Some tips on using suspense.

Some romances use very little suspense whilst others are full of it, and you will need to consider the kind of romance you are writing when deciding how much to use.

Some suspense is useful in most books because it makes the pages of a book turn quickly for a reader. If you are writing a gentle romance, then you will have small moments of suspense, and if you are writing at the other end of the spectrum and writing romantic suspense, then you will have many passages which are full of suspense.

Suspense can be useful at the end of a chapter or section to stop it seeming flat. Compare these chapter endings:

Melissa picked up her candle and went upstairs to bed.


Melissa picked up her candle. As she made her way upstairs, she wondered if she would ever see Dominic again.

The first example leaves the reader with no reason to read on. The second example gives her a reason for continuing, or returning to the book.

Variations on this type of chapter/section ending could be:

  • As she made her way upstairs, she wondered if Dominic would ever forgive her.

  • As she made her way upstairs, she thought she would never forgive Dominic.

    Suspense can also come from anticipation. These two chapter/section endings are very different, but both leave the reader anticipating the next encounter between hero and heroine:

  • 'Miss Hendrick, you have overstepped the mark for the last time,' he said angrily. 'I will see you in my study at four o'clock.'

  • Elinor's heart was light. He had smiled at her, danced with her and brought her champagne. Tomorrow, she would make him propose.

    Larger uses of suspense

    1. A secret.

    Carisbrooke Abbey Cover

    This extract is from Carisbrooke Abbey, which is a Gothic romance, and as such it has plenty of suspense. Marcus, the tortured hero, has a secret, and whilst the secret is often hinted at, it is not revealed in full until about half way through the book.

    The following passage gives the reader a hint that something is wrong, but it reveals very little so that the reader is kept in suspense.

    At this point in the book, Marcus has decided that he must let Hilary (his librarian) go, and that he must find a position for her elsewhere so that she can begin a new life, where she will have the hope of love and marriage.

    Marcus ground his teeth at the thought of her in the arms, and the heart, of another man, but it had to be. He might want to give her all the things she lacked, providing her with a home and a family, but he could not - not without taking her to the mouth of hell and forcing her to look into its gaping maw.

    If only he could keep her . . .

    But it was impossible. As soon as the roads were passable he would send out his letter, which would ensure that, within a very short space of time, Hilary would be settled in a comfortable and rewarding life. What did it matter if the thought of it made him grow cold? In time he would not be sensible of it. In time, he would be sensible of nothing at all . . . .

    The reader is left with many questions after reading this passage. Why must Marcus send Hilary away? Why can't he keep her at the abbey when he so obviously wants to? Why will he not be sensible of it in time? Why will he not be sensible of anything at all? What is going to happen to him?

    Giving the reader questions to ponder is the essence of suspense.

    2. Deception

    Perhaps the heroine is pretending to be an heiress, or the hero is pretending to be a footman. If they see someone from their past, they will be anxious because they will think their deception is about to be revealed. This will create suspense as the reader will wonder if the truth will come out, and if so, when and where it will come out. The reader will also wonder what will happen when it does come out.

    Notice that in the case of a plot involving deception, the tension is generated first of all by the deception - you would probably want the hero or heroine talking/thinking about what will happen if it is discovered early on in the book - then the tension is clicked up a notch when they see someone from their past who can reveal the truth. It can be clicked up again when they talk it over with their maid/valet/friend, or when they go out for a walk to think things through.

    3.Something half remembered.

    Perhaps the hero or heroine sees someone they recognise, but they can't think where they've seen that person before. This can provide more than one moment of suspense.

  • First of all, it will provide suspense when the hero/heroine sees the person they recognise.

  • Then it will provide further suspense when they think about the situation the following day, or perhaps when they see the mystery person again.

    Don't overdo it - your reader will get bored if the hero/heroine sees this person in every chapter and never remembers who they are - but you can certainly use this idea to inject two or three sections of suspense into a book.

    HINT. This kind of thing tends to work best if each time the hero/heroine sees or thinks about the mystery person, the situation moves things along a little, for example, the second time they see the mystery person they could remember they first came across them in France, or at a ball, or out of doors - just a hint of something to intrigue the reader. Then, later, they can remember the full details - perhaps someone says something or does something that jogs their memory.

    The Silverton Scandal Cover

    Here's an example from one of my own books, The Silverton Scandal.

    In this section, the heroine, Eleanor, is at her sister's wedding.

