Suspense Starts With Character

A writing tip from Jude Hardin

Rule #8 from Kurt Vonnegut’s eight rules of writing: “Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.”

I don’t think Vonnegut is really saying to hell with suspense. What he’s saying, I think, is to hell with the wrong kind of suspense.

I agree. I also agree on his definition of the wrong kind of suspense, hinted at in his first sentence: the withholding of information.

Withholding information is the equivalent of a cheap parlor trick. It’s stuffing a silk handkerchief into your fist and making it disappear. Anyone can do it, and everyone has seen it before. It’s boring, exasperatingly annoying, and you’re glad when it’s over so you can go home and watch Justified on TV.

So what’s the secret to creating legitimate suspense?

I’m tempted to say something like I’ll tell you later, just to prove my point. But I won’t. I won’t withhold information from you, and you shouldn’t withhold information from your readers.

What you should do is create three-dimensional characters that the reader cares about. Then suspense is easy. Put your characters in hot water again and again, elevating the stakes each time. Make the reader worry about what’s going to happen next.

Do that, and the reader will follow you to the very last page. I promise.

Jude Hardin is the author of the Nicholas Colt thriller series. He lives in north Florida with his son, four gopher turtles, and a red-tailed hawk. The son and the turtles and the hawk pretty much take care of themselves. Jude likes it that way. You can learn more about Jude and his books at

Nicholas Colt’s career as a lead guitarist ended with a crushed hand, and his career as a licensed private investigator ended with a narcotics conviction. Since then, he’s had some luck making money under the table as a “security consultant.” But good luck has a habit of going bad for Colt. Like when he takes the case of an affluent young accountant who has received a threatening letter—a mandate to come and play an ultraviolent video game called Snuff Tag 9.

Colt figures the letter is a scam, but a psychotic four-hundred-pound billionaire known only as Freeze quickly proves him wrong. Freeze, it seems, is populating his version of the game with real people.

Kidnapped and outfitted with a device that will stop his heart if he refuses to join in, Colt finds himself deep in the Okefenokee Swamp hunting—and being hunted by—eight people he has never met, has nothing against . . . and must kill to survive.

Click on the cover to visit the book's Amazon page.


Wendy said...

This is great advice even if you're not necessarily writing "suspense" in the traditional sense of the word. Definitely advice writers of any genre can use. Thanks for sharing it with us, Jude@

Christine L.Henderson said...

Suspense is also continued cliff hangers - even minor ones that keep your readers hooked as to what your characters will do next.