I am writing my first legitimate fantasy (all the other fantasies I have written are short stories or practice.) The biggest roadblock for me is creating suspense and tension. All of the points where I want to create tension seem very boring and don't have much real suspense. 2 excerpts:

The guards tossed Von into the cage, locked the door, and walked away, laughing to each other as they turned out of sight.

Von was only trying to protect Rho, as he was carted off to the mines, where no man has ever returned alive, for complaining.

It was his fault. He was the one who ate that cucumber, which, by Socline standards, was a delicacy. He should have known that Rho, being Rho, would be jealous and complain.

Something moved in his cage.

He was so deep in grief that he didn't notice it at first, but when it dropped to the ground, it was to his horror.

A spider the size of his head, with yellow stripes across its disgusting, hairy back. It was a Forncombius, the deadliest spider in the empire.

(I am trying to create some suspense in the time when he is contemplating and he notices the spider.)

The newcomer casually walked out.

Lacerta had never tasted anything other than tasteless soup before, and the food of a nobleman was better than she could imagine.

The newcomer who had gave it to them had asked them to escape. Absurd. As much as she wanted to, how could they escape with Master Einsun and his nighttime fieldmast-

Somebody burst through the door, gasping for breath. Lacerta could barely recognize her with the redness of her face and the sweat that covered it, but Lacerta could tell that she was one of the master's entertainers.

"What is it? Why are you not with the-"

"They're dead. The master. His nighttime fieldmasters. They're all dead."

Lacerta, through the one window, spotted the newcomer, the stupidest smile on her face, her black hair flying in the cold winter wind, before she disappeared into the night.

New times indeed.

I can't seem to make passages similar to these 2 more suspenseful. Could I get some objective pointers on how to create and amplify suspense?

P.S. I am not looking for critique. These excerpts are for context.

  • 1
    Suspense is coming from anticipation, not from the action. In your excerpt 1, if it was totally dark in the cell, and Von was only able to hear his "cellmate", that would have created suspense - up until the moment that Von would recognize the danger and started to act. P.S. I know we are not supposed to give critique, so your question is in danger of being closed.
    – Alexander
    Jul 6 at 21:59

It would be presumptuous for me to offer advice on this, but I would suggest that there's a vast literature of suspenseful novels, e.g. Poe, Conan Doyle, and many, many others since them. You can't do better than to read the masters, and make notes for yourself on how they do it.

They don't even have to be novels. Suspenseful movies like Hitchcock's will also give you a sense of how suspense is built.

Your excerpts don't have suspense. Things happen to people, but we don't know what the people were expecting, nor how they felt or what they were thinking about when the things happened. The tension should come from the character wondering what something means or what's going to happen, so the reader can share their POV.


One of the best and most concise pointers to building suspense is Philip Pullman's distinction between surprise and suspense in 'Daemon Voices'.

In his essay, 'Let's Write it in Red: The Practice of Writing', he writes:

It really does help to know that surprise is the precise opposite of suspense, for example. Surprise is when something happens that you don’t expect: suspense is when something doesn’t happen that you do expect. Surprise is when you open a cupboard and a body falls out. Suspense is when you know there’s a body in the cupboard – but not which cupboard. So you open the first door and… no, not that one. And up goes the suspense a notch.

In my own work on story structure (The Unknown Storyteller project, in which I apply the undeservedly little-known work of George Spencer-Brown to the analysis of story structure), I've identified a dynamic structure that is ideal for building suspense.

Marie Louise von Franz describes it as '1,2,3,Bang!'

I map it to the saying attributed to Julius Caesar: 'I came, I saw, I conquered' (veni, vidi, vici). It's catchy. It's memorable, and it points to the essential qualities you need to build suspense.

Think of it:

Why did Caesar set off in the first place? Because he heard a rumour - a piece of gossip - a report - it sets up a need for verification. There's doubt. There's uncertainty. This is the first element needed to build suspense.

When he arrived, what happened? He was able to verify - to confirm or negate - the truth of the rumour for himself. There's realisation. There's acceptance. And there's a clear need to act. This is the second element needed to build suspense.

What happens next? Previously there was confirmation/negation. Now, there's assertion or denial. Confirmation/negation are internal; assertion/denial, external. He takes swift, decisive action, and change occurs. Things are never the same again. The suspense has to build to a dénouement - one which ideally brings with it a new feeling of doubt, which sets up a new cycle of suspense.

