Suspense doesn't always mean heart-pounding action. By definition, suspense is “a state or feeling of excited or anxious uncertainty about what may happen.”
Which is precisely what you want to create in your reader. Every time.
If you're like me, suspense can seem difficult—or even impossible—to create. You're trying to make your reader grip your book just a little tighter with every page. Maybe even sweat a little bit. But there's a sneaking suspicion in the back of your mind telling you, “They're not worried.”
How are you supposed to do that without shouting, “YOU SHOULD BE WORRIED!” to your reader?
There's a lot of complicated advice about suspense out there, but it doesn't have to be so mysterious. It really comes down to one simple trick. And thankfully, it's not hard. In fact, the toughest part about it is just remembering it.
So what's the trick?
Let's dive into how to use this trick to create nail-biting suspense in your reader and make your story impossible to put down.
What is Foreshadowing?
Simply put, foreshadowing is a promise to your reader that things are going to go wrong.
A shadow of something isn’t the thing itself. In the same way, foreshadowing is nothing but the hint of a threat and not the threat itself.
Foreshadowing is nothing but the hint of a threat and not the threat itself.
Foreshadowing is the dancing shadow that creeps along the wall, assuring us that the monster casting it will soon appear around the corner. As long as your readers see nothing but the shadow, you hold them in gripping suspense, daring them to turn the pages.
As long as your readers see nothing but the shadow, you hold them in gripping suspense, daring them to turn the pages.
This isn’t just for suspense or thriller writing—this applies to every genre imaginable. Every story has a premise where something awful can happen, and foreshadowing is your promise to the reader that it will indeed happen. In a romantic story, the promised disaster could be another woman. In a drama, it could be a well-liked character’s death.
Now that we know what foreshadowing is, keep that thought in mind—we'll come back to it in a minute.
Plan the Disaster in Advance
Before you can foreshadow, you need something to foreshadow in the first place! Enter: the Promised Disaster.
The Promised Disaster is the terrible thing that will happen if the protagonist, your main character, doesn't get what they need in time. And it can’t just be a random disaster ... it must be directly opposed to the protagonist’s most urgent need.
The key to the Promised Disaster is actually fulfilling it. If you make a bunch of weighty threats to your protagonist but nothing ever comes of it, your reader can't trust you. You have to prove that your foreshadowing isn't all bluff—there really is a monster around the corner, and you have to prove it.
Always remind yourself—and your reader—that the Promised Disaster will happen. Probably not in the exact way that you promised it (after all, your protagonist does win in the end) but enough to prove that yes, you weren't joking. The threat was real. The disaster was inevitable.
Drop Lots of Hints
Constantly make your reader guess whether or not the Promised Disaster will happen.
You do that by dropping constant hints that it probably will.
You’re writing a short parable about an ordinary clerk who witnesses something suspicious about one of his regular customers.
While your hero never witnesses the customer doing something illegal, there are warning signs that worry him. Maybe this customer has a faint stain of blood around his wrists, as if he didn’t wash it all off from his hands. Maybe there’s a disturbing tattoo poking out from under his collar.
It’s not a disaster. But it sure does hint towards one.
Whatever the signs, they should be clear—but not totally conclusive. Foreshadowing must be more than a character saying, “I have a bad feeling about this.” (Of course, I'm not saying you can't use that line—Star Wars famously used it multiple times—but you must do more than just a statement of worry. There should be demonstrated cause for concern.)
There should be demonstrated cause for concern.
You need to give your reader a bad feeling, with specific clues and evidence like the ones listed earlier. In fact, you want to scatter in as many clues as possible, even if a few are red herrings. Keep your readers guessing!
You want to give the reader enough information that they begin to imagine the possibilities, but not enough to give them the answers.
Make the Disaster Happen to Someone Else
Want to prove how bad this Promised Disaster is? Introduce your protagonist to a character it's already happened to.
Let's say the protagonist is on a dangerous mission into space. Right before takeoff, he meets a wan, glassy-eyed man in a wheelchair. Turns out that this man was the captain of the last mission. What's more, his personality was just like your protagonist and the mission was identical. But his trip was doomed and disaster struck, leaving him mentally and physically handicapped—destroyed.
If it happened to that guy, won't it happen to your protagonist? That's the implicit question, and it works every time. Your reader will draw the obvious connection between the past disaster and the Promised Disaster, and feel like there's no way the hero is escaping this. Voila: suspense!
Who should be worried?
A fair question to ask—should my protagonist be worried? And if so, how worried? Here’s a general rule of thumb, which is my particular opinion: The reader should be more worried than the protagonist.
If that means that the protagonist isn’t worried at first, fine. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Don’t avoid showing some concern in your protagonist—they probably should be worried. Maybe even really worried. The choice is yours.
How do you make your reader worry more than your protagonist?
It will happen naturally if you make your protagonist likable. The reader will care about them and naturally worry about them. It’s easier than you think. Anytime you put a likable character in a worrisome scenario, your readers will worry, even if the character is staying strong.
Promise That It's Coming Soon
Let's say that foreshadowing is the trailer for the movie. Like a trailer, it needs to end with, "Coming soon." Or, better yet, the actual date.
Never drop a foreshadowing hint without implying that the threat is coming soon.
Let's say that Gary, a bearer of bad news to your protagonist, just told her that the villain swore he'd kill her.
That's decent foreshadowing, but we can do better. Let's give the threat a deadline.
“He swore he'll kill you,” Gary said. He munched his peeling lower lip. “Before Christmas.”
Don't give your protagonist—or your reader—time to relax. When you promise that something bad's going to happen, tell us that it's happening soon. And giving it a date, a time, or a deadline just makes it all the more serious.
What to Remember
So, to wrap it up:
Suspense is created by a technique called foreshadowing
In order to foreshadow, you need an actual threat to back it up: the Promised Disaster
The Promised Disaster can't be an empty threat—it has to happen, albeit in an unexpected way
Drop lots of hints that it will probably happen .... Keep your reader guessing!
Show how the disaster wrecked someone else who's just like the protagonist
Worry your reader more than your protagonist
Give the Promised Disaster a deadline and make it soon
It takes practice, sensible editing, and honest feedback to create page-turning suspense. If you're unsure how to apply these tips to your story, don't be shy about asking advice! Drop a comment below to get advice from me and the other writers on this site.