Building Tension: Skills For Crafting Suspense In Your Story

June 28, 2019 | 7 min read

Mastering your craft as a writer - especially as a fiction writer - can take years. That’s the bad news. The good news is that you can be proactive in getting to grips with the skills and techniques you need to take your writing from mediocre to masterful. One of the most foundational skills you need to comprehend is that of creating tension (or suspense) in your stories.

Why Suspense Matters

Suspense is an essential ingredient in fiction. It’s what keeps your readers turning the page long after they’ve declared that they’ll ‘read just one more page before I put the light out’. Without tension and suspense, your story is flat and lifeless.

When I first started out as a self-proclaimed fiction writer, I didn’t understand suspense at all. I thought that suspense fiction was a genre all of its own, and so I didn’t realize how important it was to my stories.

Suspense matters. You can’t write a great story without it. Unfortunately, writing scenes full of suspense and tension can be tricky. You have to learn about the right balance (otherwise known as pacing) and understand the different techniques you can use to create tension.

Authors who rely too much on just one or two tension-building techniques suffer from the unfortunate problem of creating ‘predictable tension’. You might get away with that in one book, but if you build a following of fans, you’ll soon find that they get wise to your predictable tension techniques, so your writing loses much of its suspense.

You want to keep your readers gripped, which means you need a whole arsenal of tension techniques that you can mix up in your writing to avoid the death-knell of predictability. I’m going to teach you three essential suspense skills you need to write unputdownable fiction.

#1. Create Crucial Conflict

Conflict is one of the key ingredients of suspenseful writing. Conflict automatically creates tension in scenes, so naturally, it’s an author’s best friend. What makes conflict even more important is its versatility. There are different types of conflict too. For example:

  • Character versus nature (e.g. when a character faces some kind of natural disaster)
  • Character versus self (e.g. a character who has some kind of internal struggle to deal with)
  • Character versus society (e.g. characters pitted against an oppressive government regime, or a character that’s part of a minority group who struggles with marginalization)
  • Character versus character - relational type (e.g. unrequited love or some kind of drama within a family)
  • Character versus character - hero/villain type (e.g. the traditional good-guy versus bad-guy situation)
  • Character versus technology (e.g. science fiction scenarios where technology is the antagonist)
  • Character versus the supernatural (e.g. scenarios where characters are faced with battles against prophecies about their own fate)

As you can see from this list of conflict types, conflict in fiction is always rooted in characters - the conflict is between the character and something else. If you try to create conflict by any other means, your story will fall flat, unfortunately.

At its heart, conflict is about something keeping your character(s) from their goals. That means that you need to know - and make clear to your readers - what your characters’ goals are. Without this fundamental first step, you can’t create the tension you need to create a gripping story.

Spend some time brainstorming your character’s goals and the types of conflict that might keep them from achieving those goals. Pick two or three scenarios out of your brainstorming session and write a scene for each where your character is pitted against the literal or figurative nemesis to their goal.

Creating conflict is a skill you need to practice until it becomes an automatic part of writing. Don’t just practice when you’re writing your novel, either. Honing your craft as a writer means spending time developing your skills before you sit down to write your masterpiece. Here’s some prompts you might want to try:

  • Davy is about to leave the house and embark on a trip when an unexpected guest arrives…
  • Allison has planned the speech she’s going to make to break up with Drew, but then, just as she’s about to open her mouth, Drew gets down on one knee and proposes…
  • Craig has just accepted a place at CalTec when a news story breaks that threatens his entire future…
  • Becca is hiking in the mountains alone, trying to come to terms with something that’s happened, when a fierce storm unexpectedly hits.

#2. Raise the Stakes

You know your characters, you know their goals - but your goal as a writer is to keep your characters from achieving their goals (at least until you’re ready for the climax of your story). One thing that startled me when I started writing full time was how much I came to sympathize with my protagonists, so much so that I felt bad for pitting them against so many obstacles to keep them from their goals.

You can’t afford to let sentimentality get in the way of your tension-creating skills. I learned that the hard way. One of the most effective ways of creating tension in your writing is to keep raising the stakes. This means that the more your characters fight against the things opposing their goals, the further away they seem from achieving their goals.

