July 29th, 2020

The Most Important Reader Question

by Laurie Schnebly Campbell

WHAT’S GONNA HAPPEN?

We might have a pretty good idea of what’s going to happen in a story when we pick up a new book. Most of the time, we can judge that book by its cover – or if not, then by its reviews or word-of-mouth from friends.

Even if nobody else has read it yet, we feel fairly certain that a book showing a rancher and a schoolmarm in a chaste embrace will likely end with the couple getting married. Or a book showing a police badge and some crime-scene tape will likely end with the detective taking the killer to jail.

So if we already know the ending, how can there possibly be any page-turning tension along the way?

The only way it can happen is if the writer has used some great techniques to keep us wondering what’ll happen next. Even if we feel confident that the main Story Question will be resolved in the final chapter, what about all the other questions on the way to that final chapter?

That’s where you build the tension.

Maybe your character is facing a choice. Say, Allegra is torn between marrying Carrick or becoming a nurse. Or Jemmy can’t decide between the red or the yellow lollipop. Or Pat doesn’t know whether to rescue Hobson or Sophie.

How will they choose?

Or maybe your character isn’t sure what lies ahead. There are unsubstantiated rumors of danger. A friend might or might not have betrayed their trust. The long-awaited day could be sunny or stormy.

What to expect?

Maybe the reader suspects something, or knows something, that the character doesn’t. A surprise package is on the way. The supposed butler is actually the duke’s illegitimate son. There’s a terrorist planning to bomb the factory.

What’ll happen when the truth is revealed?

Maybe there’s some dissonance between the setting and the story line. A Wall Street trader is plunged into a war zone. A shy librarian has to seduce a raucous World Series pitcher during the seventh-inning stretch. A malicious wizard is disguised as Santa’s head elf.

Something doesn’t quite fit.

Those questions are just the beginning.

There are all kinds of situations that provide fertile ground for building tension. Just grabbing random titles off the past decade of Publishers Weekly lists, you can see the kind of story questions that keep readers intrigued in books like:

Some of the above story questions include...

Who will survive?
What will it take for them to survive?
Can they do it?
What’ll happen if they fail?
Is it worth the struggle?

Those are just a few sources of tension that build throughout these bestselling reads. Regardless of the audience or setting or characters or struggle at hand, the stakes are always high...for the characters, and thus for us readers.

And you’ll notice that while in some cases a life-and-death struggle is literally about avoiding the loss of life, it can just as well be a struggle to avoid the loss of social approval. Or of true love. Or of freedom, family, friendship, a favored outcome for a quest...or any such threats endangering not the main character, but those they love or their entire society.

When the stakes are high, so is tension.

Or at least, it SHOULD be. That’s where we get into techniques (beyond the classic “ticking clock”) for building it...sustaining it...increasing it...occasionally relieving it for a moment or two...and then bringing it back even stronger.

Those are what we’ll talk about next month in “Building Tension,” but you’ve already seen how some of your favorite authors do that. If you’re not on the edge of your seat over Jimmy’s choice of a red or yellow lollipop, that’s okay! Whatever writer uses YOUR favorite kind of tension is one who’ll have you turning pages long past midnight.

Which books have done that more than once?

The reason this matters is because it provides a hint regarding what kind of tension works best for you. That’s also the kind that’ll work best for your readers, because they’re the ones who’ll appreciate your style of writing...your storytelling voice.

Sure, readers also like wondering which of a character’s most valued people, or beliefs, or practices will matter the most. And what’ll happen if the character has to choose between Love or Prosperity, Justice or Comfort, Saving Their Child or Saving Their Continent?

Millions of characters have faced such compelling choices. But you sure don’t remember every single book in which a character had to decide between, for instance, Fairness and Kindness. It’s only a few that stand out as particularly engrossing. What stories are those?

Our prize-drawing question

Somebody who answers, with either the book title/s or a description of what contributed to the tension in a beloved story, will win free registration to my August class that goes into more detail on such contributions. And if your response contains something quotable, you might very well get credit for providing a Reader Opinion...so let me know if you’d rather stay anonymous!

[Laurie, figuring one less-than-expert way of building tension is mentioning that the winner will be announced this Saturday and I can’t wait to see whose name gets picked by random-dot-org.]

