WriterStrong – Creating Nail-Biting Suspense

This is my first time posting at Writers In The Storm, and I am very excited to be here. Jenny and the gals wanted me to talk about writing suspense, so I’m going to give it my best shot.

My version of suspense goes something like this: bone-tingling, spine-chilling, heart stopping rollercoaster ride. It’s the anticipation of what might happen to the hero or heroine and the fear of what horrible thing might be on the next page. Good suspense means readers keep turning the pages, and that’s what writing is all about.

There are a lot of skills that go into writing great suspense, but I’m going to talk about three vital components you find in every great suspense novel.

Believable Red Herrings.

Everyone wants to know whodunit. And no one wants to figure that out with half a book to go. Which means that once you get your basic plot nailed down, you need to figure out who your red herrings are. Have at least two (if not three characters) who are viable bad guy candidates.

If you’re a plotter, create a new file for each character and jot down why he could have done the deed. I take notes on how he fits into the fabric of the book, and as I progress, I will go back to those files and add more details. Not a plotter? No worries. Try keeping a notebook for ideas of who the RH could be and why. When he or she does something suspicious, jot it down. And when it’s time to work on the second draft, you’ll be able to weave those guys in.

For example, in TIN GOD, I had a separate file for a character called Royce Newton (a murder victim’s husband and possible conspirator in an illegal adoption ring). In that file, I had several sections: connection to victim, connection to protagonist, motive, alibi, reasons for suspicion/dishonest actions, connection to antagonist.

You can create your files to your liking, but the key is to knowing WHY that character could have committed the crime and the connections he or she has to various characters and the plot.

Remember your red herrings need to fit seamlessly into the plot and be a natural suspect, but the character also needs to be well rounded. Very few people are all bad, so showing snippets of decency about your RH will really keep the reader guessing. Any time I read a book with a guy who is obviously all bad without any teeny tiny shred of decency, I know he DIDN’T do it. Because that would be way too easy.

It’s not easy juggling multiple red herrings. Organization is the key. Whatever system you use, make sure you have a separate file for each possible red herring.

Set the Scene.

Why is this important? Because your reader needs to feel immersed in the world you created, and because setting equals mood.

For instance, in one of the pivotal scenes in TIN GOD, the protagonist is in a very bad situation. I used the weather to add to the tension and played up the fear of the lightening, the pelting rain, and the low visibility. We’ve all driven in a thunderstorm, and we know how nerve wracking it is. So it set the perfect mood for the climax of the book.

You can also play up your book’s location. TIN GOD is set in Mississippi, so I used the heat and humidity to layer the conflicts. Nothing makes an argument worse than feeling like you’re being smothered. If you’ve got a winter setting, and your hero or heroine is putting himself or herself in harms way, play up that scenery. Is it so cold their breath is freezing? The sky glowing with the deep purple bruising of an oncoming snowstorm? Are they driving down a road covered with ice and passing vehicles that have slid into the ditch? All of this will help get your readers hearts beating just a little bit faster.

Here is an example from the climax of TIN GOD, where I used the storm to set the stage for the final showdown between the heroine and the antagonist.

Storm clouds chased their escape and swiftly passed the speeding vehicle. Soon they were engulfed in the deep purple and black tempest, driving head-on into its wrath. A coffin on wheels, Jaymee thought as the storm swept the minivan into its embrace. Lightning shattered the purple sky and thunder boomed hard enough to rattle the van windows. They were at nature’s mercy.

But you don’t have to rely on the weather. Use all of the senses: sight, sound, smell, touch, taste. Is the air foul? Are there birds making a lot of racket? Is your character so tense their mouth is dry, or feeling like its covered with cotton.

Here’s an example from my debut novel, INTO THE DARK, where my heroine Emilie makes a daring decision to find her stalker on her own.

She readied her keys, took one last nervous look around, then jumped out of the Acadia. It was only about twenty feet to the employee’s entrance.

Her Nike’s slapped against the concrete as she ran. Blood rushed to her ears. She envisioned a shadow creeping behind her, mirroring her steps until she came to a stop. She grabbed for the door, key at the ready. The lock turned, a loud click in the middle of the night. A whisper of hot night air grazed the back of her neck, a phantom touch. Emilie whirled around so fast her ponytail smacked against her cheek.

Every sensory detail in a scene can be used to up the suspense. You can talk about dry mouth, cracked lips, hot skin, bitter taste, churning stomach, etc. The trick is to SHOW the suspense with description.

Sentence Structure.

I know, not nearly as fun of a topic, but it really does matter, especially if you’re writing suspense. You never want to have several similar sentences close together anyway, and that mistake will definitely ruin an otherwise suspenseful scene.

Changing up your sentence structure controls the pace, and when your goal is make the reader’s heart pound, short sentences are key.

Lisa Gardner is a master of this. One of my favorite books of hers, SAY GOODBYE, is loaded with tension and psychological suspense. This is just a snippet of how she controls the pace with sentence structure, as well as keeps suspense building for the reader.

Kimberley’s hands dropped in front of her rounded belly. Field kit, she thought again. Quick dash, unzip the bag, reach inside for her weapon

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