There’s a range of ways you can raise the stakes in your novel - but before you get to writing your story for real, try practicing these different stake-raising techniques:

The Ticking Clock

Nothing raises the stakes more than a time limit. In practice, that means that you give your character a goal that has to be achieved in a certain time frame. The reason why the limit is there is up to you.

When you use this technique, every time your character makes a failed attempt to overcome the obstacle in their way, the more aware the reader becomes of how little time is left. It keeps your readers gripped.

The Fun-House Floor

If you’ve never been in a fun-house, this won’t mean anything to you, so I’ll explain. In a fun-house there is often a section made up of platforms that move up and down and side to side, making it really difficult to cross to the other side.

In fiction, the fun-house floor technique introduces change and uncertainty for your character, unbalancing them and making them (and your reader) wonder how to move forward. There’s plenty of things you can introduce to create uncertainty - the death of a loved one, the revelation of a secret, the loss of a job.

The Shock Revelation

To use this technique effectively, you need to understand foreshadowing (you can check out my guide to using foreshadowing if you want to brush up on those skills). Making a shock revelation is a great way of raising the stakes - as long as you ensure that it’s a revelation that in some way keeps your character from their goals.

You can’t just dump a shock revelation into your story, however. It needs to be set up (using foreshadowing - but carefully) so that your readers get the ‘ah-ha’ moment. Chucking in a revelation that you haven’t hinted subtly at using foreshadowing isn’t going to make your readers happy. It can be a shock to your character, but your readers might already have their suspicions.

Practicing Raising the Stakes

Use these prompts to practice your stake-raising skills:

  • Amelia’s nephew has gone missing while she was taking care of him, and his parents are due home in 36 hours…
  • The deadline is in three days...
  • Juan has just 24 hours to gather evidence to prove that his partner is innocent of the murder…
  • Carrie receives an anonymous letter with the words “I know what you did” on it...
  • Ethan’s secret is out…
  • Michael’s uncle dies suddenly…
  • Stefan has just paid the deposit on his condo when his boss fires him...

#3. Partner Tension With Pacing

When I realized that my fiction was missing tension, I kinda went to the extreme with it, and tried to throw tension into every scene, every conversation, every moment my characters took to think… It wasn’t pretty. It was the precise opposite of pretty.

When you’re working with tension and suspense, you need to have a balance. That’s where pacing comes in. Pacing gives your characters (and your readers) time to breathe between intense scenes filled with tension. You can’t have your character going from tension-filled-scene to tension-filled-scene without having some kind of ‘normality’ in-between. That’s not how real life works, and it doesn’t work in fiction, either.

Understanding pacing creates a more realistic flow to your fiction, which is why it’s important you learn to pace your writing in parallel with tension. There are two types of pacing - fast pacing and slow pacing. Let’s take a look at them and see how you can partner pacing with tension for fabulous fiction.

Fast Pacing

Essentially, fast pacing is where most of your tension lives. These scenes carry urgency and spend less time on unnecessary details. When you’re writing these kinds of scenes, you want your writing to be punchy to reflect the pace. This is not the place for long descriptions or explanations.

Fast pacing works by building tension to a crescendo. These are the scenes that will keep your reader urgently turning the pages to find out what happens.

Slow Pacing

To give your character a breather, slow pacing after a particularly tense scene works really well. Here’s where you can focus on the details, explore your character’s psyche and begin to build up towards the next tense scene.

Slow pacing can be filled with emotion or packed with emotive and atmospheric details. You can still add tension in these slower scenes, but you’ll do it differently.

In slow-paced scenes, you’re not using action to create tension, but rather focusing on building tension with atmospheric details. This works particularly well in thrillers or horror fiction, where things like the rustling of leaves or footsteps on the pavement can create suspense.

