I’ll start at the beginning. Before you can get a reader on the edge of their seats, the reader must get to know, like, and sympathize with your character. Let’s face it a nameless, faceless woman running from a killer sort of bores us. It reaches high up there in the “so what?” category. Therefore step one in writing suspense is to get the reader involved and invested in the character.
What if our story starts out with Marcy a single mom with 5 kids who recently left her abusive husband and is working three jobs to make enough money to save up for a small home of her very own where her kids can grow up safe.
Already we know there is tension for this woman. She had an abusive husband. She has five kids. She is working three jobs which likely means they are not high paying jobs. As a reader we know that any one of these things could go seriously wrong. We are now invested in this woman. Can she continue to work three jobs? That leaves her about 4 hours of sleep a night and who is watching the kids? If her parents are watching them, her parents could be old or ailing or poor at child rearing but the mom is left with little choice. What if she leaves them home alone with the oldest-age 7 – in charge. Day care for that many children often costs more than two minimum wage jobs can pay for.
At this point the reader is either engrossed or thinks the character is a loser and throws the book against the wall. How do you keep the reader? The woman has to show redeeming qualities. She can be seen selling her own clothes to buy new shoes for the 5 year old. She can be seen eating only the scraps from her kids’ plates. She can be seen hugging them all close at night and telling them everything is going to be all right. Let’s go a step further. Let’s have her dumpster dive for clothes, hand wash and hand sew them, and ironing them so that the clothes are clean and serviceable. Then she baths all of her children, dresses them in the special hand-me-downs and attends church, sending the kids off to Sunday school.
If we know she is doing everything we as readers would do, we feel engaged in her story. We become emotionally involved. Now up the stakes. Let’s say she gets arrested for not paying traffic tickets because she has spent her money buying medicine for a sick child. The courts take her children. She loses her jobs. She begs and pleads and gets two of her jobs back. Finally she gets her three oldest kids back, when her ex-husband is seen hanging around the kids’ school. Next we find out someone has been in her home. She starts to sleep with the children in her bed and a baseball bat under her pillow.
Knowing all this about her, if Marcy then is our woman running for her life from a killer, we as readers would be at the edge of our seats. How can an ordinary woman, one exhausted from trial, escape this killer? What happens if she doesn’t? What happens to her children?
Suspense comes not from action- although action can be gripping-suspense comes from the reader’s investment in a character whom they have come to know and with whom they identify. A character with high stakes. A character with reason to live. Next time you find yourself at the edge of your seat. Ask yourself why you care? I bet it’s because you’ve already identified with the character. The author has done their job and sucked you in.