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About Laurie

After winning Romantic Times' “Best Special Edition of the Year” awards over Nora Roberts, Laurie Schnebly Campbell discovered she loved teaching every bit as much as writing...if not more. Since then she’s taught online and live workshops for writers from London and Los Angeles to New Zealand and New York, and keeps a special section of her bookshelf for people who’ve developed that particular novel in her classes. So far there are 48 titles -- will yours be next?

79 responses to “The Most Important Reader Question”

  1. barbaralinnprobst says:

    This isn't exactly a response to your question but I just HAVE to mention the brilliant way that Celeste Ng opens "Everything I Never Told You" with the answer to the question that the characters have for almost the entire book—while raising a different question in the reader's mind! The characters want to know, "Where is Lydia? WHAT happened? The reader already knows, from the very first sentence what the characters do not: Lydia is dead. The reader wants to know WHY and HOW she died. And that is not fully revealed until the very last page. We follow the story at multiple levels, and a big part of the tension is precisely in the contrast between what we know and what Lydia's family knows. We're dying for them to catch up, and we're also dying to find out the answer to our own question! Wow!

  2. lrtrovi says:

    I remember reading "Sophie's Choice," which is a rather long book, in almost a day. I kept reading to find out not so much what her choice would be...because the reader starts to get an inkling part way through...but how she makes the choice. How does it play out.?How could she? How did it change the rest of her life? We love Sophie in the book, so how could she do something so terrible? and still, leave room for the reader to forgive her. It was one terrible moment of decision that rippled through and ripped apart the rest of her life.

    • Natalie, I'm so glad you picked up that reference to Sophie's choice -- you're absolutely right about. I remember hearing before I read it (as a new release) that "it's kind of sad," but with a title like that, how could anyone NOT read and marvel at it?

  3. Michael Mock says:

    Okay, so this showed up in my RSS feed but doesn't seem to be on the homepage of the blog? Not sure what's going on with that. (But, it sure added some tension to my morning! Will he find the blog entry? Will he be able to comment? And then we ratchet up the tension: CAN HE THINK OF SOMETHING WITTY AND INTERESTING TO SAY??? ...But I digress.)

    For a proper example, let me come back to one of my perennial re-reads: Martha Wells' Death of the Necromancer. The story begins with a robbery gone wrong: the protagonists arrive to find that someone else has already broken in ahead of them, and possibly stolen... something... from a sealed chamber nearby. So, the initial question begin is simply whether or not the protagonists will be able to remain secret now that this mysterious other party has stumbled onto them.

    But it takes a real turn when the mysterious enemies attempt to frame and murder the city's foremost detective, our master criminal's arch-rival, and the criminal mastermind has to decide whether to rescue him (and risk exposing his own identity and criminal activities) or let him die (and allow the secret enemy to conceal whatever it is that the detective has discovered).

    (Pro-tip for aspiring criminal masterminds: if you're trying to keep your identity a secret, rescuing the city's legendary detective is not the recommended course of action.)

    Really good book, highly recommended, and I'm not doing it full justice: it has gaslights and fog and undead in the sewers, court politics and intrigue, heists and jailbreaks, witches and wizards, and queens and guards and resurrected faeries... Seriously, go read it. I'm honestly quite jealous of it; I don't write intrigue anywhere near that well.

    • Michael, congratulations on persevering through the confusion -- that journey clearly sharpened your wit this morning; your pro-tip had me laughing! And you've now got Martha Wells on my TBR list...great start to the day (or maybe "end" would be more accurate?).

    • Shoot, this is a cursed day indeed -- it says my comment is awaiting moderation, while all the others went through. Standing by...

      • Jenny Hansen says:

        Laurie, that sometimes happens when something changes in a person's name or email from what is already approved.

        I'm building our new site as fast as my free time allows...it will solve all these tech problems!

    • Terry Odell says:

      Michael, for whatever reason, WITS' home page doesn't update until very late in the day. I've learned to click the link in my email rather than go to the site. Maybe their server is in another country/time zone?

