Spark up your story

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Add tension, suspense, and intrigue (Part I)

by Jodie Renner, editor & award-winning author of writing guides

All genres of fiction, not just thrillers and action-adventures, need tension, suspense, and intrigue to hook readers and keep them eagerly turning the pages. And of course, you’ll need to ratchet up the tension and suspense a lot more if you’re writing a fast-paced, nail-biting page-turner.

Here are some techniques for adding tension, suspense, and intrigue to your novel or short story:

First, create a fascinating protagonist character readers will care about. Make your main character likeable, appealing, smart, and resourceful. If readers haven’t bonded with your lead character, they won’t care what happens to her. And for intrigue, be sure to add some vulnerability, inner conflict, secrets, and regrets.

Get up close and personal. Start out in your protagonist’s head in the first paragraph, preferably the first sentence, using first-person or close third-person point of view. Use deep point of view for your hero or heroine to create a sense of intimacy and keep readers emotionally invested.

Put your character in motion right away. Create an opening disturbance of some kind, preferably on the first page. Something negative happens to shake up his world or get in the way of a main goal. He needs to take action.

Use compelling, vivid sensory imagery to take us right there, with the protagonist, vividly experiencing and reacting to whoever/whatever is challenging or threatening her. And appeal to all five senses, not just the visual.

Create a worthy opponent for your protagonist. You should have a nasty, cunning, determined antagonist. Your villain needs to be as intelligent, motivated, and resourceful as your protagonist – or even more so. Make him a serious force to be reckoned with.

Threaten your protagonist. Now that your readers care about your main character, insert a major threat or dilemma within the first chapter or two, one that won’t be resolved until the end.

Create an overriding sentence about this to keep in mind as you’re writing your story:

Will (name) survive/stop/find/overcome (ordeal/person/difficulty/threat) on time to save himself or others?

Here’s a premise in a nutshell for a gripping, entertaining story your readers will love:

(Hero or heroine’s name) wants … (what will complete their life, make them happy, fulfill their main goal, satisfy their biggest hope or desire?). But he/she is hampered by … (describe the misfortune, conflict, dilemma, problem, villain), and she/he has … (time limit or other hindrance) to … (describe the almost impossible task) or … (describe a negative consequence that will happen). He/she has to choose between… and …. (Continue from there….

Part II will appear, along with Part I above, in the Summer Edition of the Fed’s WordWorks Magazine, which comes out in June. It will also be published on this web site and archived with Part I in the Craft of Writing section.


Remmer_Jodie-Portrait20140820-150pxpxJodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor and the award-winning author of three craft-of-writing guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: Captivate Your Readers, Fire up Your Fiction, and Writing a Killer Thriller. She has also published two clickable time-saving e-resources to date: Quick Clicks: Spelling List and Quick Clicks: Word Usage. You can find Jodie at,, at The Kill Zone blog alternate Mondays, and on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

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