Writing Suspense (part 2 of 2)
By Lillian Duncan

Click here for the first part of this article.


There’s a fine line between excellent writing and overwriting. Overwriting tends to take a good plot and turn it into melodrama. Unfortunately, many unpublished suspense/mystery writers (and some published) mistake melodrama for good writing.

Sometimes the more emotional the scene the better it is to keep your “flowery” writing to a minimum. Here’s a checklist of things to be careful about.

Word choices. I’m sure a lot of my fellow writers might disagree but I think simple is better—especially in suspense. In suspense, it’s all about the action.

Exclamation points. Most writing experts don’t like exclamation points. They say it’s a mark of an inexperienced writer. Use them, but don’t overuse them.

Too many adverbs and adjectives. This is good advice for any genre. I have no problem with an adverb or an adjective, but it gets to be too much when you use two or three or four in every sentence or even every paragraph.

Too much emotion for the situation. Suspense is supposed to be well…suspenseful and that means lots of emotional situations. A writer would be remiss if they didn’t include emotional reactions, but be careful of keeping the emotional reaction equal to the event.

Don’t use ten words when you only need five. We are writers and we love words—a lot. Unfortunately when you consistently use more words than you need, it makes the story drag. Look at this: The huge black dog looked at her, then barked at her, and finally ran toward her. Let’s look at it rewritten. The Rottweiler charged toward her.

Bottom line when it comes to overwriting, write your story and then cut every word you don’t need!!


Every writer knows you must create tension in your story or it becomes…boring. And we never want that, especially in mystery/suspense.

Let me start by listing what tension isn’t (in my opinion.)

1. Tension isn’t having an argument in every scene. For some reason many writers think this is the only way to create tension. It’s not. Use it by all means but use it sparingly.

2. Tension isn’t having angry and bitter internal thoughts in every scene. A little of this goes a long way. Too much and it becomes tiring and makes the character unlikable.

3. Tension isn’t using a trumped up excuse why the heroine doesn’t like the hero.

Now that you know what tension isn’t, let’s talk about what it is. Tension is creating scenes that will make the reader want to know what happens next. Every scene in your story should have tension in one form or another. Some scenes will have “big” tension and others not so big. It may be internal or external. It may be real or imagined, but there should be a sense of unpredictability in every scene to some extent.

Here are some ways to add tension into your story:

1. Unpredictability.

2. Have chapters end with a cliffhanger.

3. Ticking clock. Adding a time limit can create tension. Hunting for a bomb is good, but hunting for a bomb that you know will detonate in fifteen minutes is even better.

4. Surprise yourself—surprise your readers. All that work on that wonderful outline—but that’s all it is an outline—not the story!

5. Foreshadowing. This is a tried and true technique. It means to add some subtle clues in about what might happen.And remember not all foreshadowing clues have to come true.

6. A red herring. This is used most often in mysteries but can be effective in suspense, too.

7. Make things more difficult for your main characters. I’ve been told I’m really mean to my characters.. That’s what creates tension. If life is good for them, who cares?

8. Keep the stakes high.

9. Add a new character

Thanks for the opportunity to share my ideas with you.

God Bless and Good Writing!


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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