On Writing Suspense | Guest Post

Many years ago, when I first began writing, I wrote historical fiction. In fact, I was persuaded I could only write books set in the American Civil War period—which, at that point in life, might’ve been true. Those “novels” were my only successful stories. (Though how you determine successful is probably different from how my eleven-year-old self determined success—I reached page one hundred and called it done.) But fast forward several years, and here I sit, an author of romantic suspense/thrillers. (And yes, I must tack on the thriller part, because it sounds cool.) 

Now, much quality advice exists out there on writing suspense, and today, I’m just going to give you a few ideas that hopefully get those creative juices flowing (and up that suspense level in your novels!)

Villains: Add More

Okay, hear me out. One villain works. He can be desperately horrible and cause all sorts of pain and tension for your MC, but what if you had more than one? (And not just a henchman, though those guys are useful, too.) These villains can be connected to each other yet hold different motivations for their actions, or they can be entirely independent of each other. Either can work. 😊

Let me give you an example. In my most recent novel, Untold, my MC had a slew of people after him: the American government, the Russian government, the main villain, and a more personal villain. The governments give you that wide-sweeping threat—think dystopian novels—but the latter two are more popular in suspense books. I especially enjoy the last one—the personal villain, as I’m calling him. (Don’t quote me on that weird title.) This personal villain in Untold wasn’t just a random bad dude after my MC—he had once been a teammate, best friend, and now he was a betrayer. So there was not just the threat of harm from this villain, but the threat of all those difficult memories and emotions that make things even more fun for authors. (And worse for the poor characters.)

Make ’Em Sweat

I know it’s cool to have characters who are special forces or super spies or fearless EMTS (or all of those wrapped up into one brilliant person.) I know. I’m guilty of this, too. But sometimes, let your characters be average people—aka an office worker. A teacher. A musician. A basket-weaver. Something that won’t let them get out of gnarly plots with their mad self-defense and espionage skills.

In my own experience, I enjoyed writing the MC in Untold, who was an ex-CIA officer. I got pretty gung-ho on utilizing his special knowledge to get him and his friends out of scrapes. But I also loved writing the MC in Unknown (the first book in the series), who was a normal guy who worked in a sales department. There’s something really gripping about writing normal characters in outrageous, terrifying situations. I can relate more to Gabe, my sales department worker, than I can relate to Nikolai, my spy, in those crazy action scenes. And I think most people who read my books do as well. (Unless they’re super spies themselves, which would be sorta cool.) 

Make Your Characters Important

Finally, a lot of suspense books get a bad rap because the action/plot feels more important than the characters. And I understand that—I’ve read books where the characters felt sort of like pawns moving through an intricate web. I understand some people prefer a heavier emphasis on plot than characters (which is totally fine!), but I maintain that to have an excellent plot, you need excellent characters your readers can relate to.

So establish your characters before, during, and after all that action. (My favorite method is to establish the characters while the threat is simply looming or has yet to increase—then your readers will root for the character throughout all the following drama!) And use that action to develop character. Those suspenseful moments are beautiful spots to show who your characters really are—in real life, those times of extreme stress tear the lies away to show who’s really there. In the end, readers crave connection between characters and themselves – make sure your characters are just as important as the plot.

So there you go—three simple tips for increasing the suspense and intrigue of your thrillers. But even if you’re not into writing that type of book, this advice can also be used for other genres. Because every book needs a little suspense here and there, yes? 😉

Vanessa Hall is an author, musician, and homeschool graduate. Most days, she is reading, writing, or practicing the violin—or trying to find time for all three pursuits. Currently, she is working toward gaining a degree in instrumental music education. Unknown is her debut novel. Above all, she is a sinner saved and held fast by the abounding grace of Jesus Christ.

You can find her amazing blog here! Sign up for her newsletter here.

Your turn!

Do you write suspense into your stories? What are your favorite tips? What was your favorite tip from this post?

Blessings, Allyson


8 thoughts on “On Writing Suspense | Guest Post

  1. AHHH I LOVE THIS!!! Thank you for all these fabulous tips, Vanessa! Ah, more than one villain… *nods* I shall remember that. I love what you said about each villain having different motivations – that makes for such a delicious mess of conflicts! (Poor characters, haha!) And that’s so true about those average people being more relatable in those high-stakes situations. I love that about your books, how each one has a more average character (like Molly in Untold, Sasha in Unworthy, etc). Though, of course, it IS super cool to read about those people with special skills. 😜

    Thank you for having Vanessa on your blog, Allyson! 😀 ❤

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, I agree with you! I loved these tips on suspense!! And having more than one villian… Oh yeah. 😎😂 I may or may not have more than one in my own story, lol.

      You’re welcome! Thanks for reading!! 💙

      Liked by 1 person


    (Also, Vanessa, I am totally a super spy in my Other Life outside the blog. 😝)

    These tips were just soooooooooooooooo good!!!!!! It’s giving me SO many ideas for the suspense/thriller subplot in my current WIP. (And yes, I do agree that thriller just sounds SO much more fun to say. Plus, I wouldn’t hesitate to call your books a thriller because they are VERY gripping, more so than a lot of suspense novels I’ve read!) My favorite tip is probably adding more villains! I’ve never thought of that before, but like it makes SO much sense how this would make everything much more suspenseful! *rubs hands togetherly eagerly* I will DEFINITELY be using these tips!! THANK YOU SO MUCH for sharing!!!!

    (*sobbing because I love Unknown and Nikolai and Gabe and Sophie and Molly and all the other Russians in this series so much*)

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I’m so glad you enjoyed it so much, Issabelle!! I know, weren’t all of her tips just great?! I loved reading them as well. Thanks so much for reading and stopping by! 💙

      Liked by 1 person

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