Suspense in Nonfiction: Building Your Book with Architectural Suspense

Think of a book you couldn’t put down.

What was it about this book that locked you in? It could be that the characters were attractive or the setting spoke to you. But more likely, it was the carefully crafted architecture of suspense that kept you reading.

In this blog, you’ll learn how to create suspense in nonfiction using a method called architectural suspense.



What Is Architectural Suspense?

As a building needs an architect to figure out where the rooms, stairs, and bathrooms should go, a book must be conscientiously architected to ensure all its components do what they should.

Every narrative has plot points—pivotal moments that bring about a change in the story and are captured in scenes. These plot points fulfill a specific purpose, as does a bathroom in a house. If you follow the concept of architectural suspense, you place these key plot points where they arouse the most curiosity and invoke the most profound emotions in your readers.

Architectural Suspense in Nonfiction versus Fiction

For the most impactful narrative buildings, the architect has complete freedom to add secret doors and rooms wherever it will thrill the reader. There could even be a basement leading into an underground world. As long as it all makes sense within the story, you can build to your heart’s content. This is architectural suspense in fiction.

In nonfiction, however, architects are limited by the strict zoning and purpose requirements of the local government. It is premeditated what rooms the building needs, for what purpose, and for what number of people. The nonfiction architect lets his creativity flow within the boundaries of the plan. He may decide where he places the rooms, corridors, kitchens, bathrooms, entrance halls, podia, and whatever the building needs. But each unit itself must stay intact, and by no means may he invent an extra room.

The Nonfiction Writer and Architectural Suspense

If you’re among my followers, you’re most likely a nonfiction writer and limited in your options to create suspense. You cannot invent facts—and according to many authorities in the writing field, you cannot even flesh out the minute details of a scene without sources to back you up.

Nonfiction owes much of its impact to the truthfulness of the story. But you can add suspense by paying meticulous attention to your architecture—the order in which you present your plot points along your narrative arc.

Look at the following story outline:

  1. Linda walks through the garden. She notices something among the flowers.
  2. A part of a skull cap and eyebrow ridge are sticking out from the mulch.
  3. As Linda stoops down to look, she reaches for her heart and screams.
  4. She runs to the house to call the police.
  5. On the way to the house, she bumps into her son, who had heard her screaming.
  6. She tells him she has to call the police at once and pushes him aside.
  7. She trips over some of Jimmy’s toys while stumbling to the telephone.

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Such a narrative has some inherent suspense: the reader will wonder what the skull is doing there. Now, look what happens if we take these building blocks to create a suspenseful architecture:

  1. Linda walks through the garden. She notices something among the flowers.
  2. As she stoops down, her eyes widen. She reaches for her heart.
  3. [Scene shift] Little Jimmy sits playing with his blocks in the living room when he hears his mommy scream. Frightened, he gets up and runs out into the garden to mommy. A pale mommy nearly runs into him.
  4. She tells him she has to call the police at once and pushes him aside.
  5. She trips over some of Jimmy’s toys while stumbling to the telephone.
  6. “There’s a skull!” she screams into the horn. “A dead body in our backyard!”

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Do you feel the difference? We rearranged the building blocks to leave the reader hanging until the end, wondering what Linda saw. And we added some narrative to further delay the answer. That is architectural suspense.

Sometimes, you need to omit information to reach this effect. In our example, we removed the description of the skull sticking out of the ground. But we could use this picture elsewhere—for example, when the police inspect Linda’s discovery.

For this kind of writing, you need a lot of information. You’d need to ask Jimmy to tell the whole story from his point of view. A few examples:

  • Where was he when his mommy screamed?
  • What was he doing?
  • What did his blocks look like?
  • Was the television on in the background? What show?
  • What was his mommy like when he met her at the entrance?

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When interviewing for narrative nonfiction, always try to obtain as much information as possible. Anything can be a tool for suspense.

Architectural Suspense at a Book Level

While our example was just a scene, it demonstrates a principle you can apply at a book level. Write down all your plot points on, for example, index cards. Then, reorganize the cards until you find the order that leaves the most thrilling questions unanswered for the longest time.

To plant a question in your readers, you have to give them enough information to arouse curiosity, but not so much that they stop wondering what will happen.

Every time you stumble upon an architecture that seems to work, summarize it to yourself. Does it flow well? Does it cut at the right moments? Does it avoid answering questions too soon?

To keep the answers from your reader, you can also try cutting plot points into pieces: a scene leads up to a climax, cuts to something else before it is resolved, and comes back later for the resolution and denouement. The moment right before the climax serves as a cliffhanger.

Last year, I read a magnificent work of narrative nonfiction that cut one climactic plot point into many segments to sprinkle them throughout the book’s narrative. For over 150 pages, the reader is wondering, How is this going to unfold? The writer provided just enough information at the beginning to keep me wondering until the end.

Scenes Are Like Rooms

As every room in a building looks different, so should every scene, chapter, or section have a different setting—as long as this is possible without inventing information or destroying other parts of your architectural suspense. While architecting suspense, look for ways to change the setting, as I did in Linda and Jimmy’s example.

While you take your readers to other settings, the “what happens next?” question keeps ringing in the background until the readers come back to the scene they were anxious about. We can go from a crime scene to the house of a mother concerned why her daughter hasn’t come home, to the detective who gets an ominous telephone call. The question what happened at the crime scene remains burning in our chests.

A different room or setting can also be a digression—a bit of exposition (explanation) that takes the reader away from the main action and keeps her wondering how the action will unfold.

Never Allow Suspense to Dwindle

Whatever way you architect your narrative building, be sure to give the reader a new question—something new to be in suspense about—before answering the previous one. Proper use of architectural suspense keeps your reader endlessly wondering what comes next and motivated to read until the end.

Architectural Suspense in Expositional Nonfiction

All I’ve said until now was about narrative nonfiction. But the same principles apply to expositional nonfiction.

Your exposition consists of questions that your readers want answered. If your architecture keeps the answers (your conclusions) away from your readers until late in the book and leads them to these answers through a series of arguments, this will create its own kind of suspense.

This is not the edge-of-the-seat kind of suspense that narrative provides, but it keeps readers hungry for more.

The point is the same for exposition and narrative: Don’t immediately give your readers what they want. Keep them hanging.

A Nonfiction Editor Can Help You Create Architectural Suspense

Would you like help architecting your story into a suspenseful narrative building?

Send me a message below or book a discovery call. We’ll look at your story together and see how we can get your readers to reach for their hearts.

Enjoyed this blog?

Have a look at my other posts. And if you need help finishing your story, let’s chat.

Suspense in Nonfiction: Building Your Book with Architectural Suspense

Niels Kwakernaak

Nonfiction Editor

Thanks for your interest in my experience and ideas. I write these blogs to help you overcome the hurdles of being a writer.

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