So how do you do it? Do you throw in a scary monster? Not necessary, though I love a good monster. Here are some do's and do not's for setting up the tension. That's right! Tension = Fear, concern, worry, anxiety, nervousness - you get the idea.
- Put your MC is danger. Seems obvious, I know. But some of us have a hard time doing that to our beloved characters. Don't protect them.
- Keep that danger ominous. Yes you have to reveal information to your reader, but don't come out shooting. Think of some of your favorite books. Chances are the villain was built up over time so that his presence was a cloud looming over the MC. Voldemort is a great example. We see from other's reactions (just the fear that using his name instills in all but Dumbledore) that he is someone to avoid. Before he is ever seen, we are frightened of him.
- Play with time. Huh? What I mean is, use your pacing to your advantage. Slow it down right as the tension mounts. Make the MC reach slowly toward that creaking door that you just KNOW the killer is hiding behind...
- Make your MC helpless. Whatever he/she is facing should be the worst possible thing you can think of. Find his Kryptonite and use it to the villain's advantage. We should feel just as helpless when reading it as he does.
- Make it your MC's fault. If she feels responsibility for the heinous situation, we are doubly invested in her seemingly impossible attempt to right the wrong she created.
- Be cliche. Walking down an eerie street in broad daylight can be scarier than a dark and stormy night.
- Make your antagonist a device. Give the villain some depth. Don't just throw in a mindless monster because it gives you reason to react. Yeah, zombies are scary, but what's scarier is the mad scientist who created them by experimenting on foster kids like your MC.
- Tell. Yeah I know, that whole show don't tell thing. But it's really helpful when you're trying to instigate strong feelings in the readers and immerse them in a scene.
- Pull your punches. Don't take it easy on us or your characters. This goes with putting your MC in danger. Dish it out fully. Don't be afraid, you can always clean up the carnage if you must during revisions.
- Underestimate the reader. Assume we get it. The more details we have to fill in with our imagination, the scarier it actually is. That's not an excuse to fail to describe things or plant the idea in the first place. Just be purposeful in where and how those details come.
Remember it's that moment of suspense before the killer jumps out from behind the door that makes the difference. Also, if you notice, the majority of these tips aren't so much about the bad guy as the MC.