Unfolding your novel within a tight timeframe is one of the most significant methods for developing suspense. Whether your protagonist is in a one day race against time like Robert Langdon in The Da Vinci Code or has a total of 61 hours to rescue the day like Jack Reacher in the novel by Lee Child, putting your protagonist on a ticking stopwatch will likely make readers turn more pages.
Traps to be cautious of in a time-focused path to writing crime fiction, or a short story, like my last published story ‘Newton’s Second Damn Law’. One is that effective suspense requires some set-up. If you have ever been through an extended period of very high stress, you know that there comes the point where you begin to disengage from the situation to reduce stress. The same thing can happen with fiction. It’s seldom useful to sustain a constant mood of highest-level suspense for the entire duration of a novel. Giving your protagonist a short period to solve a problem is an excellent approach to building suspense but be sure to create contrasts. Downtime offers readers a chance to take their breath. It can even calm them into a false sense of security as you construct the next surprise that will leave them more interested and invested.
The other issue you must deal with is the implication of having something unfold in a short period. Your protagonist could be on the run for 48 hours, but is there time to drink, eat or sleep? If not, what effect will all this have? As I’ve said in previous blogs; be sure that you do not reach beyond your readers’ suspension of disbelief.
Providing your character with a limited amount of time to solve a problem is a great way to build suspense, but you can place constraints on your protagonist that increase tension in other ways as well:
Writing crime fiction that transpires in a limited physical space is another efficient way to create pressure. 12 Angry Men, is set in a one room with the jury of a murder case for the whole of the 96 minute movie. Stephen King explores this in some of his novels: trapped in a car by a rabid dog, is in Cujo, a woman and her son and Gerald’s Game handcuffed to the bed is a woman. The principal characters in the Elizabeth Engstrom novel ‘Lizard Wine’ are snowbound in the car with a menacing ex-convict.
It is also possible to challenge your character in other ways, too. The protagonist of King’s The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon cannot find their way within the woods. If your protagonist is in a different country where they cannot speak the language or has run out of money, what happens? By reducing the possibilities available to your main character, you will create suspense.