Posted by: nancycurteman | January 27, 2011

10 Ways to Increase Suspense in Your Mystery Novel

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Killer IdeasSuspense is that element that keeps mystery novel readers turning pages. No suspense, reading stops and the book goes back on the shelf. Clearly, suspense is a critical ingredient of an excellent mystery novel. Here are ten ways to increase suspense in your mystery novel:

1. Define your characters so the reader will care about what happens to them. Readers need to identify with your protagonist. However, readers also need to relate to your antagonist and with secondary characters. To enable readers to do this, they must know a lot about those characters.

2. Make sure your protagonist has strong motivation for the risks she must face. For example, she’s driven to find the person who murdered her sister.

3, Heap obstacles and internal conflicts on your protagonist. No sooner does she conquer a roadblock then an even greater one confronts her.

2. Use pacing to increase suspense. Slow pacing to build suspense. Fast pacing at the point of crisis.

3. Minimize description. Instead give your readers information by showing the characters doing and saying things.

4. Have two or three different scenes shift back and forth. Scene A: Protagonist hears footsteps behind her.  Shift to Scene B: The murderer plots his attack on the protagonist. Shift to Scene C: The friend worries because the protagonist hasn’t answered her phone. She tries to decide whether she should call the police or not.

5. Add time limit pressure, a deadline, a feeling of urgency. She has to get to the house before her sister gets home from work and finds the killer waiting inside.

6. Make the protagonist and the villain experience emotions like fear, worry, nervousness.

7. Pepper your mystery story with several unexpected occurrences. The next door neighbor rings the doorbell just as the killer is ready to step out of the closet. Now he has to decide whether to wait for the neighbor to leave or exit through the bedroom window.

8. Reveal little bits of the plot at a time. Heighten the uncertainty. The reader gets a hint of what’s coming but can’t predict the final outcome.

9. Make the protagonist unaware of the danger the reader knows awaits her. Scene shifts are great vehicles for this strategy.

10. Drop a little morsel of information at the end of each chapter that characters don’t know or need to find out.

For a mystery reader, a mystery novel without suspense is like a day without sunshine. (Don’t use clichés). Bottom line: Increase the suspense in your mystery novel.

Other mystery writing tips:

Backstory: 10 things a Mystery Writer Should Know
9 Ways to Create Tension in a Mystery Novel
4 Do’s and Don’ts of  ”Show, Don’t Tell.”
How Do Conflict and Crisis Differ in a Mystery Novel?
How Important is Conflict in a Mystery Story?
Pacing: A Critical Element in the Mystery Novel
What is Literary Style?
What is Theme in Literature?


  1. These are some excellent points, Nancy. Can I assume that they are going into your eBook?


  2. Thank you, Nancy. Great description of what mystery readers like. Blessings to you…


  3. Great points, NC.

    BTW: I count 12 Ways, not 10. BONUS!


    • Twelve? Help me with that. Maybe I should change the title. Or maybe I could say: Bonus. I like that


    • You have two “2’s” and two “3’s”


  4. Another great post Nancy. I don’t write mystery novels, but I am an avid reader of them so I thought I might add something strictly from that perspective. For most of the story the protagonist is usually unaware of who the antagonist is. I felt as a reader I was always cheated when the author revealed to me who the killer was at the beginning of the story- I like to solve the mystery myself and feel the same paranoia as the protagonist feels. I realise, however, that if the antagonist is not directly involved in the protagonist’s life it makes it difficult not to reveal their identity, which is when the big question of ‘why’ heightens the suspense.


  5. Thanks for the comment Emily. It’s great to hear the perspective of a mystery novel reader. I do think you make a good point. In fact, I don’t reveal the villain until near the end of my novel. In one, I had the detective put some clues together at the last minute that revealed the antagonist to all except the amateur. I heightened the suspense by setting a time constraint that the detective needed to meet to keep the sleuth from becoming a victim.


  6. A great post that covers a ton of stuff. We had a similar discussion over an outline for my next novel and I asked the group if it would be better revealing the antagonist at the beginning so I could develop his character (nastiness) as the novel progresses and get the reader to really want him to get his just deserves, as opposed to keeping him hidden for a surpise. I can see if the antagonist is a killer who does nasty obvious things as he piles up the bodies, that the reader will really learn to dispise him. However, mine, because of the plot, doesn’t run around killing people – just orchestrates things behind the scene – not nice things, but it seems he is pretty much invisible. If suddenly revealed at the end I think the climax would be less effective. Also without showing some of the things he does it would make for a long denoument to explain what and why he did what he did. One of our members suggested a mid point review. Any thoughts?


  7. There are so many ways you could go with your kind of antagonist. You could keep dropping little clues that readers will understand only when the antagonist is revealed at the climax. I like this kind of plot because it combines surprise with an “Oh Yeah!! I should have seen that coming,” feeling in the reader. This is more of a classic mystery puzzle style. On the other hand, if you reveal the antagonist earlier to the readers but not to the protagonist, and then have him plot to kill the protagonist, this worries your readers and increases the suspense. Sounds like you have a great antagonist. I like the idea that he orchestrates behind the scenes. Do you have a title yet? Dan, I went to your site and didn’t quite understand how to get to it.


  8. Thanks for the suggestions Nancy. I like the idea of dropping hints but also revealing him before the ending. Perhaps a kind of compromise between the two ways of dealing with the “Antagonist reveal”.
    I’m not sure what you meant by “I went to your site and didn’t quite understand how to get to it.”


    • I always enjoy visiting blogs by other mystery writers and wanted to see yours. I clicked on your pink and white icon above and it took me to a gravatar symbol. I didn’t know how to access your blog. It’s not important. I enjoy receiving comments from everyone.


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