How to increase suspense in my novel

by Mina Bancheva
(Bath UK)

Dear Glen,

I am about to complete the final draft of my novel and to start sending it agents. One agent that showed the first 2000 words to (as part of the Bath Pitch Festival). commented that I needed to increase the tension and the suspense in the opening chapter. My story is set in the Cold War and the action takes place in Britain and the U.K.. The main character is a young Bulgarian woman who is pressured to spy and inform on Bulgarian exiles in London after she escapes the communist regime in the 70s. The first chapter opens with her at the airport about to leave Bulgaria and escape to the UK and I have tried to show her fear that she would be arrested at the last moment.

Thank you, Glen I found your last feed-back really useful.


Answer: Hi Mina,

Having not read your story, I can only comment in general terms. So here are a few thoughts...

You say she is afraid of being arrested. So I hope you have given her reason to be afraid in that first chapter. Does she observe or encounter people doing things at the airport that make her suspect they are undercover police about to arrest her (just an example)?

Consider that there are two basic ways to create tension.

1. Suspense: making the reader anxious or wanting to know what will happen next. Having your main character see suspicious behaviour around
her will help create this.

2. Mystery: making the reader curious to learn what just happened or what is going on. It's okay to not explain everything in the first chapter. Save some exposition for later. Let the reader wonder why your various characters are doing what they are doing.

Also, do what you can to make the threat seem tangible in that chapter. Could she have a narrow escape and only just make it onto the plane by sheer luck?

Can you set up a problematic relationship? For instance, might she telephone someone from the airport, someone with whom she has some conflict (maybe we find out later whose side this person is really on).

Could she lose something at the airport? I don't mean just mislay. Could she be forced to give up something important to her for the sake of escaping? (This would be an example of Costs.)

You might think of this first chapter as like the first ten minutes of a James Bond film. James Bond films always begin with a short, dangerous escapade that forces Bond to call on all his skills. (Not that your main character must be a woman of violence. Finding a clever, non-violent way out of a tense situation or threading a maze can be just as effective.)

Finally, if you can't find a way to work enough tension into this event, consider opening with a different event that offers you a better opportunity.

Best of luck.

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thank you
by: Mina Bancheva

Thank you, Glen, as always very helpful!

Kind regards,


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