How to Write a Suspenseful Opening
A lot of writers have a hard time starting out a suspenseful tale, usually because they are uncertain of how to make it tense enough or descriptive enough. Others may have difficulty moving the story along after that suspenseful first line. Learning how to create suspense within the first sentence and carry that tension through the first paragraph can help get your story off the ground and hook a reader's interest right from the start.
Writing a Suspenseful Opening Line
Plan out what the opening line should accomplish.If you want to write a suspenseful opening line, you should have a good idea of what you want to accomplish with it. An opening line can do many things, and there are many ways to write an introductory line. What you choose will depend on what you hope to build toward.
- An opening line can convey a fact or a series of related facts that reveal something significant. If the goal of your story is to be suspenseful, the fact/facts conveyed should intrigue and excite the reader.
- A factual opening line that creates suspense could detail some recent event or a series of events about to unfold. For example, you might write something like, "There was only one way out of the canyon, and it was clear that I wouldn't be allowed to pass through it."
- An opening line can also establish the mood of the story to come. Try something ominous and exciting, such as "The moon looked blood red--but then again, everywhere I looked I saw blood in those days."
- Consider using the opening line as a frame for the story. You've heard the classic line, "It was a dark and stormy night," but try to make the opening your own.
Stage the opening line in the midst of action/chaos.Think about starting the story right in the midst of something chaotic, exciting, or terrifying. This technique is called "en medias res" (Latin for "into the middle of things"). Starting a story en medias res immediately grabs the reader's attention because it puts them right into the action rather than easing them into it. If it's well-executed, the reader will wonder from the first line who these characters are, why they're in their present situation, and what will happen to them.
- You can also use the opening line to drop a reader into a world he or she will be curious or anxious about. This can also create suspense as the reader will want to find out more about this place and its inhabitants.
- An opening line can establish some mystery that will be explored and unraveled throughout the rest of the story. This creates tension and may even give your story a sense of impending doom (depending on the mystery).
Try fragmenting your opening line.One way to increase the suspense in your opening sentence is by making it choppy and fragmented. Fragmenting breaks up the narrative flow of a normal sentence. This can convey exhaustion, fear, anger, urgency, and other emotions that will catch a reader's interest.
- Make your fragmented opening line as suspenseful as possible. Try something like, "Cold outside. Still no heat. Weather hasn't cleared. We're still here. Waiting."
- Notice how much more tension this creates than simply saying, "It was cold outside and we were still waiting without any heat."
- Play around with different fragmentations until you get a line that really gives you chills.
Deliver some significant action with the opening sentence.Significant action directly involves the main characters engaging in that action. Don't waste your time describing the scenery or the beauty of a moment in the opening line. If you want your opening to be suspenseful, you have to create tension, and significant action is a great way to do this.
- You don't need to deliver action in the intro, but if you do, make it matter to the reader.
- An opening that lacks significant action would be something like, "The clouds drifted aimlessly across the sky, and every so often they passed by the sun."
- An opening with significant action would be something like, "I squinted, pulled the trigger, and missed my target. Time to find a better position. I crawled like a worm on the blazing hot sand."
Crafting a Suspenseful First Paragraph
Introduce compelling characters.One of the best ways to build tension and suspense right from the start is by creating characters that are relatable. When readers care about a character, they will be invested in what happens to that character, which can naturally create suspense as the conflict unfolds around him or her.
- Make your characters realistic and believable. Give them human qualities, and perhaps most importantly, make them flawed somehow. For example, your character might be a perfectionist who is also very clumsy.
- No one is perfect in real life. When readers encounter a character with relatable flaws, they're likely to be drawn to that character and become invested in his/her wellbeing.
- You should plan out your characters with enough detail that you can't fit everything in. However, even things that aren't directly stated in the story will help influence how you write that character's mannerisms, reactions, etc.
Establish the story's conflict.Conflict is what will drive the plot of your story. It doesn't need to be laid out plainly for the reader in the first few sentences, but by the end of the opening paragraph your reader should have some sense of what's at stake and what is to come.
- Most suspenseful stories rely on some type of struggle, whether it's physical, emotional/mental, or spiritual.
- Your protagonist may struggle against himself/herself, against the antagonist (if it's human), or against society/technology/nature. The protagonist may also struggle against ideas/beliefs and God/gods/goddesses, such as feeling anger at God over the loss of a loved one.