In Pullman's example, you know there's a body in a cupboard and what's assumed but not stated is that there's a need to find it (the rumour/doubt phase - leading to the the veni phase). The search proceeds (leading to the vidi phase). The absence of the body is discovered (the presence is denied; the absence asserted). There's often a 'try, try, try again' loop in such sequences. Finally, the body is found (or something happens to prevent its discovery). This is the vici phase. Doubt is eliminated. But what happens next?

Nailbiters build and nest these cycles, finally resolving multiple patterns in close succession or in tandem towards the end of the work.

Knowing where you want to get to at the end of a cycle or group of cycles is extremely useful. You can then delay the fulfilment, and rack up the tension by creating more resistance in the way you structure events, the way you present them, and in the quality of the events themselves.


Suspense is distinctive to other types of writing

Writing suspense is very different from writing other genres. It has features that do not come naturally to most writers. For instance, Writer's Digest defines the difference between suspense/thriller, mystery, and horror as:

"In a mystery you might find out that a person was beheaded. This occurs before the narrative begins, so the focus of the story is on solving the crime. If you’re writing a horror story, you’ll show the beheading itself—in all of its gory detail. If you’re writing suspense, the characters in the story will find out that someone is going to be beheaded, and they must find a way to stop it."

This means, rather than shocking the reader or keeping secrets from them, you put your cards on the table, tell them the world is in the balance and make it likely it will go down the drain.

One good example of suspense done in this way is the James Bond series. We know from the start or very early on the villain will try to end the world and only Bond can save it...

Use your characters

You use your characters to create suspense by making the reader care for them and then put them in danger.

You make the antagonist into a supervillain. A super character with super abilities so we start wondering if even Bond will be able to stop them. (Ok, when I say super, I don't mean batman or superman, I mean a super character as in a super skilled, smart, determined character...)

Of course, such an antagonist also requires a skilled and impressive protagonist.

In fact, if you want to make the reader care for your characters you need to spend serious time making all of them great.

Make promises

Creating suspense is all about promising the reader all hell will break loose.

In fact, to create great suspense, spend more time promising violence and destruction than actually doling it out. And make big promises of physical danger as early as possible in the text.

Of course, you need to keep every single one of your promises (unless the protagonist can stop the antagonist, but they should only barely be able to do that).

If you don't keep your promises, you'll burst the suspenseful bubble...

But the mayhem does not have to start in chapter 2, only you need to convince the reader that before the end it will come.

Promises can be direct or they can be made using foreshadowing.

Another great tool for making promises is the cliffhanger.

Show the reader what will happen

As mentioned above, suspense is created by showing the reader all the risks and horrors that lie ahead, rather than keeping them secret or springing them on the reader for shock effect.

Put all the cards on the table and increase reader anxiety by showing exactly what will happen.

That does, of course not mean your main character must always know about the dangers. Only the reader.

This does open up the risk of making the story predictable, which requires fantastical villains and heroes that will attack and parry in a deadly dance throughout the novel always keeping the reader wondering how on earth the protagonist will counter the antagonist's attacks and then watch in astonished horror as the protagonist's best thought out plans are ruined by another brilliant riposte from the antagonist.

Use many perspectives to show all the risks. You can even use the omniscient perspective to great advantage when writing suspense.

Let the characters tell the reader about their plans and thus foreshadowing that there will be problems.

Conflicts, risks, pressure, and problems

Use time pressure and deadlines to increase pressure and conflict.

Make sure the cost of failure is as high as possible.

Sharpen the main conflict and every other conflict in the novel to be as sharp as it can possibly be.

While you should show the reader what will happen in order to create suspense, you should also try to be unpredictable.

This can be done by adding surprising twists and turns but also by never letting any plan survive the first contact with reality. If your characters don't think to develop a plan B, make them regret it, and if they do, make them fall back to plan C or D.

As the novel progresses towards the climax, increase the pressure, complicate things, and subject the characters to dilemmas and force them to choose between two evils.

Showing suspense

To show suspense limit violence and work with the promise of violence instead.

Spend extra time polishing suspenseful scenes and spend extra words on them. Draw it out!

The perfect suspense story builds tension higher and higher until it explodes in the climactic moment.

This, however, can cause problems if the suspense doesn't last the whole way and bores the reader, or if the suspense can be kept high, it will also be too much and finally become background noise.

To solve this vary the level of suspense, for instance by dividing the conflict into steps with smaller victories and losses as the story takes each step.

Use character thoughts (internal emotion) to bring up problems and causes for worry to make sure the reader also worries.

Create an air of foreboding to increase suspense.

Further reading

In semi-order of "importance":

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