Writing Suspense (part 1 of 2)

by Lillian Duncan

I love reading and writing suspense. No matter how hard I try to write something else, it always turns into a mystery or suspense. One agent suggested I write an Amish story since I live in Amish country but before the end of the first chapter, I had a dead body. What can I say?

First, let’s look at some definitions. These are my working definitions, and so you’re allowed to disagree.

MYSTERY is a story where the MCs are trying to discover who the murderer is. Somewhat slower paced than suspense but not by much (unless it’s a cozy mystery.)

SUSPENSE is a story where the MCs are trying to stop a murder. Often times the story starts with a murder, but it’s not necessary.

THRILLERS are a subgenre of suspense and usually include a conspiracy of some sort that will affect more than just the MCs. Political and Medical thrillers are common.

ROMANTIC SUSPENSE is a story where the romance between two MCs is as important as the mystery/suspense plot. Romantic suspense follows the same rules as romances, such as using the hero and heroine’s point of view.

There’s obviously a lot of overlap between these genres and sometimes it might be hard to figure out. One of my working definitions is when the main characters can keep their normal schedule as the story proceeds while they search for the killer, then it’s probably a mystery. When the main characters lives are interrupted because someone’s trying to kill them to stop them from exposing the truth throughout most of the story, it’s probably suspense.

My advice, don’t worry about it too much. Write your story then pick the genre you believe is closest. My stories are usually a mixture of mystery and suspense with a romantic subplot (different than romantic suspense.)

Now, let’s take a look at some of the elements of suspense writing.


Getting the right pacing in your suspense novel is crucial. Too slow and you’ll lose most of your readers. Too fast and you won’t get the depth and layering that makes for a better story.

  1. Keep the focus on the story. Every scene should be about the story, not what she had for dinner or how her workday was (unless someone tried to kill her).
  2. Fiction is the illusion of real life, not real life. Or as someone important once said “good fiction is life with the boring parts taken out.” (Might have been Alfred Hitchcock.) This is very true for suspense novels. We read suspense for the goosebumps and the worry—not to hear about their day.
  3. Build up the excitement and tension of the story. Suspense novels shouldn’t just be one explosion after another. There needs to be a story and a plot that makes sense. We want to root for the main characters and we can’t if we don’t get to know them. Readers need a break from all the action so they can breathe—just not for too long.
  4. Showing and Telling. I know you know all about showing not telling, but you should use both techniques in your suspense story. If the pace is too slow get rid of the telling parts and show. If you need to slow the pace a bit, throw in some telling.
  5. Short = faster pace. Long = slower pace.
  6. Cut the backstory. Backstory will kill the suspense in your suspense novel. If you must include backstory, do it in dribs and drabs not as in information dump.
  7. Limit description. If you want to write long beautiful descriptions of sunsets, pick another genre. Suspense is fast paced and it seems to get faster paced with each passing year. You need to include description, of course, but it should be done in such a way that it blends in with the action.


Using inappropriate vocabulary is one of my pet peeves as I critique other writers’ work or even when I’m reading for pleasure. The vocabulary you choose should enhance your story, not make the readers scratch their.heads and wonder what the writer is talking about.

  1. Vocabulary can help set the mood. Shrouded in darkness sets a much spookier mood than ‘the room was dark.’
  2. Don’t show how smart you are by using “ high-falutin” words. If I have to get the dictionary out and look up a word—it definitely stops the story and that’s not good.
  3. Vocabulary is especially important in dialogue. Let kids sound like kids, let a college professor sound like ….well, you get the idea.
  4. Technical vocabulary must be explained. If your story features an unusual profession or setting, then find a way to explain the technical terms to the reader. One technique is to have one character explain it to another character who isn’t familiar with the vocabulary.
  5. The dreaded foul language conundrum. Suspense and mysteries have bad guys—sometimes really bad guys. And yet some writers want to have them using what I consider silly terms, like “aw shucks” or “fiddlesticks.” Come on, let’s get real. Do you really think a serial killer would talk like that? On the other hand, I believe Christian Fiction should be different from the general market.

The way I deal with it is to leave out the specific oaths and simple tell the reader they cursed. James Scott Bell says he writes them in to help with the realism and then takes them out as he edits. Sounds like a good way to do it if you want that edgy feel.

Be sure to stop by next Monday for more tips on writing suspense – including tips on avoiding overwriting and building tension.


Lillian Duncan lives in Ohio with her husband, four parrots, one Jack Russell, and a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel. She’s been a Speech Pathologist for over thirty years.

She writes the types of books she loves to read, suspense with a touch of romance. Whether as an educator, a writer, or a speech pathologist, she believes in the power of words to transform lives, especially God’s Word.

To learn more about Lillian and her books, visit: www.lillianduncan.net.

Her blog—Tiaras & Tennis Shoes can be found at www.lillianduncan.wordpress.com.  Her most recent releases are PURSUED and DECEPTION.

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