Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Tips For Writing Suspense

I belong to the Los Angeles chapter of Sisters in Crime. With all of the pandemic restrictions, we haven’t been able to meet in person for quite awhile. But we have met via Zoom twice now. It’s nice to see people’s faces and hear what’s going on in their worlds. I don’t even mind how I appear on the screen. Added bonus: I don’t have to drive 45 minutes each way. Still, I’m looking forward to eventually seeing everyone in person.

Our monthly meeting consists of mingling time, a member of our chapter who reads from one of their books and a speaker. We’ve had a variety of speakers over the years on all sorts of topics. Our speaker at our last meeting was Lori Rader-Day who came to us from her home in Chicago and gave us tips for writing mysteries, thrillers and crime fiction.

Lori is the current president of Sisters in Crime National and the Edgar Award-nominated and Anthony Award- and Mary Higgins Clark Award-winning author of Under a Dark Sky, The Day I Died, Little Pretty Things, and The Black Hour. Her latest book is The Lucky One set in a true-crime amateur online sleuth community.

As she went over all of the tips, I was happy and a little surprised to realize that I do many of the things she talked about. I thought I’d briefly go over the tips she talked about at the meeting. You don’t have to use all of these in one story. Just consider them useful items to add to your writing toolbox. I’ll give them to you in the order she presented them to us.

14) Create a great main character

 If readers care about or are interested in the character, the author doesn’t have to work as hard. A character doesn’t have to be likeable, just has to be interesting.

Even though this is number 14 on her list, for me as a reader it’s actually most important for me when reading cozy mysteries. When I read them, I want the main character to be likeable and reasonably intelligent. I have stopped reading a book and literally thrown it across the room because of a wimpy main character. But, if we’re talking about other crime books, the main character can be unlikeable and I’ll keep on reading as long as the book’s interesting.

13) Make your character need something to desire or fear

12) Make your readers worry

If you have a likeable character, a reader will naturally worry about them. But, even if the main character isn’t, you can still have things happen that will make a reader worry.

11) Plant big questions in the reader’s mind

This is really the main plot of any book. Who killed X? Why did Y disappear? Things like that.

10) Plant smaller questions in the reader’s mind 

These are the subplots for your story. They can involve families, jobs, love lives. In my books, I usually do a main plot and 2 subplots. One of the subplots is generally something about the personal life of my amateur sleuth. The other depends on the main plot.

9) Play with dramatic irony

Dramatic irony occurs when the reader knows something that the characters don’t.

8) Hold back on sex and violence

The promise of sex or violence creates tension, but the playing out of sex or violence on the page doesn’t.

7) Pile on the problems for your protagonist

Think about all of the bad things that could happen to your main character and have some of them happen.

 6) Isolate your protagonist 

Make them have to handle something on their own. Have the usual support systems be unavailable for some reason.

5) Place time constraints on the story 

This is the whole “ticking clock” bit. Maybe they only have so much time to defuse a bomb. Or the culprit will be getting on a plane, so only have so much time to prove that they’re responsible.

4) Delay gratification for your reader as long as the story warrants 

Leave something open-ended at all times. If you answer a question, make sure there’s another one unanswered. Save your biggest questions for the end. If there’s always a question in a reader’s mind, they’ll keep on reading to get the answer.

3) Use language to create or release tension 

Use words and the structure of your sentences to speed things up or slow things down. Short words and sentences for really tense scenes. Longer words and sentences for the quieter moments. It’s generally not great to stop a character in an urgent moment to have them think about something. Save introspection for when the character is safe.

2) Play with the give and take of the tension

Constant tension can be trouble for a story. Relax and release the tension. Constant tension should not be our goal.

1) Show a little bit of your hand up front 

That’s it. I hope you found this useful and interesting.


Anna said...

This list is superb, Sybil. It seems adaptable to literary and mainstream novels as well, and also to narrative nonfiction. Thanks!

Sybil Johnson said...

You're welcome. Lori Rader-Day did a very nice job on the presentation.

Rick Blechta said...

I would have been so tempted to just post the title with an empty post!

But then, I'm a brat…