Some slow-paced scenes are pretty identical to ordinary, non-tension-filled scenes, so if you can write an ordinary scene, then you can write one of these. Writing slow-paced atmospheric scenes with undercurrents of more gentle tension, however, take a bit more practice. Here are some prompts you can try out:

  • Describe the shadows in the room
  • The light flickers…
  • Phoenix is sitting in the basement. Describe the atmosphere…
  • Sam is taking a walk to clear his head. He heads into the forest, his favorite place in the world. Describe the sounds, smells, sights. Then, there’s the crack of a twig…

Making Tension Come Naturally

You can’t write fiction without tension, so if writing is your passion, then you have to master the art of creating both fast-paced and slow-paced tension. For most people, this takes time and patience before you get it right - but once you do, you’ll find that it soon starts to come naturally, and you’ll find yourself putting just the right amount of tension into your scenes without having to consciously think about how you’re going to do it. The more you practice, the easier it becomes!

 

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There’s an age-old debate about the superior version of a story: Is it the book or the movie? Most readers and far too many writers will default to the idea that “the book was better.”

But was it? Was it really?

May 20, 2024 9 min read


Talking to Alex Kazemi doesn’t feel like talking to the guy who wrote 2023’s “most dangerous book of the year,” a book Ellen Hopkins calls “raucous, raunchy, and sure to offend.” And it certainly doesn’t feel like talking to Bret Easton Ellis’s “favorite millennial provocateur.”

It feels like talking to a friend I haven’t caught up with in a while. And my friends just aren’t that cool.


We’re chatting because Kazemi lives a ruthlessly offline lifestyle, a philosophy at the core of Freewrite and which Kazemi sees as necessary to being the best artist he can be. Having garnered a book deal at the tender age of 18, he knows a thing or two about life as an artist.

Kazemi released his first book, Pop Magick, an occult book about how to manifest, in 2020. “Madonna helped me launch that,” he says, casually mentioning one of the biggest pop stars of the twentieth century. “So, yeah, that was insane.”

But it wasn’t until the release of his first novel, New Millennium Boyz, nearly a decade in the making, that things got truly wild.

Kazemi’s unflinching look at Y2K culture and teenage boyhood reads like a horrifying screenplay — or the transcript of a violent AIM conversation between bored, lonely teenagers. Even before publication, the book faced criticism calling it dangerous, prompting the publisher to splash a content warning across the front matter, to Kazemi's extreme annoyance. Conservative American moms later flagged it for book bans, leaving the Canadian author baffled.

Was an honest look at the 90s and early ’aughts really worth all that uproar?

We sat down with Kazemi to discuss the driving force behind his portrayal of this often-glamorized time period, why he felt compelled to present this reality to modern audiences, and how in the world he lives an offline lifestyle in the year 2024.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

 

 Mirror selfies without a smartphone

ANNIE COSBY: First things first. Are you a millennial?

ALEX KAZEMI: Yes. I was born in 1994, which means I’m on the cusp. I do not identify with any Zoomer qualities or tendencies at all.

COSBY: In general cultural discourse, millennials tend to get a bad rap – very infantilizing, even though some of us are 40. What's your take?

KAZEMI: I think it's pretty insane because we were dealt a really bad card, with the recession, jobs being lost, the digital age booming… Many of us still have memories of going to Blockbuster and, you know, AOL chat rooms and the early web. But then we watched everything go chronically online and digital through the 2010s. We watched technology and the information age replace a lot of skillsets. So we became a weird bunch, for sure.


COSBY: I do find it interesting that people glamorize that period specifically because it was the beginning of everything being online — so everybody's mistakes and drunken pictures are out there.

KAZEMI: Right? And we did it willingly.

COSBY: Oh God, the things I said to strange men in chat rooms.

KAZEMI: Me as well. And it’s so, so dark, because the internet has always been and will always be, even as we're adults and growing older, a mirror of our subconscious vomit. The frequencies we vibrated to when we were coming of age were more about exploration, and that's why there was so much stranger danger. There were so many scary scenarios that kids could get themselves into with the early web because of how unregulated it was, as well.

COSBY: Would you say New Millennium Boyz is a defense of the way we Millennials are? Or is it a commentary on how misremembered that era is?

