Guest Posts

Creating and Building Suspense in Horror Fiction

The Boulevard Monster coverJeremy Hepler is a new to me author, but even though I haven’t read it, I feel confident in recommending his newest novel and telling you it’s almost definitely a good one. The reason for this is simple. It’s from Bloodshot Books, and editor/publisher Pete Kahle is just incapable of producing or curating bad fiction. I’ve read the majority of books in Bloodshot’s body of published work and I’ve never read a book that wasn’t over-the-top fantastic. So yes, I highly recommend THE BOULEVARD MONSTER based on that experience, and I also recommend this entertaining and insightful article he’s written for us here today.  Enjoy.

Creating and Building Suspense in Horror Fiction
By Jeremy Hepler, Author of The Boulevard Monster

Creating and building suspense is one of the most important aspects of writing for horror authors. We all want our reader’s hearts to be pounding as they turn the pages. We want them to gnaw on their nails. We want them to blurt out warnings to the protagonist even though it will do no good. We want them to be held captive by our words. We want them to have to turn another page. In order to give readers that visceral experience, our stories have to be suspenseful. God knows I’m no master at suspense, but here are a few of the staples I’ve gleaned over the years through reading, dissecting “How-to” books and articles, and chatting with other authors that helped me better incorporate suspense into my stories.

First and foremost, if we don’t feel a connection with the protagonist, then we won’t care about what happens to them. Your protagonist shouldn’t be a cheesy, cookie cutter perfect human, but they should be likeable, relatable, and believable enough that we feel angst when they’re in peril, that we have hope that they will pull through. And in an equal but opposite fashion, suspenseful stories need a crafty, motivated, and fleshed out antagonist. Explore the antagonist’s motives and give us a background that’s as thorough as possible. If we do not believe in and fear the antagonist, and hope and pull for the protagonist, suspense cannot be created no matter how harrowing the predicaments you put them in.

Once we care about the protagonist, a great way to build suspense around them is by using space and time constraints.  Spatial constraints are customary in many horror novels. It physically encages the protagonist, forcing them into unescapable situations. For example, maroon them on an island (William Golding’s Lord of the Flies), trap them in a bubble or house (Stephen King’s Under the Dome and Misery), strand them on ice (Bracken MacLeod’s Stranded), etc. Isolating the protagonist initially can often create a hum of suspense that runs over the entire narrative. And when it comes to time constraints, remember that the protagonist should always be working against the clock, and the clock should always be working for the antagonist. Delivering this sense of urgency, a sense of a final countdown, can help build worry in reader’s minds, which in turn propels them to continue flipping pages.

Next, to keep suspense building throughout the story, the protagonist needs to face a conflict that has devastating potential to their personal world, and they must be willing to do anything to stop it. In my novel, The Boulevard Monster, I doubled up on this by making my protagonist have to ultimately face a supernatural villain in order to protect his family, and at the same time, he feels he’s falsely been accused of murder and is on the run and trying to tell his side of the story. In both instances, the stakes are very high for him personally, which helps ensure that readers who’ve connected with him will empathize with him.

After you have a personal crisis crashing down on the protagonist, it’s time to apply pressure, start pounding them with challenges. The protagonist should be fighting against the tide, working against almost insurmountable odds. All of their strengths and weaknesses must be exposed, prodded, and tested in their efforts to overcome the antagonist’s attempt to destroy, trap, or control them.  And a writer should make the challenges mentally and emotionally difficult, challenges that will tempt the protagonist and force them to question their morals, beliefs, values. For instance, you could force the protagonist to choose between saving only one of two loved ones, or similarly, put the protagonist in a situation where they have to break their own moral code and kill someone if they want to save themselves.

Last but not least, always be realistic. Life is not always predictable, and neither should the difficult situations for the protagonist. Often their choices should result in one step forward, two steps back. Make the protagonist, and antagonist for that matter, have to improvise, especially as the story approaches the climax. A good way to inject these unpredictable detours is through the use of side characters in the story like friends or neighbors, or by using natural elements like wild animals or the weather. Tornadoes, floods, lions, bears, earthquakes, or a pack of demented birds, for example, can easily derail both the protagonist’s and antagonist’s plans. Most readers are constantly trying to predict how the story will end, how the protagonist will best the antagonist, but as a writer, you should always try to make sure they can’t predict the route there.


About Jeremy Hepler

Jeremy Hepler headshotNative to the Texas Panhandle, Jeremy Hepler now lives in a small rural community in central Texas with his wife Tricia and son Noah. Throughout his life, he has worked jobs ranging from welder’s hand to health care assistant, but writing has always been his passion.

Jeremy is a member of the Horror Writer’s Association (HWA) and is currently working on his second novel, Demigod Dreams. In the last five years, he has had twenty-four short stories published in various small and professional markets, and in 2014, he placed second in the Panhandle Professional Writers Short Story Competition. You can contact him via Facebook or Twitter (@jeremyhepler) where you will find links to his blog and Amazon author page.

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