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6 ways to write with suspense and tension

By Bright Light Education | Jun 29, 2023, 8:16 AM

Suspense and tension in writing

Here are Bright Light Education's top tips for captivating creative writing. These skills will be useful for writing exams or simply writing for fun!

Bright Light Education is an education company based in London but operating worldwide. They specialise in creative writing and preparing children for 11+ exams. Their book, Creative Writing Skills, has sold over 4,000 copies and has been a Number One Best Seller on Amazon. It is suitable for children aged 7–14.

To make your story captivating, you will probably want to include some tension and suspense. It’s all about making your reader feel desperate to read on and find out what happens next! However, don’t use all your suspense techniques in one fell swoop!

In your stories, you may want to build up to a climax. In doing so, you will need to slowly increase the tempo and start to build the tension. It can be effective to withhold information from the reader and not give everything away at once. Use description to lengthen the moment and keep the tension taut! Keep your reader guessing. This will make the climax even more momentous!

There are certain devices that can be used to increase the tension and add atmosphere to your writing, six of which we have outlined below. These suspense devices are described in our Creative Writing Skills book, which is ideal for 7–14 year olds who want to improve their writing skills.

1. Show, don’t tell!

Describing your characters’ feelings is key to writing a good story and building suspense in your writing. The reader wants to be able to put themselves in the shoes of your character, and the only way they can do this is if they know how your character is feeling. However, rather than simply stating the feelings, show the reader how your character is feeling using the ‘show, don’t tell’ technique.

To really build tension in your writing, use ‘show, don’t tell’ but extend your sentence with an adjective, adverb or simile. For example, 'Daisy was nervous' becomes 'Millions of tiny goose bumps jumped out from Daisy’s arm, like oil from a sizzling frying pan.'

2. Personify abstract nouns

The personification of nouns, such as feelings, can be a great way to create powerful sentences about your character. Only when your story is reaching a climax, you may like to use personification to describe an extreme emotion.

The way to do this is simple: choose an emotion, think of a monster and describe their possible actions towards you, and then link them together! For example, 'Fear strangled him and left him gasping for air.'

3. Use your senses

As well as sight, think about what your character can hear, touch, taste and smell. Using all your senses will really help the reader immerse themselves in the story and feel the tension and anticipation more easily.

For example, 'Josef could feel the icy breath on the back of his neck. It was eerily quiet. No sound. No birds singing. No trees rustling. Tap.'

4. Use panic conjunctions

Words which connect words, phrases, clauses, or sentences are called conjunctions. And what we have termed ‘panic conjunctions’ help to increase the excitement and suddenness of events within a story. 'Suddenly' is a common panic conjunction, but it can be overused so try not to use suddenly more than once in a story!

Consider using some of these other panic conjunctions instead:

  • abruptly

  • all at once

  • all of a sudden

  • a moment later

  • just then

  • quickly

  • unexpectedly

  • without warning

5. Use short sentences

Placing short sentences together can really keep your reader on the edge of their seat! They can create emphasis, show sudden events, or summarise main ideas. They can be used incredibly effectively, especially when in contrast to a longer sentence. They can also mimic a heart beating in fear or anxiety which, in turn, adds to the fear and anxiety of the reader!

For example:

  • 'She froze.'

  • 'She panicked.'

  • 'She gasped.'

6. Use pathetic fallacy

Pathetic fallacy is a type of personification when human emotions or feelings are attributed to weather patterns. Weather can be incredibly effective in creating atmosphere and tension within a story so adding pathetic fallacy to your description can really reflect the mood of the character further.

Weather that most creates a mood of uncertainty or apprehension could be howling winds, mist and fog, gloominess or darkness, relentless rain, stormy weather, or dark ominous clouds. For example, 'Ominous, dark clouds rolled in. Thunder rumbled in the distance.'


Activity 1

Read through the short paragraph below. Can you highlight which techniques the author has used to create suspense? Can you spot any other suspense techniques?

As I stumbled up to the abandoned house, I shuddered. The wind screamed like a boiling kettle as the clouds grew darker and more ominous. Audacious strands of ivy covered every brick, clinging desperately against the walls. My heart pounded and every nerve in my body warned me to leave. Through the door I entered. I listened. I froze. Eerie sounds echoed among the cobwebs. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a shadow forming from under the door ahead of me. Fear left me helpless and I felt hypnotised as the door swung open…

Activity 2

Now it’s your chance to write a suspense paragraph. Continue from this sentence:

Kavisha woke with a jump. She heard a faint thud from the kitchen downstairs.

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