KAZEMI: It's definitely a commentary. And it's supposed to be historical fiction, educating younger folks and also older generations about how, you know, this beautiful picture that you see of Rachael Leigh Cook from She's All That on TikTok? There was actually a lot of darkness and chaos going around, especially when it comes to very normalized racism, misogyny, and homophobia.

 

 

I find it very ironic that this new generation that is so fixated on social justice and evolution and freedom would fetishize the aesthetics of an era of true debauchery and chaos and cruelty — like really — which was mirrored in the art in that period. Look at 2000s teen movies! I just wanted to write a satire of that extreme teen genre, like Catherine Hardwicke's Thirteen, Larry Clark's Bully, Spring Breakers...

My second motivation was to really look at boy culture in the post-Columbine era and how this was very much a prescient, predictive time of where we would end up with the alt-right and 4chan and “incels,” and how it's all connected.

And then of course exploring the romanticized aspect of Y2K — going to the mall, people wearing Marilyn Manson shirts, and the aesthetic obsession with it. I wanted to create the book I wanted to see in the world that I didn't feel existed yet.

COSBY: I’ve heard you talk about the misogyny of the “teen girls are bitches” trope. It's like, have you met boys? Have you been a teen boy talking to other teen boys?

KAZEMI: Oh, they're the biggest bitches. They're so cruel. You see the “mean girls” trope in tons of movies, like Jawbreaker, but it’s so strange how we don't ever look at the cruelty teenage boys face. And not just the cruelty but also the misguidedness and the culture that feeds that.

Especially in the 90s and 2000s, boys were so encouraged to be testosterone-driven and hyper-masculine. Woodstock 99 was such a great example of the chaos of too much of something – and it’s being talked about now because of the documentary.

COSBY: New Millennium Boyz really explores this violence inherent to 90s culture for boys, and because of that, it got a content warning, right?

KAZEMI: Yes. During the final cuts of the book, when we were in edits and copy edits, I got the call from my publisher that “So-and-So is not going to stock it without a content warning because they're really worried about how teenagers are going to react to the work and if they're going to reenact the behavior.”

And I was like, this is a cultural critique. It's not anything to be glamorized. I think anyone who reads it would understand that.

COSBY: Do you think we as humans always look back on past time periods with rose-colored glasses, or is there something special about Y2K?

KAZEMI: There's something really freaky about what we're doing with the 90s and 2000s. I don't think we've ever before been in a place, as humans, where corporations like Meta and TikTok can just algorithmically feed into us all the time.

A teenager in the 90s could fetishize the 70s or the 60s, but they could close the book when it was done or finish the movie and turn off the TV. But with Gen Z, and every generation now, we're just inundated every day with memes, photos, videos, and other people’s thoughts.

And I guess this 90s nostalgia is partly because it represents familiarity for people of a certain age, but even for the people who didn't live during that time, it seems to represent a kind of order, a sense of quietness — “Oh, 90210 is on at 9 p.m. and that's all there is.” No choices to make. There weren’t one billion options like kids today have.

COSBY: So you think people are viewing that period as a time of simplicity and unplugging, which we’re all kind of yearning for now?

KAZEMI: Yeah, and you certainly could unplug then, but you can unplug today, too — we're just brainwashed into thinking that we have no choice, that we have no free will. But it's totally not true. You could simulate Y2K if you wanted to! You just have to set a lot of boundaries.

COSBY: Like writing on a Freewrite.

KAZEMI: Yes! That’s why I write offline. Over the years, I’ve had different cool ways to do that. For a lot of my teenage years, I wrote in Apple Notes. Then, I ordered a BlackBerry off eBay and used it as a word processor for a while. I have a dead AlphaSmart here — rest in peace.

I feel like what's so crazy about Freewrite is a lot of people don't know that these products exist, which is a problem.

COSBY: It's also super polarizing. Without even trying it, some people are like, “What is this hipster thing?” Meanwhile, we get so many messages from new users saying, “What is this magic? I'm actually writing for the first time in years!” It's really interesting to see people's reactions. Tech is such a weirdly touchy subject.

KAZEMI: And a Freewrite is way better than a typewriter. I'm not fucking doing the ribbon, there's no time for that.

