The biggest part of writing is an art—having a point of view and the gift to express it. I’m not sure it can be taught, but it can be encouraged and cajoled and inspired. Another large part of writing is capturing what people are actually like, and I can teach you that right now in one sentence: talk to as many people as you can, and listen, truly listen, when they speak.
And then there’s the craft of writing. This can absolutely be taught. I don’t know what they do at fancy writing schools, but I strongly suspect they’re trying to teach the part that can’t be taught and neglecting the part that can. I am going to tell you a few methods to write suspense. I want to tell you this this not because I think your book should be suspenseful, not because I want you to adhere to genre conventions, not because I think literature can be reduced to formulas, but because I want you have as many tools in your toolbox as it can hold. If you learn how to build a page-turning quality into your work, you have more choices—more tools to use. Other tools you may want to add—and maybe I will tell you about them someday—are how to create a character and how to build themes. Possession of a well-stocked toolbox will serve you well if you want to write a mystery, nonfiction, or an experimental literary novel.
So: suspense. The first step is to create a character people care about. You do this by creating a well-rounded, complicated character (see listening, above), with all the quirks, foibles, and unpredictable impulses real people have, and by getting your reader inside that character’s head. You can build suspense through structure alone (and we’ll get to that), but better to start with a character who readers are invested in. They will keep turning pages if they care about this person even if they don’t care about veterinary science or who killed who or whatever else is going on in your book. This is best served by writing either in first person or very close third person. If you’re skilled enough, you can write a book with an omniscient narrator (or multiple first-person narratives) and really gets in each character’s head and build suspense through multiple stories at once, pacing them out carefully to all build together—but that’s a demanding task. The point is that you want the readers to feel at one with your character; if the reader is identified with the character, the smallest gestures will feel important and suspense will naturally be the result, because your reader will care about them very much. Comic book writer Ed Brubaker is a master at character—while his books both follow and (wonderfully) break genre conventions, strong, idiosyncratic characters pull you along, especially in his latest series, Reckless. In the realm of more experimental fiction, Mark Z. Danielewski’s Love is a Flame, a series of short stories that luxuriate in Danielewski-ish strangeness with no overt suspense element whatsoever, nevertheless leaves you at the edge of your seat at the end of each installment by drawing you deeply into character (one of those characters being a racoon).
Second step: short chapters. It feels a little dirty to reduce a novel to a mathematical formula but, sadly, much of what we find appealing in life can be reduced to ratios and fractions, so we will push aside our sorrow and continue. Short, focused chapters mete out information in digestible doses to build suspense and interest without generating confusion or leading your reader astray. Read any airport paperback that you can’t put down (even with a running commentary of judgement in your head) and you’ll see: short chapters. I did this (judgment included) when I worked in a bookstore in the 90s that sold a lot of best-sellers: in idle moments I would flip through Thomas Harris, James Patterson, Harry Potter, and other escapist bestsellers—nothing wrong with these books, but they’re not my books—and marvel at the three-to-five-page chapters. As the old-timers say (me being one of them), always leave them wanting more.
Step three: end every chapter with an answer and a question—in that order. When I was writing my third book, a mid-century mystery, I bought cartons of old pulp fiction on eBay and found that some of the books were terrible, but I still found myself irresistibly pulled forward. After a few cartons I figured out what these pulp writers knew that I didn’t: for every question you answer, raise another, hopefully more interesting or vital-to-the-plot question. So, at the end of a chapter, you find out that Johnny killed Jane, but you raise a new question—why was Jenny there? There’s some math involved here as well, sadly—it’s something like solving part of an equation but opening the door to a larger unsolved equation—but it also activates whatever cognitive human quirk it is that leads us to love mysteries.
Step four: maybe this should have been step two, hope you didn’t get too far in that book yet, but in any case: stay focused. The more streamlined your story, the more your reader will be invested in that story, and the more that reader will be dying to know what happens next. Again (see above) you can do this with multiple storylines, but it’s a hard task to weave them all together just so. I have faith that you can accomplish this hard task, but if you don’t share my confidence, try the easier way with this book, and the harder path with the next. One main character, one storyline, one mystery to solve—this is the clearest path to suspense. To see this in action, try The Fifth Child by Doris Lessing: there’s one story—the story of the titular fifth child and how he destroys his hubristic family—and you will be captured by suspense from the first line.
Step five: stop time. In writing (and film), time=level of detail. In moments of great revelation or action or change, you want to exploit the fuck out them and draaag that suspense out. The way to do this is to slow the moment down. The way to do that is include more highly specific detail in the scene. So, it isn’t Jane opened the door. It’s Jane reached for the door. She hesitated, then put her hand on the doorknob. The metal was cold in her hand. She turned it to the left… You see the difference, right? If you’re a bit of a sadist, which most writers are, you can draw this out to an excruciating level (you can love your readers and also be sadistic toward them—they like it! It’s good for them!). Watch any Hitchcock movie—especially North by Northwest—to see how this works.
Step six: bring in surprises—but play fair. This one is (thankfully) free of formulas. You’ll have only your instinct to guide you. Plot twists are a key element of suspense, but a plot twist that bears no relationship to the book you’ve written so far kicks the reader right out of the story, and all your work is for naught. Suspense comes from a plot twist that shocks and raises questions (ideally at the end of a short chapter, as per above), but also brings a feeling of Oh, of course. If you love your reader (and you should!) twists should have an emotionally resonance within the framework of the world you’ve created. Elizabeth Hand is a genius at this—see especially Generation Loss, the first in her series featuring photographer Cass Neary. See also Jordan Peele’s already-classic Get Out, where both villain and savior illustrate this perfectly.
And there you have it. We ought to write where our heart leads us; I want you to have every tool available to express your heart’s vision. Now go write your experimental poetry—but now, with suspense.