Thursday, February 9, 2012


I’m going to talk a little bit about building suspense around and under your suspense, about building suspense even if you aren’t writing suspense.  I think all stories contain suspense no matter the genre.  The basic formula of romance is suspense, or rather the question or questions that carry the reader along. With romance, we can boil it down to one basic thing: Will these two people get together? And how? Even though almost all romances end in happily-ever-after, the question is always there in every romance, and the reader plays along even though she knows it will most likely end in a satisfactory way.  With The Orchard, one of the big questions: Will this person stay in this relationship? A lot of readers hoped she wouldn’t, and they wanted to see her break free. I say she because I don’t think of that person as me. I’m no longer that person.

The big question is closely tied to conflict, and can often be the conflict. EVERY STORY HAS CONFLICT.  I don’t care what you’re writing.  I don’t know how many times I’ve heard this: “I’m not writing suspense so I don’t need conflict.”

 Conflict doesn’t need to be external. Good suspense (the genre) has both internal and external conflict.

  I’m always talking about unpublished writers not giving the reader enough information. Thinking the reader will magically figure it out. Or worse, the writer thinks she’s creating suspense with this lack of information. So it’s a delicate balance. It’s knowing what to use and what to keep in your pocket for later.

 In my book Play Dead, I hinted at something that had happened to one of the homicide detectives.  We knew he was on medication, knew he had a drinking problem,  and we knew he'd been sent to Savannah to start fresh.  But I didn’t reveal exactly what had happened to him until maybe the halfway mark.

  But you can wait too long. If you wait too long, the reader becomes impatient and annoyed. You keep dropping these tantalizing hints, but the payoff comes too late. The reader is already annoyed.  So annoyed that she might not even care anymore. Someone who often waits too long for the payoff is Joss Whedon. IMO. Love him, but the payoff comes after the annoyance hits.  You’re engaging us, and we’re following you, but you can’t keep slamming the door.  And once our annoyance is engaged, the payoff and satisfaction isn’t as strong. And sometime we actually forget what the question was in the first place. Oh, yeah. I remember being really curious about that in episode one. And episode two. And episode three. But episode eight? Not so much. Which reminds, me, you might need to remind the reader at well-placed intervals (part of pacing). But anyway, rambling here. Again. Every story should have questions that keep the reader turning the page.

Note-to-self: Plant some questions for the reader. It doesn’t have to be anything big. It can be the history of the character. It can be something that happened recently.  It can be something that the character has been unable to face, maybe something she will have to deal with in order to grow.

Note-to-self: Don’t forget that readers are reading because of the characters. Even in suspense, readers are reading because of the characters. Yes, they want a good mystery, but they really want to live with these people.

The reason I’m saying note-to-self is because I tend to get caught up in the storytelling and I sometimes forget to employ these important story-telling devices. They tend to hide under the surface of the story, and don’t seem that important, when in reality they could be what keeps the reader (or agent or editor) turning the pages. THE DEVICES DON'T CHANGE THE STORY, but they change how the reader engages with the story.

What is this about?
story structure
building suspense
creating tension