Injecting Suspense into Your Writing

by Terri J. Huck

Game of Thrones_posterThe hue and cry over the recent “Game of Thrones” season finale has me thinking about a Washington Post article by Hillary Kelly that advocates publishing stories in installments, the way Charles Dickens and other successful Victorian writers did.

“The constant influx of unresolved plots and elliptical section breaks stoked a fervor for fiction in Victorian England,” Kelly wrote. And we still read and talk about many of those stories today — “The Pickwick Papers,” “Middlemarch,” “Vanity Fair,” “Far From the Madding Crowd,” to name just a few.

Viewers might not be happy with the way the latest “Game of Thrones” season ended (and the show is notorious for killing off key characters), but fans are talking about the story, and that is pure gold for writers.

Other shows like “The Walking Dead” and “Breaking Bad” also know how to keep viewers hooked. Long-arc TV shows are essentially published in installments, the way Dickens and Arthur Conan Doyle presented their stories to an eager public. As Kelly so aptly put it: “At the heart of our compulsion to keep reading lies tension.”

Although she concedes that a return to serialized novels might only be profitable for big-name authors and mass-market magazines, there’s a message in there about storytelling that any writer could benefit from.

I’m not advocating killing off major characters for the sake of shocking your readers. I’m saying think about the way you tell your story and look for ways to inject suspense. For instance:

  • Let the reader wonder. It can be hard to keep things uncertain when we as writers already know the outcome. But you have to write about events from the characters’ point of view, and let those events unfold as though the people involved don’t know what will happen. That also gives readers a chance to think — and hope — things might go another way.
  • End scenes and chapters when tension is high. Don’t resolve conflicts right away; instead, allow them to simmer by, for instance, starting the next chapter with another point-of-view character, if you have more than one, or a flashback. Give readers time to worry about the outcome of an event or the impact of a secret being revealed.
  • Consider saving revelations for the ends of chapters. Think of chapters as mini stories that need their own arc and rising action, however subtle your story is. And think about ending chapters with the unwritten words “to be continued.”

An excellent resource on infusing your writing with more tension isConflict, Action and Suspense by William Noble, which I read because Debby Applegate said in an interview that it helped her write her Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Henry Ward Beecher.

And as you’re reading the types of books you like to write, pay attention to how the writers parcel out information, and when you reach the end of a chapter, notice whether you feel compelled to flip to the next page to see what happens.

Terri J. Huck is an editor and managing partner at Possibilities Publishing Company. She blogs about researching and writing historical fiction at

Sharpen your quills and fill your ink pots. Possibilities Publishing Company wants your scariest, creepiest, ghostliest, weirdest, original stories for a Halloween-themed anthology to be published — you guessed it — right around Halloween 2015. The deadline is July 1. Click here for more info or to submit a story.


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