    As a future duke, Charles's wedding was one of note, and the ton had made an effort to attend. Dukes and duchesses, earls and countesses covered nearly every pew. Eleanor's eyes swept over them. There was Lord Accrington, with whom she had danced at the ball, and Lady Roskin, and . . . she frowned. Sitting in front of Lady Roskin was a gentleman she recognised but could not place. No matter. It was not important. Her eyes swept on.

    The story then moves on with the wedding, but at the wedding breakfast, Eleanor sees the mystery man again. Events are complicated by the fact that Eleanor and the hero, Lucien, are not getting on well together at this point in the book.

    She saw a gentleman walk over to Lucien and engage him in conversation. Her attention was caught. It was the gentleman she had recognised in the abbey. Now where have I seen him before? thought Eleanor. For she was sure she had seen the gentleman somewhere before. But no. It was no good. She could not place him.

    Lucien left the dining-room. The gentleman went with him, and she followed on Henry's arm. And then she suddenly froze, for she had just remembered where she had seen Lucien's companion before, and it made her blood run cold.

    As she entered the drawing-room she saw the gentleman leave Lucien's side, and knew that she must speak to Lucien at once. Despite his coldness, this was a matter of such urgency that she knew she must seek him out, even if it meant risking a second rebuff.

    Excusing herself from Henry, she went over to him.

    'Lord Silverton,' she said.

    His back was towards her, and he did not at once turn round. For a moment she thought he would ignore her. But then, slowly, he turned.

    'Miss Grantham.'

    His manner was still aloof, but his eyes . . . she could not allow herself to think about his eyes.

    'I must speak to you on a matter of urgency,' she said.

    He looked as though he was about to refuse, but she could not allow him to do so.

    'The gentleman you were with . . . ' she said hurriedly.

    At her words, his expression changed. He became more alert. 'Drayforth?' he asked.

    She nodded. 'I have seen him before.'

    'Very possibly. He came to my house in London, if you remember.'

    She shook her head. 'No. It wasn't there.'

    Before she could say any more the musicians finished playing, and there was a lull in the general conversation. She could not go on without being overheard.

    'I must speak to you at once, in private,' she said in a low voice. 'Meet me in the conservatory.'

    She knew the house well. The conservatory would give them the privacy they needed. Without waiting for him to reply she hurried out of the dining-room. Once she reached the conservatory she went inside. It was almost like a jungle, so full was it of lush and exotic plants. They filled every available space, shielding the discreetly-placed chairs. It was here that Charles had proposed to Arabella, in a private nook. But today it must serve a different purpose.

    She paced to and fro in a small, secluded corner as her busy mind turned over all the implications of what she had just discovered.

    A few minutes later Lucien joined her.

    How distant he looked. But she had something of such importance to communicate that she must put everything else out of her mind.

    'You wanted to speak to me?' he asked.

    Despite her good intentions, their lack of rapport hurt her.

    She mastered her emotions. 'It's about Drayforth,' she said.

    'Go on.'

    'I've just remembered where I've seen him before. It was in the yard of the coaching inn, in Bath, many weeks ago, just before you held up the stagecoach. I had been to see Mr Kendrick and found him not at home, so I went to the inn intending to buy a cup of chocolate whilst I thought over what to do. I saw Mr Kendrick standing in the coaching yard, talking to another gentleman.' She looked him in the eye. 'That other gentleman was Drayforth.'

    Lucien turned pale. 'You're saying that Drayforth knew Kendrick?'

    Eleanor nodded.

    Lucien's face became grim. 'So that's it. We'd suspected for some time that Kendrick might have had inside help.

    Notice how the suspense is built throughout the scene. After being introduced in an earlier scene, at the abbey, it is revived at the wedding breakfast, and from there it is wound up several notches. First of all Eleanor remembers where she has seen the mystery man before, then she tells Lucien she must speak to him, then they have to meet in the conservatory, and then finally she reveals where she has seen him. If I had allowed the reader to know where she had seen him as soon as Eleanor realised it, the scene would have been far less suspenseful.

    Notice, too, that the tension is increased by the fact that, at this point in the book, Lucien and Eleanor are not getting on well. Two different kinds of tension and suspense often work well together, but if you use two at once, remember to concentrate on one at a time. Here I do it by having Eleanor think that she must put her problems with Lucien out of her mind. This allows her to focus on the main problem in this section, and so it allows the reader to do so, too.

    4. A hint of something in one of the main character's pasts.

    This could be anything from a disreputable act to a painful love affair, as long as it is something that affects the way the main character thinks, feels and behaves.

    Look through some of your favourite Regencies and see how many suspensful incidents your favourite writers use in each chapter, and what kinds of suspense they are. Notice, too, where they occur in a chapter. Suspensful moments very often occur at the end of a section or chapter.

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