Up the Ante: How to Build Suspense in Thrillers

Doug Landsborough
April 20, 2023

Suspense is one of the must-have elements of a successful thriller. It’s that feeling of tense anticipation as your reader devours word after word of your story. It’s the thing that makes them crave the next chapter while dreading it at the same time.

As a thriller writer, being able to build suspense is an invaluable skill. Actually, it might be better to say that it’s a mandatory skill. After all, what is a thriller without suspense?

I don’t know if there’s a term for that, but I know your readers will want nothing to do with it.

In this article, we’re going to cover everything you need to know about building suspense in your thriller. This includes:

  • The ingredients for suspense
  • Using your plot’s high stakes
  • Foreshadowing like a professional
  • Using relentless pacing
  • Taking away all hope
  • When to throw in the payoff

Let’s put all these pieces together.

The Ingredients to Suspense

Not all suspense is created equal. While multiple genres will intentionally stress their reader out (and us authors will have fun doing so), building suspense in thrillers isn’t the same as, say, creating it in a horror story.

Thrillers don’t have much of a slow burn to them, opting instead for unyielding tension and limited breathing room. For a complete guide to writing a thriller, check out this article before we get too much deeper. Or bookmark it for later, you do you.

Let’s establish the foundation of suspense before we get into the thriller-specific elements.

  1. Suspense is built in steps. You can’t create long-lasting suspense in a single paragraph. Sure, you can startle your reader, which has its uses. But suspense is built through a series of escalating events that makes  dread grow in your reader’s mind.
  2. Surprise isn’t the same as suspense. Let’s be clear: suspense doesn’t come from something coming out of left field. It’s not there to shock your reader. So don’t think that twists and literary jump scares are a way to build suspense. That’s because…
  3. Suspense is the build-up, not the event. This is a big one. Suspense is more like the lack of an event. It’s the tension leading up to what we assume is inevitable. And it’s knowing that something bad must happen that stresses your reader out.

These are important tips to remember when writing suspenseful stories in any genre. So, with that covered, let’s talk about building suspense in thrillers.

Use Your Plot’s High Stakes

Thrillers are all about high stakes. If there wasn’t a lot on the table, then it wouldn’t really be a thriller, right? It would just be… a sort of exciting drama? But your readers are here for those or else consequences.

Your main character must find the killer or else their family will be killed on a livestream.

The scientists must figure out how to stop the moon from falling or else the world will be obliterated.

The secret service agent must decipher the secret transmission or else the president will be assassinated.

When you’re writing your thriller, make sure the stakes are established early and clearly. This will be the first step in building your suspense: your readers will already know what the or else is.

Then, as you continue through your story, make it worse. It’s no longer strangers kidnapped by the villain but the hero’s children. Then they fall for a red herring, cutting their time in half to get to the kids. Then both children are in two different places, forcing the hero to choose one to save and one to sacrifice.

We got dark there, but can you tell how starting the stakes high (someone is going to die) and making them higher (family, red herring, impossible choice) adds to the suspense?

And we’re just getting started.

Use Relentless Pacing

One of the strengths of suspenseful thrillers is their ability to make you hold your breath, fly though pages, and spend hours reading when you really only meant to spend thirty minutes.

That ability primarily comes from a brutally relentless pace. In fantasy novels, you have action scenes, consequences, politicking, celebrations, and other events that make them more like a rollercoaster that goes up and down, providing tense moments and space to relax and catch your breath.

In romance, you can have the adorable meet cute, the excitement of blossoming love, then something that strains the relationship before a happily ever after (or happy for now) ending. It’s like a rollercoaster that has little dips and crests before the big drop, then the relief of rolling back to safety.

In thrillers, it’s more like you’re on a rollercoaster that just keeps going down really steep drops. And every time it feels like there’s a plateau to provide some relief, you just plummet down an even steeper decline.

When you never give your readers or characters a chance to breathe, you amp up the tension and suspense. Things just continue to get worse and worse, and we’ve had no time to recover from the last stressor.

Use that sort of pacing to your advantage. Remember, your readers are here for an edge-of-their-seat plot. Give them what they want!

Foreshadow Like a Pro

While you’re throwing all that tension at them, remember to sprinkle in some foreshadowing to really up that sense of impending doom. Adding in foreshadowing not only reminds the reader of the bigger stakes, but can lead to some fun clues when someone rereads your book.