- You may want to have one larger conflict that spans the whole story, and one or two smaller (but still relevant) conflicts that pepper the individual pages to further build tension along the way.
Contrast the conflict with the setting.You can build tension around the conflict by having it be at odds with the setting. For example, by starting with a scene that is very peaceful and quiet, then inserting some type of unexpected violence, you immediately build tension and suspense.
- Think about the setting where you would least expect the story's conflict to unfold.
- Establish that setting, but hint at something dark/foreboding to come.
- Alternately, instead of hinting at something foreboding, you could have the conflict erupt out of nowhere. (Although you should be able to make it make sense for readers, of course.)
Turn up the tension.Having a bad or stressful situation become worse is an excellent way to add suspense to your story. As you work through the opening paragraph, ask yourself: "What would make things worse for this character?"
- Write the scene so that conflict begins to unfold in the most uncomfortable and/or inappropriate place possible.
- Create misunderstandings where one character reads too much into something, which creates tension with a friend or relative.
- Be aware of the stakes at all times. What does the main character stand to lose as the conflict unfolds?
- Make sure there are clear stakes and difficulties for both the protagonist and the antagonist (if the antagonist is another person).
- Try having something that seems like a good thing actually be a bad thing, or vice versa.
- For example, a character might lose his/her watch, but meet someone while looking for it, which may seem like a good ending to a bad situation...until that character is revealed to actually be a dangerous person for the protagonist to know.
Include sensory information.Don't overlook the importance of detail and sensory information. By incorporating sensory information, you make it more likely that your readers will have an actual gut reaction to the conflict and events unfolding on the page.
- Nothing makes suspense come to life like being able to see, hear, smell, or feel the source of tension.
- It may be easier to work in sensory details after you've finished your first draft of the scene. You'll know by then how the paragraph is structured, and it will be easier to insert sensory information as needed to bring the scene to life.
Pacing the Story After Your Opening
Keep the opening as short as possible.You may be tempted to keep building and building the suspense through an ever-growing opening paragraph. This is a risky move, however, as carrying the opening on too long could lose a reader's interest.
- Try to keep the opening to the essential elements and use as few words as possible to describe the setting, mood, and conflict.
- The reader should be hooked from the opening and it should establish the necessary elements, but then it's time to move on.
- Your opening scene should drop readers into your story's world, establish for readers what the source of tension is, and/or introduce the characters who will try to solve the problem(s) at hand.
Make sure your opening fits with what follows.There's nothing more frustrating than an opening paragraph that knocks your socks off, then switches gears and never returns to the energy, voice, and suspense of the intro. It can almost feel like it's been written by two different writers, and it can easily turn off your readers.
- The opening should certainly create suspense and/or tension, but the tone, voice, and style of that opening need to carry through the rest of your story.
- Be consistent. If any aspect of the narrative storytelling changes after the opening, your reader might be confused or frustrated that things aren't what he/she expected them to be.
Resist the urge to reveal too much early on.Remember that you'll need to pace yourself as the story unfolds. Your opening should be suspenseful and should hook the reader's attention. But you don't want to show all your cards, so to speak, all at once.
- Get the reader's attention, then pull back a little bit.
- Don't pull back too far, or your reader might think the story isn't as interesting as the opening, but keep him/her wanting to read more.
- Think to yourself, "Is this crucial to the suspense I want to create in the opening paragraph?" If not, then let it come later in the story.
Be careful so you don't turn off readers with the opening.You should certainly write the story you want to write, but remember that some readers may be more easily offended or upset than others. If a reader feels offended from the opening lines of the story, he or she is not very likely to continue reading past that point.
- Some elements of a story that make certain readers blush (like sex scenes, violence, or vulgar words) are forgivable if they arise later in the story.
- Your readers may feel alienated and turned off by reading something zesty like this right at the beginning. If your story requires these elements that's fine, but don't throw it in the reader's face right from the first page.
QuestionHow can I add a sidekick to the hero in a suspense story?wikiHow ContributorCommunity AnswerYou could add a sidekick in whatever manner you like. As long as it fits into the story, that is your decision to make.Thanks!
- Try using the 'zoom effect' in your story. Start with something big, like the setting, and 'zoom' in to something small, like the expression on your character's face. You can also do this in reverse by starting with some small (yet important) detail, then panning out to show the bigger picture and everything it implies.
- Worry about revising and editing when you've finished the entire story. Crossing things out or rewriting parts of the intro before you've finished the rest of the story may discourage you from crafting that story.
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