Secrets of Suspense

7 ways to keep readers reading

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If a reader doesn’t care about what happens next in your story, you’ve failed.

Most books go unfinished. Most tweets get scrolled past. And most blog posts languish unread on the internet.

But there are extremely effective tools you can employ to grab someone’s interest and increase their curiosity to keep them reading.

Today’s post comes from my good friend Nat Eliason. Nat and I write together each week, and his first book comes out on Tuesday from Penguin Random House. I’ve seen the work he put into this — from early drafts to final copy — and have learned a ton from him. Enjoy this glimpse into how he thinks about storytelling suspense!

I’ve been obsessing over the mystical art of storytelling suspense for the last two years. When I started writing Crypto Confidential I knew that the only way to succeed at making a “crypto” book interesting to a mass market audience was to make it read like a beach thriller.

A John Grisham or Red Rising degree of excitement but with some bits of education snuck in along the way.

Here are a few of the best tricks I learned. Try using them next time you craft a story and you’ll be shocked by how much they can increase the intrigue.

1. A Clear Risk of Death

The easiest way to increase the suspense in your story is to make sure the protagonist is at risk of dying in some fashion.

But this doesn’t have to be a contrived James Bond Villain’s laser inching up the table kind of death.

Types of Character Deaths

There are a few kinds of “death” you can incorporate into your story to make it juicier:

Physical Death: This is the most obvious looming threat of death you can use. It’s the one where they actually die. Need I say more?

Psychological Death: This is a subtler one. It could involve the protagonist failing to achieve their dreams, never being proven right, going crazy, anything where their mind would be irrevocably damaged for the rest of their life.

Social Death: In this kind of death, the protagonist becomes outcast from society, their partner leaves them, their kids are ashamed of them, their place in the world has been ripped away from them.

Whatever your story is, you need to make it very clear what kind of death is facing the protagonist, and lean into it at every turn of the story.

2. Keep Making Things Worse

Your story will have one BIG goal the protagonist is trying to achieve.

But if they move linearly closer and closer to that goal, it will be boring. It will be predictable. And worst: the stakes won’t be getting increased along the way.

Instead, in each beat or scene of your story, the protagonist should be getting pushed further from their goal than when they started.

If they need to win a three-round karate competition, they shouldn’t just win the first round and advance to the second. They should have something awful happen to them in the first round so they get kicked out, and need to find a way back into the game.

If they’re trying to woo their love interest, they shouldn’t have a wonderful first date. They should get in a car accident on the way to the date and miss it entirely.

If they’re a detective trying to find a missing child, they shouldn’t just work through the clues. They should screw something up on the first clue and get kicked off the force and maybe their child gets abducted as well!

Steady progress is boring. Keep making things worse instead.

3. Yes But, No And

This is a classic trick. Once you hear it, you’ll see it everywhere.

The easiest way to increase the stakes at the end of a scene is not to simply have the protagonist achieve, or fail to achieve, their goal.

Rather it’s to use “Yes But” or “No And”

In the three-round competition, maybe YES they win the first round BUT they sprain their ankle in the process and now need to win the next rounds with one good foot.

In the missed first date with their love interest, NO they don’t make it to the date AND their date texts them an hour later calling them a liar and saying they never want to hear from them again.

If the protagonist gets what they want, find a way to add an unexpected downside to it. And if they don’t get what they want, figure out how to make their failure worse than they or the reader expected.

4. Unexpected but Guessable

If the outcome of a scene or point of conflict is predictable, it is boring. No one wants to read a story where they know what will happen next.

So you have to constantly surprise your reader to maintain their curiosity. But if you surprise them in a completely unpredictable way, they won’t like that either.

Readers want to be surprised and to feel like if they had paid closer attention, they could have predicted the surprise. So you need to make your twists unexpected but also guessable in retrospect.

Take the karate competition again. Having the protagonist sprain his ankle is a good twist. But it’s better if there’s one little line earlier in the story from his mentor telling him that he needs to improve his footing to protect his ankles.

Or in the date story, the car crash twist is better if there’s a mention of a dangerous intersection or the protagonist being a fast driver.

Obviously you don’t have to foreshadow everything, but if when a reader gets surprised they can occasionally think “ohhhh duh” you’ll get them reading the rest of the book even closer to try to guess what twist will happen next.

5. No Talking

Dialogue is an essential part of any story, but if characters are just talking, you’ll quickly lose your reader.

All dialogue needs to be based on some kind of conflict. Even if the dialogue is between two characters who like each other, they should be having some kind of disagreement they’re trying to resolve. Or some external problem they’re trying to address, though they might have different ideas on how to solve it.

Think about this next time you’re reading a book or watching a movie. There’s almost never a moment when two characters are “just talking.” If dialogue is happening, there’s also some kind of conflict.

6. Interruption

As an argument is building, or as a character is getting closer to their goal, one of the most effective ways to quickly increase the tension is to add a sudden interruption of some sort.

It could be an actual interruption in the dialogue, like one character cutting the other off and taking the conversation in a new direction. But it could also be an interruption from the environment, like a car nearly hitting your character or the power in their house going out.

If you do this too much, it might make your story feel cheap and unpredictable. But if you have the occasional moment where the stakes feel low or the story feels slow, think about how you can interrupt what’s going on to make it more exciting.

7. Stretch it Out

Finally, your story might be dull at parts because the problems are getting solved too quickly.

The protagonist wants something from another character, they ask for it, the other character says no, they say please, and then they get it. It’s too quick, there's no real curiosity on the reader’s end over whether or not they’ll reach their goals.

To make it more suspenseful, make sure nothing is getting resolved too quickly. There should be multiple barriers, disagreements, and even side quests between a character stating their goal and finally achieving it.

Sometimes we avoid stretching parts of the story out because we don’t want readers to get bored, but as long as you’re incorporating these different tools for keeping the suspense and curiosity high, you won’t lose readers. In fact, they’ll be thrilled because they’re having fun wondering what’s going to happen next and how it all resolves.

I hope these tools help you write your own exciting story. And if you want to see some of them in action, pick up a copy of Crypto Confidential!

Have an awesome weekend,


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