Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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May 13, 2013

WriterStrong - Creating Nail-Biting Suspense

Writers In The Storm is thrilled to welcome Stacy Green!

Stacy GreenThis 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…No dice. Kid could pull the trigger of his gun in a split second. And the spider…she didn’t want to think about it.

Another example, later in the scene:

Kimberley’s hand flew to her duffel bag, fingernails scrambling frantically against the nylon surface. Goddammit, why’d she have to zip the bag? She was never gonna make it. The gun leveling, pointing…

See how the different types of sentences ups the tension?

Practice makes perfect!

All of these things are tough to do, because most writers get into a pattern of specific sentences. It takes a lot of objectivity and good editing, but it can be done. Go to an important scene in your current WIP–a scene where you want the reader to have a strong visceral reaction. How is your sentence structure? Do you have a good mix? What about the five senses? Are you employing them? And think back over the story as a whole – do you have enough red herrings (or tricks) to keep the reader guessing and entertained?

Tin_Gods_cover-smallTIN GOD

About Stacy

Born in Indiana and raised in Iowa, Stacy Green earned degrees in journalism and sociology from Drake University. After a successful advertising career, Stacy became a proud stay-at-home mom to her miracle child. Now a full-time author, Stacy juggles her time between her demanding characters and supportive family. She loves reading, cooking, and the occasional gardening excursion. Stacy lives in Marion, Iowa with her husband Rob, their daughter Grace, and the family’s three obnoxious but lovable canine children.

Website: www.stacygreen.net
Amazon Author Page
Facebook Stacy Green, Author
Twitter @StacyGreen26

43 comments on “WriterStrong - Creating Nail-Biting Suspense”

  1. Great post, and I think all writers can learn from this, not just writers of thrillers. I write women's fiction and although more of the suspense may be internal, it still needs to be there. And we still need red herrings. Great post. Thank you.

  2. I enjoyed this post, Stacy - learning about writing suspense and more about another Iowa writer! I took a workshop once that was all about different the different sentence structures (series, balanced, compound/complex) and how each could be used for maximum impact. As an English major, I was surprised I'd never learned any of this before.

    1. 🙂 Small world, isn't it? Yes, the different sentence structure is something I learned from my line editor, and it is really important with any genre. Keeps the writing fresh. Thanks!

  3. Fascinating to see how you do this, Stacy! I'll never write a mystery, but everyone needs tension, and it's one of the hardest thing to portray. Thanks so much for blogging with us!

  4. Hi Stacy,

    This is a great post. Even though I don't write mystery novels, I think a lot of what you say applies here to pacing and plotting with other types of fiction--especially your tip about using setting details to increase tension. Thanks for such useful advice!

    1. Thank you! Yes, I think much of this can be applied to any type of book, because tension is what keeps the pages turning. You're very welcome!

  5. I agree that writers of any genre can learn from your tips. Another one is to leave a cliff-hanger at the end of each chapter. As a reader who needs her sleep, I hate those; but as a writer, I know they work to keep the reader turning pages! 🙂

  6. Great and helpful post, Stacy! Am reading Tin God now and I can feel that Mississippi heat (haven't gotten to the lightning storm yet, though. Ooh! Something to look forward to!)

  7. What great advice--I love the phrase believable red herrings! That will stick with me. I might even print out a pic of a red fishy and tape it to my screen. Thanks! 🙂

    1. 🙂 Red herrings are so tough, and they are something I work on very early in the plotting process. LOL at your red fishy. Great idea. Thanks!

  8. Stacy, as a lover of mystery, suspense, thrillers and all things that get mugged in dark alleys ... I love the way you broke down the need for tension, sentence pacing and most important, the ever=ready red herring. I do believe however, that minus murder and RD's that this type of tension building and pacing would work for any genre. Thanks so much for this post 🙂

    1. Thank you so much! I have to admit, I have learned a lot about red herrings from my critique partner, Catie Rhodes. And absolutely - all of these tricks would amp up any type of book. Glad you enjoyed:)

    1. Practice is the magic word, honestly. One of my biggest issues used to be that I thought I needed to USE everything I wrote, like it was a waste of time to just write a scene that may or may not be in the book. And that's totally wrong. The more you write, the better you get. Good luck!

  9. Thanks for reminding us about how to use every element in story writing to add suspense. It's so easy to get caught up in the story and forget even the simple things. So glad you could visit WITS today!

  10. I just want to say this is fast becoming my favorite blog. I have lots of books on writing and have taken numerous classes at colleges across the country (my music career led to much travel) but this blog has given me more useful tips on writing than any book or class ever has. Thanks!

  11. Excellent advice, Stacy, no matter in which genre we write. You are so good at "doing scary" in your novels to keep us turning the pages and staying up way later than we planned!

    1. Thanks so much, Patricia. Keeping tension is definitely important with any genre, so I hope these are useful tricks for everyone.

  12. Reading as a writer, sentence structure is always what convinces me the feelings in the book are real. It's fairly easy to orchestrate circumstances in our writing. It's also, sometimes, pretty obvious.

    Sentence structure is more subtle, which makes it more powerful. Our readers deserve powerful.

    1. I completely agree. Sentence structure is something that is overlooked by a lot of writers, and it is crucial. I am lucky to have a line editor who is very sensitive to it. Thanks!

  13. Excellent advice! I particularly enjoyed the idea of keeping a separate file for all the characters who COULD be the one who 'did it' and why! I shall employ this idea forthwith! 🙂

    1. That is so important for me, and Scrivener is great. I am notorious for notebooks and notecards, and they work well to flesh out ideas, but I have never been good at organizing. Inputting all my rambles into Scrivener as part of the main book file has been a God send. Thanks, and I'm glad you enjoyed!

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