Perhaps the most basic tool a writer can use to create suspense is plot structure and though there are an infinite possible variations, the basic structure of all suspense stories is the same. Below is a stripped down blueprint for a suspense novel of 80,000 words.
The Structure of the Suspense Novel at 80,000 words
Part One THE SET UP 0-20,000 words
introduces the protagonist and his/her backstory
introduces the protagonist’s inner demons
creates empathy for the protagonist
Plot Point #1 the story changes; defines what challenges are in store for the protagonist
Part Two REACTION/RESPONSE 20,001-40,000 words
describes the protagonist’s reaction to Plot Point #1
(largely defensive, exploratory, and/or unsuccessful)
At this point the antagonist is winning and in control
Plot Point #2 (Midpoint) Parting of the curtain; a secret is revealed to the protagonist and reader
Part Three THE ATTACK 40,001- 60,000 words
with the new knowledge gained in Plot Point 2, the protagonist begins a counterattack against the antagonist. The battle is now in doubt, but momentum is swinging toward the protagonist
Plot Point #3 something changes to empower the protagonist; the last piece of information about about the antagonist is revealed
Part Four RESOLUTION 60,001- 80,000 words
the protagonist is now in control and successfully defeats the antagonist
For an example of how this structure works in real life, let’s look at the film The Ring. (I know, I know, it isn’t a novel, but the essential story structure is similar for film and fiction. Storytelling is storytelling, after all.)
So, The Ring.
Rachel Keller (Naomi Watts) is a reporter and single mother to a precocious young son. At the funeral for her niece, Rachel is told by several of her niece’s friends of a mysterious video that causes all who watch it to die.
This is Plot Point #1.
Rachel investigates and eventually identifies a young girl as the originator of the mysterious video and determines she was murdered.
This is Plot Point #2.
Sometime later, Rachel tells her son she’s found the girl’s remains and that she can now rest in peace. Her son looks at her and says: “Mom, you weren’t supposed to help her.”
This is Plot Point #3.
Now it becomes clear to Rachel that she hasn’t defeated the video and that she probably can’t. The only option she has left is to cut her losses.
This is just an example of how structure can work in practice. Examine your favorite novel or film and I’m sure you can find similar (and better) examples.