From the Editor’s Desk: Adding Tension and Suspense to Your Writing


Here at Carina, we’re always looking for new authors to sign, publish and build. But we recognize that putting your manuscript out on submission can be an intimidating process. How do you make your manuscript stand out, from the query letter to the last page? We’re here to demystify the submissions process by giving you some insight into what a Carina Press editor looks for when she opens up a submission for review.

Today’s post comes from Libby Murphy. Libby has been editing for Carina Press since May 2015, and is actively building her author list. Although the action in her life stems mostly from raising teenagers and the books she reads, she’s here to give you some tips on how to add more tension and suspense to your writing.

One question I’m asked when I take a book to acquisitions is what made me fall in love with the book. Aside from a killer plot, intriguing characters, and fantastic writing, the most accurate gauge for me is if I can forget about about the world outside the book while I read. And if I totally don’t care. That’s what I call unputdownable.

In many manuscripts I see the initial conflicts move to the back burner not long after the inciting incident, and the characters are setting up for the final conflict and black moment here and there…but not doing much otherwise. That’s about as exciting as a Walking Dead episode where they sit around and talk about their feelings, but there are no zombies. While there are several ways to ramp up conflict, today I’m going to talk about ticking time bombs (Bruce Willis not included).

A ticking time bomb is an element you can add to your book, something that’s quietly approaching in the background that you know is coming. Like your editing deadline next week ;) It has different meanings across genres, so you’ll want to make sure you use something that fits with the type of book you’re writing. I’ll give you some ideas below—this list is by no means exhaustive, though!

Romantic Suspense & Mystery

  1. You could have a literal bomb ticking. And maybe Bruce Willis, while we’re at it. We can fantasize.
  2. A ransom that must be paid by a certain date, either to stop a blackmail plot or rescue somebody from a kidnapping.
  3. The hero or heroine has been poisoned, and only has 24 hours to find the antidote before they die.
  4. Preventing a terrorist attack, or a serial killer from striking again.

Romance (contemporary, new adult historical, etc.)

  1. A fling of some sort. Maybe it happens on vacation, or during a mutual work assignment, or even just a week or two of no-strings-attached sex.
  2. A marriage of convenience, where they have to pretend to be married for a certain amount of time so one of them can get an inheritance.
  3. Two people who fall in love even though one of them has to move far away, join the military, or make a huge life change in a month.

Paranormal Romance & Urban Fantasy

  1. The heroine has been bitten by a werewolf, and must find a way to reverse the curse before the next full moon.
  2. Two opposing factions will go to war in three weeks, unless the hero and heroine can forge an alliance that will bring peace.
  3. The hero and heroine must catch the Big Bad, who is working on a spell so powerful it will wipe out all witches on the solstice.

Once you’ve decided on your initial idea for a ticking time bomb, you have to decide how it will work within the setup of your story. The biggest problem I see in ticking time bombs is that the deadline runs too long. Drag something out more than a few months, and that’s really too long to create tension. And hardly exciting. You have more than enough time to plan, to mobilize, to take naps. If anybody has time for a nap, your timeline is too long. Make this a challenge.

The second biggest problem I see is a deadline that’s way too short, especially in romance. For example, if the goal of your romance is to end with a happily-ever-after, making two characters believably fall in love over a weekend probably isn’t going to work if they’ve just met. That’s insta-lust! I’d find a happy-for-now more likely. However, if they’ve known each other for quite some time and use this weekend to decide if they are going to make it or break it, that’s probably all right.

Be sure you’re periodically reminding the reader how much time is left. Count it down in a way that’s not too telling, that’s interesting, and shows the conflict rising with each page. I don’t want to see a deadline imposed on page 20, see the characters going about their normal business for the next 200 pages, then suddenly see that deadline again. That is not enough tension!

Over the next couple of weeks, pay extra attention to the TV shows and movies you watch, as well as the books you read. Make a list of the ticking time bombs you see. Do any of them fit with the book you’re writing? Look at ways to tailor those scenarios for your world, and come up with some ideas of your own while you’re at it.

Happy writing!

Thank you for reading—we hope these tips have you excited to submit your manuscript to Carina Press! Here are some quick references to help you through the submissions process:

  • We’re always open to submissions!
  • We respond to all submissions within 12 weeks.
  • Have a question and can’t find the answer on our guidelines page? Email us at and we’re happy to help.
  • Looking to target your submission to a specific editor? Find out more about editor submission calls here.


Looking for more information on our submissions process? We’ll have more posts coming in this series, and in the meantime, you can read about our acquisitions process here, and find out more about what an editor does here.

Ready to submit? Click here to start your publishing journey with Carina Press!

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