Horror and suspense are genres that depend entirely on the author’s ability to amp up the drama. The stakes are high in both, usually life and death, but that built-in tension doesn’t always cut it. Individual scenes need to be imbued with heart pumping, adrenaline spiking anxiety. This doesn’t always come naturally. Since writing with tension can be tough, here are a few tips to help you pull off that spooky and/or thrilling tale!

writing with tension

Get inside their head

A tense scene is no place for any kind of narrative distance. If you watch scary movies, you know that just before a jump scare the camera shots get real, real tight. I’m talking close up, can’t see anything but the character’s face. This is equal parts to let us see all the emotional cues happening there—sweaty brows, darting eyes—and to let the bad guy sneak up behind them without us noticing.

The prose equivalent of this move is a close POV. Step one is to cut out all distancing (i.e., filtering) language. There should be zero “he felt”s or “she saw”s. Everything is an active verb. Example:

He felt the skin on the back of his neck start to prickle. — bad

The skin on the back of his neck prickled. — good

Step two is getting detailed with your descriptions. It might feel unnatural at first, maybe cheesy even, but I’m telling you it’s effective. Movies have the benefit of music and other effects to make viewers feel the right things. You have to write the music. 

The skin on the back of his neck prickled like someone had whispered in his ear, though he was definitely the only one in the entire building.

Keep your descriptions concrete and relatable. Everyone will have some concept of the chill you get when someone leans in close and whispers in your ear. It involves all the sensations of there being another body closer to yours than normal, as well as things like air moving near/in your ears. It’s very evocative even though it’s simple.

Get Hitchcockian

Master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock pretty famously had six methods for creating suspense in his films. Not all of them translate easily to writing, but a few of them do. For example, one of his methods involves telling the audience/reader about something the characters don’t know about that might potentially harm them. Giving the readers periodic reminders of this impending danger, while the characters remain unaware of its existence, steadily ramps up the tension.

This method actually flies in the face of my first tip and can be a little harder to accomplish. With this method, the tension is occurring entirely in the reader’s mind as opposed to them tapping into the tension of the characters in the scene. To know things the characters don’t, we need a third person POV/narrator voice to guide us through the story.

He entered the office just as the masked intruder slipped into the storage room, the door bumping its frame softly. He glanced over his shoulder at the faint sound, but quickly returned to the mail in his hands.

Later, when he feels that prickling on the back of his neck, we’ll know why and that he is in fact not alone in the building and therefore potentially in danger. And we won’t be able to do anything about it.

Take a break

Even horror movies aren’t scary the entire time. Readers need a break from the tension otherwise they adjust, like building a tolerance, and it gets that much harder to raise it later in the story. The key is to think of your story like a roller coaster. In the first act, things should always be escalating, so you can’t start out too big. To keep going with the example that we’ve been working with, you could start the story by hinting that our MC feels like he’s being watched and then reveal (only to the reader) that he’s right. Basically, each moment of tension needs to build on the one before it.

A roller coaster that only goes up is a very boring (and, I’m pretty sure, physically impossible) ride. As you build, there should be little dips and turns. Release the tension by giving MC a reason to leave the room, temporarily escaping danger. When he returns, maybe he hears some strange noises or notices the storage room door is slightly ajar. Tension rises while he goes to investigate and releases when you reveal a truly empty storage closet. It doesn’t completely dissipate this time though because the reader knows the intruder was there, but where did he go?

From the climax on, all bets are off until the resolution.

Get an outside opinion

Freaking yourself out while you write is a good sign you’re on the right track. But the only way to know if you’re truly pulling the roller coaster off is to get a second opinion. A developmental editor, especially one obsessed with horror/suspense like your’s truly, will be able to tell you if you’re building and releasing at the right times. If you could step things up, they’ll help you figure out how!

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Author: Whynott Edit

Hi, I'm Megan! My mission is to help underrepresented writers refine their words, strengthen their skills, and tell the best possible versions of their stories.

If you have questions/comments/concerns about writing, editing, or publishing, or want to suggest a post topic, feel free to reach out to me! megan[at]whynottedit.com