The Art of Creating Suspense

Writing: 3 Ways to Make your Story More Suspenseful

Hi! I’m Ms Nellie Lim, a teacher at Lil’ but Mighty. For many budding writers, these are always the perennial questions in their heads: 

  • Is my storyline unusual and interesting enough to engage the reader?
  • Is my story suspenseful enough and does the reader want to carry on reading? 
  • Are there enough twists and turns to make this story stand out from the rest? 

In my attempt to answer these questions, let’s first discuss what most students think they need to do in order to write an interesting or unusual story. I find that one of the many common pitfalls when it comes to writing a composition is to be overly ambitious and include too many ideas in a plot. Let’s look at some common misconceptions about writing that students have and compare them to what markers are actually looking out for when assessing a piece of writing. 

Common misconception #1: Storyline must be out of the ordinary to be engaging

Reality: Markers actually prefer plots that can be easily followed through. Imagine yourself reading a story that has too many incredulous ideas. Would it not raise a few question marks in a reader’s mind? Are the characters overly perfect and too good to be true? This might actually make it harder for the reader to relate to the characters in your story.

Common misconception #2: Storyline must have many shocking moments to make the reader interested to carry on reading. 

Reality: Even in a horror movie, the sound effects and having the villains or supernatural forces springing out of hidden areas can have a limited effect on the audience. Unlike movies which have sounds and moving visuals, a writer can only depend on words to create the same suspenseful effect on the reader. Wouldn’t overdoing the shock elements become repetitive and predictable for the reader? 

Common misconception #3: Storyline must include many twists and turns 

Reality: Putting a reader on an endless roller coaster ride frustrates him more than engages him. Instead of including many twists and turns, focus on what is important in your story – having one problem, one climax and one solution – and expand this idea in detail. Always remember the golden rule that it is not the quantity but the quality that matters. 

Now that we have touched on the common misconceptions regarding writing, how can we, as a writer, achieve what we set out to do, i.e. impress the reader and score well? 

First of all, try using this checklist of questions to analyse whether a paragraph is interesting: 

    • Was there something unexpected that happened? 
    • Was it clear that the main character harboured some strong feelings at one point in this story? 
    • Was there a climactic moment where the reader held his breath?

If your answer is ‘No’ to one or more of these questions after analysing the paragraph, then you definitely need to tweak it. How do you do so?

For a start, you can try applying these three methods – using actions and thoughts, foreshadowing and short sentences – to make the storyline more interesting. I will be using the same part from the Problem-Climax paragraph below (highlighted in blue) in all the examples to show how this can be done: 

3 Ways to Make Your Story Writing Suspenseful

In the paragraph, although something unexpected did happen – Jonas was unable to find his mobile phone – the writer did not capitalise on the moment to make it exciting for the reader. Let’s see how using any one of the three methods I have mentioned would help to improve the paragraph:

Method #1: Insert an action and a thought to heighten the suspense

3 Ways to Make Your Story Writing Suspenseful | PSLE Paper 1

Notice that when you add an action followed by a thought, you are helping the reader to identify what the writer did and how he felt. By doing so, you have made it easier for the reader to follow the story through and to imagine how shocked and panicky the main character was feeling at that moment. 

Method #2: Use foreshadowing to hint at an unexpected twist

The Art of Creating Suspense

Foreshadowing, as its name implies, is to give a warning or to indicate that a future event will soon happen. Strong writers use foreshadowing as a bait to hook the reader and make him keen to carry on reading to discover what would happen next. 

In the example above, the sentence “Something felt amiss” is a good way to foreshadow that things will soon take a turn for the unexpected and hints to the reader that Jonas’ initial plan to go home after his night shift was going to be interrupted by something unexpected he did not anticipate. 

Method #3: Use short sentences for impact on the reader

The Art of Creating Suspense

What do you notice in the choice of words above? Yes, there is no need to use overly complicated words or lengthy descriptions all the time. Instead, the writer has used a string of single words followed by two full sentences. By varying the length of sentences, you have made the reader sit up and remain curious about what would soon happen i.e. the mobile phone was not in its usual place – Jonas’s pocket. 

Again, let’s use the same checklist of questions to analyse the revised paragraphs: 

    • Was there something unexpected that happened? 
    • Was it clear that the main character harboured some strong feelings at one point in this story? 
    • Was there a climactic moment where the reader held his breath? 

If your answer to all three questions above was ‘Yes’, then you have certainly succeeded in creating suspense.

Now that you have learnt the 3 ways to make your story suspenseful, I hope you will apply them in your writing. Share with us in the Comments Section if you use other effective methods to heighten the suspense in your own writing. Till the next time we meet again, adios!

Ms. Nellie

As an educator, Ms Nellie believes that every child is unique and learns differently. As such, every classroom experience becomes an opportunity for reflection and spurs the teacher to find different ways to reach out to the child and establish a strong teacher-student relationship which helps to nurture the child holistically. During her free time, Ms Nellie also enjoys reading, watching movies and plays because there’s nothing like a piece of writing coming to life with moving pictures and sounds. A big fan of Dystopian novels and plays, she can always be seen at bookstores with her nose buried in her favourite books.

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