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19 Prompts to Create Suspense in your Plot

by Writing Workshops Staff

6 months ago


19 Prompts to Create Suspense in your Plot

by Writing Workshops Staff

6 months ago


Find your next fiction class here.

Crafting an irresistible narrative is akin to weaving an intricate tapestry that captivates readers from the very first word. A masterful tale often hinges upon the enigmatic allure of a character with a shrouded history or concealed intentions.

Such a character becomes the catalyst for a symphony of literary devices that dance through the pages, ensnaring readers in a web of suspense and fascination.

So let's explore the art of cultivating an atmosphere of intrigue and anticipation, so that you have 19 prompts you can use to create stories that enthrall and compel. From the delicate art of foreshadowing to the heart-pounding rhythm of pacing, we delve into the arsenal of techniques that transform a mere story into an unforgettable odyssey.

1. Introduce a mysterious character

Bring in a character with a hidden past or unknown motives. This will keep readers guessing and create intrigue.

Example: TV Series - "Stranger Things"

Character: Eleven is a mysterious girl with psychokinetic abilities who appears in the small town of Hawkins. Her hidden past and enigmatic origins create intrigue and keep both characters and viewers guessing about her true identity and motives.

2. Use foreshadowing

Drop subtle hints or clues about future events to build anticipation and make readers wonder what will happen next.

Example: Book - "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" by J.K. Rowling

Foreshadowing: The mention of the lightning bolt scar on Harry's forehead and the mysterious figure of Snape dropping hints about his connection to Harry's past build anticipation about the larger magical world and the events yet to come.

3. Create a ticking clock

Set a deadline or time limit for your characters to achieve their goals. This adds urgency and keeps readers on the edge of their seats.

Example: Film - "Speed"

Ticking Clock: In "Speed," a bomb is rigged to a city bus, and the bomb will detonate if the bus drops below a certain speed. This sets a time limit, creating intense urgency for both characters and the audience.

4. Use cliffhangers

End chapters or sections with unresolved conflicts or unanswered questions to keep readers hooked and eager to continue reading.

Example: TV Series - "Breaking Bad"

Cliffhanger: Many episodes of "Breaking Bad" end with unresolved conflicts or dilemmas, such as Walter White's unpredictable actions. This compels viewers to keep watching to find out how the situations will be resolved.

5. Build up to a major revelation

Gradually reveal important information or plot twists to build tension and keep readers engaged.

Example: Film - "The Sixth Sense"

Revelation: Throughout the movie, subtle hints and clues are dropped that the main character can see and interact with dead people. The gradual reveal of this twist builds tension and keeps audiences engaged.

6. Create conflicts and obstacles

Introduce obstacles and challenges that prevent your characters from easily achieving their goals. This creates tension and suspense.

Example: Book - "The Hunger Games" by Suzanne Collins

Obstacle: The brutal arena and the various challenges the tributes face in the Hunger Games force characters like Katniss Everdeen to confront difficult obstacles, creating tension and suspense.

7. Use dramatic irony

Let readers know something that the characters don't, creating anticipation and making readers wonder how the characters will react when they find out.

Example: Play - "Romeo and Juliet" by William Shakespeare

Dramatic Irony: The audience knows about Juliet's fake death before Romeo does, creating anticipation and anxiety as we wonder how he will react when he finds her seemingly lifeless.

8. Raise the stakes

Make the consequences of failure higher and more personal for your characters. This increases tension and keeps readers invested in the outcome.

Example: Film - "The Dark Knight"

Stakes: The Joker's escalating threats in "The Dark Knight" put not only Batman's life at risk but also the people of Gotham City. The personal and city-wide consequences amplify the tension.

9. Use red herrings

Introduce false clues or misleading information to divert readers' attention and keep them guessing about what will happen next.

Example: Book - "Gone Girl" by Gillian Flynn

Red Herring: The shifting perspectives and unreliable narrators in "Gone Girl" introduce misleading information, making readers question what's true and keeping them guessing about the characters' intentions.

