Top 10 tips for Writing Suspense


When writing my new novel The Haunting of Alice May, about a girl who falls in love with a sailor boy, I was inspired by the works of Alfred Hitchcock when building my mystery and writing my suspense. Hitchcock was dubbed the ‘Master of Suspense’ for good reason. 

1. The number one rule of suspense is to give your reader information. You can’t expect a reader to have anxieties if they have nothing to be anxious about. If you tell the reader that there’s a bomb in the room and that it’s going to go off in five minutes, that’s suspense. The suspense in The Haunting of Alice May is what will happen when Alice finds out that Henry is a ghost? The suspense drives the narrative and invites readers to keep turning pages.

2. The golden rule then is to let the reader in on the secret and involve them in the suspense building. In Psycho, the audience knows more than the characters when first Arbogast and then Lila Crane, enters the Bates house to investigate. On both occasions, the audience wants to shout, ‘look out!’ as the ‘Mother’ is inside. In the same way, give your reader more information than the characters to build the suspense.

3. A good story should start with an earthquake and be followed by rising tension. Some of Hitchcock’s best stories start with a bang, such as the chase along San Francisco’s twilight rooftops in Vertigo, or the strangulation murder at the beginning of Rope. I start The Haunting of Alice May with the heroine in deep water and in danger when a kayaking trip in Monterey Bay goes terribly wrong.

4. Never use a setting simply as background. Use it 100%. Hitchcock was adamant that the backgrounds must be incorporated into the drama and made it a rule to exploit elements that are connected with a location. When writing my locations, I also thought how they could be used dramatically. In The Haunting of Alice May, when Alice climbs the Point Pinos Lighthouse, the oldest lighthouse on the West Coast, it twice becomes the setting for her attempted murder.

5. At the same time, avoid the cliché in your locations, such as staging a murder in a dark alleyway or at night. Hitchcock loved contrast and would often stage his most macabre scenes in the most congenial of settings, such as the murder-dinner party in Rope, or the attempted assassination of Cary Grant’s character in North by Northwest, which takes place in brilliant sunshine inside a crop field. This sense of the unexpected, and the idea that turmoil can erupt at any moment, will keep your readers on their guard.

6. Keep your story moving. The sudden switches of location in a book are also very important to ensure your readers are alert. I start my novel with a quick succession of chapters, using famous landmarks around Monterey Bay, such as the Aquarium, Point Pinos lighthouse and Pacific Grove Church. These will become absolutely crucial locations and settings for the action later on.

7. Avoid Cliched stereotypes. Hitchcock has given us some of the most memorable villains to grace the screen. That’s because he avoided the cliché through character and made his villains attractive. “All villains are not black, and all heroes are not white. There are grays everywhere. You can’t just walk down Fifth Avenue and say he’s a villain and he’s a hero. How do you know?” said Hitchcock. Make your villains attractive, so that they can get near their victims.

8. Channel Your Inner Teen. This is important when writing Young adult fiction, so that you have an authentic voice. The Haunting of Alice May revolves around the many first experiences of being a teenager; going on a first date, first love and first prom date. Dig deep to recapture those intense feelings to avoid the clichés and stereotypes.

9. Write authentic dialogue, especially if you want teen readers to connect with your story. Capturing the intensity and feelings of being a teenager is vital, where everything seems so exaggerated.  But be wary of using slang, which quickly dates your work.

10. In a mystery, you don’t need to answer every question, it’s important to leave some questions unresolved, so that the audience will be thinking about them at the end of the book. Hitchcock called this ‘Ice box syndrome’, referring to the moment when a couple discusses the plot or something is troubling them, and they reach into the ‘ice box’ or refrigerator. The mystery at the end of The Haunting of Alice May is what happens to the central characters. And of course, it opens up the possibility of an exciting sequel.

Tony Lee Moral is the author of three books on Alfred Hitchcock; Hitchcock and the Making of Marnie; The Making of Hitchcock’s The Birds and Alfred Hitchcock’s Movie Making Masterclass. 

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