Adding Suspense To Your Post-Apocoalyptic (or any!) Novel

Okay, so adding suspense to a novel is difficult business. And as science fiction and dystopian authors have a little bonus--they can use their sometimes scary and tense societies to build suspense. (There is the added drawback of having to develop and explain such societies too, so we don't have it totally easy!)

Here are a few tips for adding suspense to any novel, science fiction or not.

1. Chapter endings. Now I've heard people say to end them on a cliffhanger, but I actually don't think that's entirely true. You don't have to have an explosion at the end of every chapter, or a gun going off for it to be impactful.

The best advice I've heard is to end the chapter in one of two ways: a high or a low. And it can be a plot high or low, or an emotional high or low. Both bring the urge to turn the page, and build the tension for the next chapter.

Some examples:

Plot high, from THE GIRL OF FIRE AND THORNS by Rae Carson: "I gaze unbelieving at my nurse, amazed at the speed with which she moved, wondering why recognizing the life in my navel would sentence a man to death."

Emotional low from VIRTUOSITY by Jessica Martinez: "The black night, white stars, and yellow house lights glimmered like fractured glass, poised above me and ready to fall with one more shake of the kaleidoscope."

Notice I didn't have to use sci fi/dystopian titles for the examples. Any reading you do, identify the high/low at the end of the chapter. Use what works for you.

2. Shorter sentences. When I'm building up to a reveal, or writing a particularly fast-paced scene, I like to use shorter sentences or paragraphs. I find myself using repeats and echoes a lot, as I think this draws out the tension before the big reveal.

The white space allows breathing room, and the shortness of the text means the reader can read really fast.

All of that adds to the tension of the reading experience, in my opinion.

3. Evil villains. I think one of the reasons Harry Potter was so engaging is because Lord Voldemort is truly evil. He's scary whether he's on the page or not. I think every book can be benefitted from having a really evil villain.

Of course, if you're not writing fantasy or science fiction, there often is no huge, overarching villain. In cases like these (see VIRTUOSITY example above), rely on the emotional impact of your story.

What techniques do you use to add suspense to your novel?


Natalie Aguirre said...

Great tips. I'm reading The Girl of Fire and Thorns right now and loving it, including the pacing.

Bruce Coville does an awesome job ending his chapters with something exciting or that you really wonder about. It definitely keeps me wanting to read more.

Anita Saxena said...

Good points. I usually utilize highs and lows but I also try not to end chapters with a character falling asleep.

Gabe (Ava Jae) said...

I definitely agree with the first two points, but I hesitate to agree with the last. I suppose it depends on what you mean by "evil." Purely 100% evil villains, in my opinion, tend to be less effective (and scary) than villains that you could sympathize or almost agree with.

Anonymous said...

I just read a blog post from The Kill Zone about giving speed to your novel, which I think has crossover with tension.

I found your comments on chapter endings especially helpful. Thank you! :)

@Ava Jae - There is a big debate: pure evil vs. a more "gray" villain. Honestly, when I read that point, I thought "There is going to be a comments discussion about this!" It's really back and forth.

I believe they both serve their purpose and it depends on the novel. More gray villains do seem more fit better in a darker world and novel.

The evil villains, however, pull on a deep instinct we all have. I agree with Elana that Voldemort's pure evilness is one of the reasons HP is so popular. The more basic and instinct a story appeals to, the more we are automatically engaged.

Elana Johnson said...

Thanks, guys!

I do think villains that are more "gray" are interesting to think about, and they are interesting in novels too. But there's something intensely suspenseful about a more evil villain when he shows up on the page. S/he automatically invokes the fear in the reader.

I think one of the more gray, but still evil characters is President Snow from The Hunger Games. He's not present much, but when he's on the page -- look out. And he's not evil-evil the way Voldemort is.