10. Create a sense of danger

Put your characters in perilous situations or make them face powerful adversaries. This creates suspense and makes readers worry about their safety.

Example: Film - "Jurassic Park"

Danger: The characters' constant encounters with dinosaurs create a palpable sense of danger, making audiences fear for their safety and wonder how they'll escape.

11. Use pacing and rhythm

Vary the pace of your story, alternating between fast-paced action scenes and slower, more reflective moments. This keeps readers engaged and adds to the suspense.

Example: TV Series - "Game of Thrones"

Pacing: "Game of Thrones" employs a mix of slow-building political intrigue and sudden, intense action sequences. The shifting pacing keeps viewers engaged and uncertain about what will happen next.

12. Keep secrets

Withhold information from readers, revealing it only at crucial moments. This creates anticipation and makes readers eager to uncover the truth.

Example: Book - "The Girl on the Train" by Paula Hawkins

Secrets: In "The Girl on the Train," the protagonist's unreliable memory keeps crucial details hidden, creating anticipation and causing readers to piece together the truth along with the character.

13. Use unexpected plot twists

Surprise readers with unexpected turns of events that challenge their assumptions and keep them guessing about what will happen next.

Example: Film - "Fight Club" 

Plot Twist: "Fight Club" delivers a major plot twist that recontextualizes the entire story. The unexpected turn challenges viewers' assumptions and keeps them captivated.

14. Create moral dilemmas

Put your characters in situations where they have to make difficult choices with no clear right or wrong answer. This creates tension and keeps readers engaged.

Example: TV Series - "The Good Place"

Dilemma: "The Good Place" frequently presents characters with ethical choices, blurring the lines between right and wrong. These dilemmas keep the audience engaged by pondering the characters' decisions.

15. Use sensory details

Describe the sights, sounds, smells, and feelings in vivid detail to immerse readers in the story and create a sense of atmosphere and tension.

Example: Book - "Dune" by Frank Herbert

Sensory Details: "Dune" vividly describes the desert planet Arrakis, its sandworms, and the spice melange, immersing readers in its unique atmosphere and adding tension to the characters' struggles.

16. Create unanswered questions

Leave some questions unanswered throughout the story, making readers curious and eager to find out the answers.

Example: TV Series - "Lost"

Unanswered Questions: "Lost" masterfully presents intriguing mysteries that unfold over the course of the series, motivating viewers to speculate and eagerly await answers.

17. Use misdirection

Lead readers to believe one thing, only to reveal later that they were mistaken. This keeps readers on their toes and adds to the suspense.

Example: Film - "The Prestige"

Misdirection: "The Prestige" is a story of rival magicians with unexpected turns. The film uses misdirection to manipulate the audience's perception, keeping them guessing about the characters' true intentions.

18. Create internal conflicts

Give your characters inner struggles and conflicting desires. This adds depth to their personalities and creates tension within the story.

Example: Film - "Black Swan"

Internal Conflict: "Black Swan" showcases the internal struggle of the main character as she battles her own fears, desires, and delusions. This inner conflict adds complexity and suspense.

19. Use dramatic reveals

Unveil important information or plot twists in a dramatic and unexpected way. This surprises readers and keeps them engaged in the story.

Example: Film - "The Usual Suspects"

Dramatic Reveal: "The Usual Suspects" concludes with a shocking reveal that redefines the entire narrative. This unexpected disclosure leaves the audience stunned and engaged.

The mastery of suspense and intrigue remains a hallmark of remarkable storytelling.

With the toolbox of techniques outlined above, writers can orchestrate narratives that bind readers in a spell of curiosity and emotion. By introducing mysterious figures, weaving intricate plot twists, and embracing the ebb and flow of pacing, every word becomes a brushstroke painting the canvas of suspense.

The reader, ensnared by foreshadowing and cliffhangers, embarks on a journey filled with unanswered questions, moral dilemmas, and perilous conflicts. As the final page turns, the echoes of these techniques linger, a testament to the power of crafting stories that not only entertain, but also leave an indelible mark upon the heart and mind.

Find your next fiction class here.

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