How to Write a Suspense Novel: Raising the Stakes with a Deadline
Updated: Feb 24
Last week, I began a series about how to write suspense novels. In the next few weeks I'll be focusing on one of the aspects below in the "what you'll need" section.
What you'll need:
A few specific character archetypes
A strict timeline
Heightening stakes and a way to always be making the same problem worse
A few helpful points of view (POVs)
An incredibly strong reason for your main character (MC) to be involved
This week I'll be discussing why a strict timeline is vital to the plot of a suspense novel, and how that plays into raising the stakes.
"The protagonist should be working against the clock, and the clock should be working for the bad guys."
Simon Wood, 9 Tricks to Writing Suspense Fiction, The Writer's Dig
Earlier in the article, Wood defines the difference between suspense and mystery by determining where the crisis occurs. If the crisis occurs at the beginning of the story and the main action follows the protagonist trying to figure out why the crisis happened and who caused it, it's a mystery. If the protagonist receives a warning that a crisis is going to happen and the main action occurs because the protagonist is trying to stop the crisis from happening, it's suspense.
This is something you often see in police procedural shows. An anonymous tip will be called in that a bomb has been set up in a public park and will go off in six hours. Usually the caller is the antagonist, and before they hang up they say they won't set off the bomb if their demands are met. This puts the protagonist detective on the case to figure out any possible way to stop the bomb from going off without having to negotiate with the antagonist.
This increases suspense because there is a consequence for tardiness. If the protagonist misses the six hour deadline, destruction and death will occur.
"Okay, great," you say. "But why don't they just call in the bomb squad?"
That would be one way to fix the problem. But if our antagonist knew anything about the precinct he was going to put in the line of fire of the bomb, he probably knew that would be their first course of action. Plus, the detective doesn't know where the bomb is yet. As he looks, he loses time. As he gets closer, you raise the stakes.
The trick with raising the stakes is that the problem that's getting worse has to be the same problem getting worse. So we can't make the situation in general worse by having the detective now also have to worry about a kidnapping case and a bank robbery.
Instead, we let the protagonist's daughter be on a field trip in the park where the bomb is.
This does two things:
It makes it personal
It makes failure worse
Alright. So, three hours have passed, and they've found the bomb. They can see the timer counting down. They've evacuated the park and sent in the bomb squad with time to spare. What's the next worst thing that could happen?
Perhaps, as the bomb squad works, they cut a wrong wire and the timer jumps from three hours to fifteen minutes.
Perhaps the detectives daughter left her favorite stuffed animal in the park and sneaks past the caution tape to go get it.
Perhaps the first bomb is just a decoy and the antagonist put the actual bomb in her stuffed animal.
See where I'm going with this?
The problem remains the same, it just gets worse and worse and worse.
Assuming the bomb squad disables the first bomb, the detective could then receive a call letting him know that the bomb they'd been disarming was a fake. They're still on the clock at this point, and no closer to finding the real bomb. Plus, your protagonist's daughter is now carrying the bomb around with her, playing with it, hugging it.
As time wears down, the stakes grow higher and higher. The closer the protagonist think's he's getting, the more things are getting in his way.
Perhaps the antagonist slashed his tires. Maybe the antagonist keeps planting fake bombs as diversions. Maybe the protagonist keeps falling for the fakes and the clock keeps counting down.
No matter what happens, the antagonist will be using the countdown to her advantage. The more stressful the situation for the protagonist, the more likely he is to give in to the antagonist's demands. That's what the antagonist wants.
A suspense novel needs a deadline at the climax. Everything that happens leading up to the climax needs to make it harder to meet the deadline.
Those two aspects of suspense will singlehandedly up the intensity of your novel and will help guide you through the murky middle between the threat and the climax.
Stay tuned for next week's post on how Point of View (POV) affects suspense novels and which POVs work best.
J. J. Hanna is a Professional Writing major at Taylor University. In her spare time she creates YouTube Videos and Comics, and practices Karate at a local dojo. If you have a writing question, she'd love to hear from you! She is also looking for freelancing work, so if you have editing, beta reading, or writing needs, or would simply like to chat in a consultation, please let her know. Like what you see and want to get more content like this, or have your specific questions answered? Check out how you can support her on Patreon for as little as $3 a month.
In this week's YouTube video I discussed a few ways to improve your action and fight scenes in your writing:
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