Sunday, November 20, 2016

Three Simple Ways to Build Suspense (Guest Post by Yvonne Ventresca)

I'm so excited to host fellow YA author and blogger Yvonne Ventresca On The Verge today. Yvonne's latest novel Black Flowers, White Lies is an un-put-down-able page turner, a psychological horror thriller in the vein of my favorite Lois Duncan novels Summer of Fear and Stranger with My Face. Fast-paced, nail-biting books like these read fast, but I can tell you, they are not easy to write. Want to know how Yvonne does it? 

Read on:


Special thanks to Jody for hosting my guest post today! I’m Yvonne Ventresca, author of the young adult novels Pandemic and Black Flowers, White Lies. I recently had the chance to teach writers about suspense at New Jersey’s SCBWI Fall Craft Weekend. Here are some of the highlights from my workshop:

Suspense can be created at the highest level with the overall story question. 

Will Katniss survive The Hunger Games? Will Eleanor & Park find happiness together? Will the owls be saved in Hoot? This story question is critical in keeping the reader turning the pages.

At the nitty gritty level, however, suspense is created by the building blocks of paragraphs. While it might seem that a gripping scene should be filled with short and fast-paced sentences, there is another way to create tension. Adding relevant, vivid details to a scene can actually stretch the apprehension.

This technique slows down time so that the reader can anticipate what will happen next. (For more about this, check out the nonfiction writing guide, Conflict & Suspense.) 

Here are three simple ways to expand a tense scene:

1. Add interior monologue. This gives the reader access to the character’s worries and concerns while increasing anticipation.

2. Add relevant sensory details (what a character touches, see, hears, smells, tastes). This helps the reader imagine the scene while also stretching the tension.

3. Keep sentences vivid by using the active voice instead of the passive voice. Passive voice sentences are based on the verb “to be.” These types of sentences, while okay for a blog post, don’t offer much impact in fiction. For example: “it was raining” (passive) versus “the rain pounded the roof” (active). Another example: the snow was shoveled (passive) vs her favorite son shoveled the snow (active). You can learn about passive voice (with zombies!) here. In general, the active voice specifies who/what is performing the action.

How can these three ideas be combined to increase suspense? 

I always find it easiest to understand writing concepts with an example, so here’s an excerpt from Ten by Gretchen McNeil. (Many thanks to Gretchen for allowing me to use this!) Ten is a suspenseful young adult horror novel, inspired by Agatha Christie's classic And Then There Were None.

In this particular excerpt (pgs 275-277), the main character, Meg, has learned the identity of the killer (which I will NOT reveal!) and has found a boat. With the killer not far behind, she boards the boat, hoping it will provide an escape from the isolated island where they’ve been trapped. The story text is in white; my observations are in purple.     

Excerpt from Ten

She leaped to her feet and ran to the captain’s chair. The keys were still in the ignition, and as she frantically tried to turn the engine over, she said a silent prayer promising to go to church with her mom every day for the rest of her life if only the damn engine would start. [This is a nice bit of interior monologue.]
“The harder you make it,” [X] said, “the worse you’ll suffer, I promise. Just come out and let me shoot you.”
She felt the boat shift. [Sensory detail.]
Oh my God. He was climbing aboard. [Interior monologue.]
Meg spun around, frantically searching for a place to hide just as a gunshot rang out. She instinctively hit the floor as the port window of the wheelhouse shattered. Broken glass sprinkled across the cabin floor. . . . [All active sentences. “The floor was covered in glass” would have been passive. “Broken glass sprinkled” is active and a nice visual.]
      Meg huddled behind the captain’s chair and forced herself to think as rationally as possible. . . . She had two choices. . . . [There’s interior monologue here to help the reader understand the setting. She analyzes hiding below deck or going up, then chooses up.]
As quickly and quietly as she could, Meg crawled across the floor of the boathouse. She had to bite her lip to keep from crying out as shards of glass cut into her palms and knees, digging deep into her flesh. [Sensory details! Ouch!] The three feet across the wheelhouse felt like three miles, [More interior monologue so that we understand her agony] and her hands and legs were bloody by the time she reached the starboard door. . . .
Just in time. She barely got the door completely closed when she heard a crunching sound. Boots on broken glass. [Sensory detail! She’s not safe yet!]

I hope the next time you revise a nail-biting scene, these tips help. As Oscar Wilde said, "This suspense is terrible. I hope it will last."


Bio: Yvonne Ventresca’s latest young adult novel, the psychological thriller BLACK FLOWERS, WHITE LIES (Sky Pony Press, 2016) was listed at the top of Buzzfeed’s must-read new YA books for fall. Her debut YA novel, PANDEMIC, won a 2015 Crystal Kite Award from the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. 

You can learn more about Yvonne and her books at or on social media here: Facebook | Twitter | Blog | Instagram | Pinterest

About Black Flowers, White Lies: Her father died before she was born, but Ella Benton knows they have a special connection. Now, evidence points to his death in a psychiatric hospital, not a car accident as Mom claimed. When strange, supernatural signs appear, Ella wonders if Dad’s trying to tell her something, or if someone’s playing unsettling tricks. 

As the unexplained events become sinister, she finds herself terrified about who—or what—might harm her. Then the evidence points to Ella herself. What if, like Dad, she’s suffering a breakdown? Ella desperately needs to find answers, no matter how disturbing the truth might be.


  1. Thank you, Jody, for sharing this post on your blog!

  2. Thanks for the tips and the very helpful breakdown with examples!

  3. Yvonne, having the example to see the tips in action really helped me. TY.

  4. Thanks for these great tips, Yvonne. I especially loved the breakdown of the excerpt with examples. So helpful!

    Hi, Jody! :)

  5. Thank you, Julie! Glad you found it helpful.

  6. I loved reading your post, Yvonne. It was, of course, so well done. And thanks for introducing me to Jody's great site! I'll have to visit again.