, even if the tale is told by a first person narrator who has limited knowledge. We have a wider perspective. So we shiver if a scene ends:

‘“Don’t go on Morder Fell at night, master Brown. It changes in odd ways after dark.”

Changes? I laughed. I was a seasoned fell walker and I had no patience with the superstitions of the village.’

We enjoy the bumptious ignorance of master Brown. We know, simply from the context of the story, that he will soon meet a dreadful fate on Morder Fell…

  1. The ‘Perils of Pauline’ page hanger.

When tension mounts, you can introduce a temporary pause just before the climax by dropping in variations of these all-purpose hangers – then inserting a double carriage return:

‘I thought the day could get no worse. I was wrong.’

‘I looked where he pointed and my world fell apart.’

‘His next words sent ice up my spine.’

‘Suddenly, she felt very afraid/lost her appetite/the day seemed very cold…’

Of course, if you overdo such hangers your character is going to appear permanently on the edge of a nervous breakdown. Ration them to one per 20 pages!

Should we use page hangers?

It depends on our story. Subtle, they are not.

But page hangers still have their place in popular novels, not least in these days when our attention spans are programmed by the commercial breaks in television dramas. After ten minutes, or some 1500 words of text, we’re restless for variety, a shift in tone. A discreet page hanger switches us between scenes.

The trick is to vary our page hangers so creatively that the reader doesn’t notice them. Otherwise, they’re counterproductive. ‘Here comes another hanger,’ our reader will sigh. And they’ll put our story down.





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