How to Write a Suspense

by Susan May Warren, @SusanMayWarren

Summer is in full swing. Which means one thing: We’re one season closer to football. We love football, and the wait is killing us. But one of the things I love about football is that it’s a great metaphor for nearly everything.

Like writing a suspense novel. A football game has all the elements of a great suspense novel: the players we love, an objective, a playbook on how to win the day, villains, truth tellers (called coaches) on the sidelines and deadline for “game over.”

I could blogged all year about suspense, but I can’t cover all that territory today, so we’re going to touch on the one big element every suspense should have: The Big Event.
Every suspense must have a Big Event that looms in front of the character. It’s an Event they must either stop or achieve in order to save the day. The story may begin with a sample Big Event and lead up to another one. Or, it might have the Big Event in the middle, with the aftermath climax at the end. But the reader must believe that something terrible will happen if the hero/heroine don’t save the day, otherwise, there is nothing “suspenseful” to worry about. The key is that the story is building up to that event, yet the closer we get to the big event, the more obstacles are thrown before the hero/heroine.

Think of it like a football game. If the team doesn’t have the ability to lose, (or win), then we won’t believe they can lose, or win the day. We also need to care about the team, so they have to be heroes under all that gear. The game only last for four short quarters, so there is an immediacy to the threat (and a deadline) and finally, there must be a villainous team opposing them that makes us believe that all could be lost.

Let’s take a closer look at the Big Event. Whether the event that is/will happen is caused by the elements or a villain, it needs to have four components:

The Event must be Believable. You can accomplish this by showing a similar or like event happening in the beginning of the book, or a small glimpse of what COULD happen if things go awry. If I were writing a football book, I’d have them lose a previous game…Or perhaps have the undefeated team lose, to show that our team could go down, hard.

The Big Event also needs to be Compelling. See, if it doesn’t affect the life of a character (that we love), then we won’t really care. Or, if it doesn’t affect them in a way that matters to us, we also don’t care. It has to be personal. This is why High School football is way more exciting than professional football. It’s MY boys out there on the field, fighting for our small town.

There also needs to be an Immediacy or a Deadline to the Event. An end date. Four quarters, that’s it. The hero/heroine/readers must believe that the threat/Big Event will happen, and soon.

See, we need to believe that this horrible Big Event will be…Horrible, Terrifying, Awful. This is different from believing it can happen. It’s answering the questions — so what? If it happens, how does it affect me? One homecoming, we played a team we hadn’t defeated in six years. They liked to rub in our faces. To make us bleed, hurt and hang our heads. Not that year. We held them to four overtime goal line stands and beat them by a touchdown.

It was the most terrifying three hours of football I’d ever experienced.

Believable, Compelling, Immediate, Terrifying – the four components of the Big Event.

Happy Writing!

Susie, who is now really pining for football!


Susan May Warren is owner of Novel Rocket and the founder of Novel.Academy. A Christy and RITA award-winning author of over fifty novels with Tyndale, BarbourSteeple HillSummerside Press and Revell publishers, she’s an eight-timeChristy award finalist, a three-time RITA Finalist, and a multi-winner of the Inspirational Readers Choice award and the ACFW Carol. A popular writing teacher at conferences around the nation, she’s also the author of the popular writing method, The Story Equation. A full listing of her titles, reviews and awards can be found at: www.susanmaywarren.com. Contact her at: susan@mybooktherapy.com.