08/29/2016 02:25 pm ET Updated Aug 30, 2017

Want to Write Better, More Suspenseful Fiction? This Is What You Need to Know

What are some tips for novice writers trying to create suspense in stories? originally appeared on Quora - the knowledge sharing network where compelling questions are answered by people with unique insights.

Answer by Peter Swanson, Crime Novelist, The Kind Worth Killing, on Quora:

Suspense is a tricky thing, because it is not simply a matter of creating a suspenseful situation. Otherwise we could all sit down and write a story about a crazed killer chasing a woman through the woods. It just doesn't work that way. First, we have to care about the woman. That doesn't mean we have to necessarily like her, but we need to know enough about her to make us care. It also helps, though not always, if we know a little bit about the maniac chasing her down. And another thing that helps is if those woods feel like real woods, because if the situation isn't happening in a world that feels real, or plausible, then why do we care?

Here are a few other tips that might help:

  • Surprise the reader. It sounds obvious, I know, but it's not always easy. Readers read a lot. They've seen it all. The best way to surprise the reader is to find a way to surprise your character. Throw something at them they never saw coming.
  • Write compelling characters. As I said above, that doesn't mean we have to like them, but if they are interesting and multi-faceted, the reader will want to know what they do next.
  • Don't start with the backstory, start with the action. Something needs to happen at the beginning of your story. Maybe it's something momentous: an intruder has entered someone's house. Or maybe it's something subtle: your main character's husband is suddenly smoking again years after he quit. Why is he lying about it? Is it significant? Either way, action will create suspense.
  • Switch perspectives. This is not always doable, but one of the ways to create suspense is to reveal information to the reader that the characters don't have, and one way to do that is to allow readers access into the heads of multiple characters. If your character is about to open a door, why not let your readers know that something very bad is on the other side? Again, this doesn't always work, but it's a nice trick.
  • Create mystery. This is crucial for suspense. Make readers want to figure out what is going on.

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