Suspense can be defined as the reader wondering what will happen next. But for the writer, it is much more. Suspense is not merely curiosity. That keeps the readers turning pages by holding out the promise that they will eventually get answers to questions. In mystery novels, this happens in the last chapter.
But suspense is more – it is emotional. The reader experiences vicariously what the hero/heroine is experiencing. He identifies with the character, when the character feels tumult, so on a certain level will the reader; and when he suffers physical pain, maybe sympathy will cause the reader’s grip on the book cover to tighten.
How to get the reader to identify with your character? You give more than mere description of him and his surroundings. You make the reader think “Yes, I understand. I’ve been there. I know exactly how that feels.”
Once you’ve established the hero-reader identification, you can heighten suspense. One way is the ticking clock. He has a time limit and must accomplish something difficult and dangerous, maybe life and death situation, and time is running out. Another way to create suspense is to let the reader know something your character doesn’t suspect. Perhaps a time bomb can be ticking away in a minivan full of children, while the car-pooling mother drives, happy and unaware, towards school. At this point the reader should already care about your character and in addition will be concerned for the children, and drawn deeper into the story. In the reader’s mind should be silent screaming: “Stop the van. Take the children and run!”
Another way to create suspense is atmosphere. Maybe the reader knows that a killer lurks in the apartment of an unsuspecting woman arriving home – a woman the reader knows and likes. If we like her, suspense is generated not only by atmosphere, but the fact that we’re aware of something terrible and momentous that she doesn’t suspect.
There are plenty of variations and combinations of these techniques. The secret is to reach beyond curiosity and engage the reader’s emotions, It’s not easy, but it’s possible. The effect is worth the effort.
I have never actually written a mystery/murder novel, but I like to read them – especially Jonathan Kellerman’s that are masterpieces in suspense. If that is what you want to write, then read him like a text book, because he is a master.
Happy writing. I am happy to help you with any writing problems, and welcome your comments. You can buy some of my 14 books direct from me at discount by contacting me at e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org – including “The Pomegranate Pendant” (now a movie) or my latest novel “Searching for Sarah”.