COSBY: Some people do though, right? Aren’t you friends with Matty Healy?

KAZEMI: Yes, yes. I told him about Freewrite. I love his songwriting. I love the 1975's lyrics. I love him as a literary mind.

COSBY: Alex. [heavy pause] Is he the one being referenced in the song?

KAZEMI: [rolls eyes] Honestly, I'm not really interested in all the gossip. I don't think great artists should be reduced to that.

COSBY: OK, that's fair. I think they're both great storytellers, too. And it would be so hard to live a creative life under that kind of microscope. On that note, your offline approach to life goes beyond writing, right? How does that work?

KAZEMI: Well, it definitely includes a lot of conscious boundaries that annoy a lot of people.

I’ve had a flip phone for a few years now, and I have a landline. When it comes to the internet and iMessage and emails, I try to do regulated “office hours” of screen time.

It's a very privileged position to be in, because a lot of people have to be on call all the time for work. But being disconnected definitely gives me more time for my mind to be free and creative and to write more.

COSBY: And this annoys people?

KAZEMI: Yeah, it drives everyone insane. It's a huge boundary I put in my life. People have to go through loopholes to contact me. But it's the only way that I can have a life as an artist and as a writer.

All of this technology can be a tool. There's nothing inherently bad with the tools that exist on the Internet. It's just the compulsivity and the addictive mentality we have with it that creates this chaos for us as writers and artists.

COSBY: You've mentioned being on Tumblr before, back in the day — are you on social media now?

KAZEMI: No, I'm not. Sometimes I have to look at it on friends' phones to get a person's email or something like that, but no, I don't have social media. It's so scary, the pressure of having to perform or turn my most personally valuable things into currency — to monetize it. It just feels weird. I'm not into it. I'm not into it.

And when you're online so much, you're like, “I don't have to be doing this. Why am I doing this?” That's where that punishing feeling of addiction comes in. A lot of us, when we are in those spirals, we don't even really even want to be there. There isn't a sense of agency or control.

It's a loss of control.

And I think that submission of when you are looking at other people's work, what they’re doing, and you're scrolling, scrolling, it just creates a huge sense of inadequacy and darkness.

COSBY: It's interesting to me because time goes so much faster when I’m scrolling — and I feel the same way when I get really into something I'm writing.

KAZEMI: Like a flow state.

COSBY: Exactly! It’s complete absorption. But scrolling doesn’t make me feel good after, the way creating does.

KAZEMI: It’s like a black market, counterfeit flow state. A heroin flow state.


So I guess the question is: How can we induce positive, offline flow states?

COSBY: Isn't that the question. How do you do it?

KAZEMI: I find that just setting boundaries is so important. You have free will over your boundaries. This idea that we have no sense of agency and have to give all of our energy and life force to these corporations zapping us is just so crazy and unfair.

But when you bring up these things to certain people, they can't even fathom living without their online habits.

COSBY: Yeah, it has to be a conscious choice.

KAZEMI: You have to ask yourself:

"OK, am I going to just sublimate myself to be a consumer of everyone else's content? Or am I going to be a creator and produce?”

COSBY: Most of us know which one we want to be.

KAZEMI: You have to know which one you want to be.

COSBY: Any last words for the creators out there?

KAZEMI: For creators and artists and writers who are overwhelmed by information overload and the prospect of putting your work out there, just know there is an audience for your work. Just stay focused and don't be discouraged. You’ll find your place in the weird world.

--

Annie Cosby is the Marketing Manager at Freewrite, a former fiction editor, and the author of seven books — and counting. Her work deals with Celtic mythology and has twice won the YA Indie Author Project in Missouri. See what she's writing on Freewrite.

May 17, 2024 6 min read
It’s no secret that Taylor Swift is one of the biggest players in music right now. (Maybe one of the biggest ever.) As a lyricist, she’s enthralled audiences worldwide, but did you know she’s also woven a subtle tapestry of literary references throughout her discography?

Whether you love her or hate her (we’re talking to you, dads, Brads, and Chads) you’ll be impressed with these hidden literary references in Swift’s songs…