How to create more psychological suspense

by Mina Bancheva
(Bath UK)

Drear Glen,

I am nearing the final (6th) draft of my novel and I will soon be ready to start sending it off to agents. My novel is in the psychological suspense genre and is set during the Cold War spanning two countries, Britain and communist Bulgaria. It is about a young Bulgarian woman who is put under pressure to spy and inform on her exiled compatriots.

One of the agents who read the first chapter suggested I should build in more tension and suspense from the beginning. Any suggestions how to do that?

Many thanks,


Answer: It's hard to comment without seeing either your manuscript or the agent's exact comments, but...

One of the keys to psychological suspense is that the genre requires a sense of threat and unease from the beginning. That atmosphere has to be created subtly with words, because it's not overt. It's not as though your character can point to the evidence and say, "Look, there's the danger." Instead, the threat is like a nagging, instinctual feeling. It's like the feeling that someone is watching or following you, or that some threatening agenda is being pursued, or a trap is getting ready to spring, but you have no real evidence to support that belief. The character may start to feel that the reality she has come to trust may be illusion. She can't put her finger on what is going on.

One way to make this work is to hide parts of the story. We may see characters doing things, but not know why they are doing them.
Their actions may not entirely make sense. The main character may be bothered by things, yet know that others would dismiss them as innocent coincidences. As the writer, you may know what's going on the whole time, but you do not reveal it until the crisis.

Often the readers are not sure whether the main character is perhaps paranoid or delusional (perhaps because they do not know all the facts), and the main character may have similar doubts about herself. It helps if the main character seems to be suffering from acute mental stress.

Some of the events that create the sense of unease may in fact be innocent -- which adds weight to the possibility that the main character is jumping to false conclusions. Others may be genuine signs of danger that seem so innocuous that the characters barely notice them or dismiss them out of hand. You want to play a game with the reader regarding what is real and what is delusion, what is danger and what is safety.

At any rate, the point of psychological suspense is that the protagonist's state of mind is called into question, making it difficult for her and the reader to assess and confront the actual threat. The protagonist's sense of what is real may unravel.

So I would suggest you look at your opening scene. Can you create more of a sense of foreboding? Can you have the main character observe something odd, something that doesn't make sense, that raises the possibility of a threat, that all is not as it seems?

Best of luck.

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