Here are some tips for foreshadowing like a pro:

  • Be subtle with it - No one likes spoilers, right? So don’t ruin your novel with foreshadowing that is so heavy-handed it will give away major plot points.
  • Foreshadow with innocuous details - By adding small, seemingly insignificant details into your characters (their appearance, things they say off-hand, their traits) or your setting (the weather, features of a building, previous events), you can hint at what’s to come. 
  • Changes are effective foreshadowers - If it isn’t initial details that hint at upcoming events, point out some changes that will. This is easy for things like weather or someone’s tone when speaking about a particular event or person, but it could also include changes in color, how a location has changed over time, and so on.
  • Foreshadow early - Foreshadowing is most effective in the earlier chapters of your book. This is where things are a bit slower (yes, even in thrillers), so it’s easier to add those little details that can add to a reader’s sense of foreboding. You can successfully use foreshadowing in the second act, but not as well.

Foreshadowing is like a little sprinkle of finishing salt on your story; it’s not the star of the dish, but it can elevate your creation.

Take Away All Hope

One of the key moments in a thriller is when the hero is at the mercy of the villain. This is a moment when all hope is lost and it seems like the villain will truly be victorious (assuming the reader doesn’t notice how many pages are left).

This is the most suspenseful moment in your story, but it doesn’t come out of nowhere. Remember, suspense is built in steps. So you want to layer up to this sense of hopelessness—or, rather, you want to slowly chip away at hope.

Let’s look at some thriller story beats and see how they affect hope.

The initial crime/inciting incident -  There’s still a good deal of hope. Well, not for the victims. That train has already left the station. But for our hero, they are either just becoming aware of the villain, were recently assigned to the case, or are still blissfully unaware. So we’re at like 100% hope.

Rising action - The series of escalating events that show how intelligent and malicious the villain is. It’s like they’re always one step ahead (or, in the case of person vs. non-human conflicts, our hero feels one step behind). Hope is steadily declining at this point, with each event taking away a chunk.

The midpoint - This is where things are the worst they’ve been so far. In thrillers, this is where things become personal for the hero, because the villain has gone after their family, livelihood, or safety, among other targets that intimately affect the hero. Our hope has now plummeted, so we’re well below 50%—though motivation has skyrocketed.

The pre-climax - In thrillers, the pre-climax shows the hero at the mercy of the villain. Maybe the protagonist has a gun to their head. Maybe the villain forces the hero to make an impossible choice like we mentioned above. Maybe some scandalous video has been posted online, costing our hero their job, relationships, and everything they hold dear. Whatever happens, this is the lowest point our hero can get. Hope is at 0%.

Consider how you can strip away the hero’s hope while using the quick pace, high stakes, and foreshadowing we already spoke about. Do you see how all these small pieces can work together to build suspense?

Throw in the Payoff… With a Catch

While you’re stealing all that hope away, offer the occasional payoff to give a false sense of hope. These payoffs come with a catch that will snatch away more hope than the payoff offered (payoffered?).

Think of it like this:

During the rising action, our harrowing detective spots a hidden message in the letter from the killer. She and her team race to save the victim, getting there just in time. A big sigh of relief, because it looks like they can outsmart our villain.

Surprise! Once the would-be victim is saved, a laptop next to the detective flickers to life, showing a livestream of three other victims suffering even worse fates. The whole time we thought our hero was ahead of the game, but they were playing right into the hands of our villain.

By having the occasional payoff, you ignite a spark of hope. But when things turn out worse than before, it increases the suspense much more than just another victim. This is especially true when our hero is being manipulated by their adversary.

Suspense is Just One Tool in Your Toolkit

Becoming an expert at writing suspense is important for anyone who wants to write a thriller. It’s one of those mandatory ingredients your book needs.

But that doesn’t mean it’s the only ingredient.

There’s a lot that goes into writing a good book. From characters to plots, themes to conflicts, world building to genre tropes… part of being a successful author is understanding you’re always learning, always growing, and always refining your craft.

And guess what? We’ve got a ton of resources to help you out with that. All of them completely free, even for non-Dabblers.

DabbleU is our online platform for articles just like this one, where we cover all the different aspects of writing. We’re publishing multiple articles a week and already have enough to eat up all the time you aren’t spending on your book.

The Story Craft Café is an online community of writers who support one another, share tips and success stories, and generally just have a fun time. With events, prompts, interviews with bestselling authors, and even a space for thriller writers, you’re bound to call the Café your new home.

And Let’s Write a Book is our 100+ page e-book that helps you get that first draft finished. It covers everything you need to know to get started and, more importantly, keep writing until you’re done. Whether you’re a pantser or a plotter, this book will help you on your writing journey.

So take what you’ve learned here, add it to your repertoire of authorly awesomeness, and go write a suspenseful thriller.

Doug Landsborough

Doug Landsborough can’t get enough of writing. Whether freelancing as an editor, blog writer, or ghostwriter, Doug is a big fan of the power of words. In his spare time, he writes about monsters, angels, and demons under the name D. William Landsborough. When not obsessing about sympathetic villains and wondrous magic, Doug enjoys board games, horror movies, and spending time with his wife, Sarah.