      • Jenny Hansen says:

        Terry, the actual answer is this site was built for us a long time ago on an outdated plugin called Oxygen 1.0. It bogs things down in cache and keeps the post from posting when it is scheduled. We often have to manually push it. I am building a new site in all that spare time I don't have. *sigh*

  4. Will D'Artagnan get to his beloved Constance before Milady murders her? Yes, I know that The Three Musketeers is an olde tyme book, but there's a reason it continues to be published. Because English teachers force students to buy it? Maybe. But there's also a reason several movies about D'Artagnan have been made. Still, I've only seen one movie that came anywhere close to the excitement and tension of the book.
    I bought and read the novel when I was eleven (by choice 'cause I'm strange). Decades later, I still have that book and, sometimes, read at passages of it again even though the pages have yellowed, the binding broke long ago, and the book is in three pieces. 😉 So Dumas must've done something right. If you've never read the novel, maybe check it out. It's adventure, romance, mystery, and (what really sold me) comedy, all in one package.

    • Christine, I've gotta know: which movie was it that did justice to the book? (I know it wasn't the one I saw back in college!) And what a great endorsement for a classic with all the things readers have wanted ever since -- or likely even before -- the days of Dumas.

      • Hi Laurie,

        Thanks, and thanks for your great post. Currently, I'm revising a novel and, as I read your post, I did a mental checklist of what I have done and still need to do to keep the reader turning pages.
        The best movie version of The Three Musketeers, IMHO, is the 1973 version, starring Michael York as D'Artagnan. Its script sticks closely to the novel's plot. So closely, in fact, that you have to watch The Four Musketeers movie to get the whole story! The movie's director, Richard Lester, also got the book's impish humor into the movie so it's a lot of fun to watch. I've seen others that I've enjoyed too but their scripts are only loosely based on the novel. One film has characters named Athos, Porthos, Aramis, and D'Artagnan, but has an entirely different story!
        Anyway, thanks again. Best wishes on teaching your August course.

        Christine

        • Dana Michaels says:

          Decades have passed since I read it, but The Lord of The Rings trilogy is still my top choice for tension, tough decisions, and difficulty for me to put it down. Tolkien wasn't EASY to read, but his stories were fascinating.

          Thanks for another helpful and interesting blog post, Laurie.

          • Dana, I'm sorry I missed your comment yesterday -- and you're right about the sustained tension throughout Lord of the Rings. Which is a good illustration of what can happen when somebody just writes a story they enjoy without worrying about marketability...talk about a winner!

  5. In THE PRINCESS BRIDE, Buttercup and Wesley had to battle an inconceivable number of life-threatening obstacles to find their way to true love and happily ever after.

    • Sherry, I'd forgotten about The Princess Bride -- wasn't that great? And I like how Goldman inserted himself throughout the story; when things got TOO tense in the story world we'd come back to his for a whole different kind of tension...which sure kept the pages turning.

  6. Paula Messina says:

    Just read Roald Dahl's "Man from the South." An old man makes a bet with a young man that the young man's lighter won't work ten times in a row. If the young man wins, he gets a Cadillac. If he loses, the old guy cuts off the younger man's little finger. The old man's demeanor and speech, the bet itself, and the successive attempts to light the lighter all create tension. Dahl pulls off a twist ending.

    • Paula, what fun to come across a Roald Dahl story I've never seen before -- and already I can tell that, while the tension sounds exquisite, it's one I'd be scared to read without checking the last page to make sure the young man doesn't lose his finger! 🙂

  7. Ellen says:

    After watching the Dexter series I thought it'd be a good idea read at least the first book in Jeff Lindsay's series. Darkly Dreaming Dexter is so well written that I I inhaled the whole series, or will soon. I am currently reading the last one.

    The protagonist is more of an antihero. He happily murders the serious bad guys that manage to evade the legal system using a strict code developed by his police officer adoptive father. Dexter is a forensic blood splatter analyst for the Miami Police Department.

    There is a lot of tension in these books, and humor, dark and otherwise, to lighten the emotions.

    As is often the case, the books are much better than the TV series, which is still quite good.

    • Ellen, good point about relieving the stress with humor -- that lets you draw it out longer, because when the reader gets a momentary break in the tightly-strung nerves, it lets 'em resume the nail-biting journey ready to endure still more tension!

  8. "In the week before their departure to Arrakis, when all the final scurrying about had reached a nearly unbearable frenzy, an old crone came to visit the mother of the boy, Paul."

    That, plus an epigraph which starts, "A beginning is the time for taking the most delicate care that the balances are correct. This every sister of the Bene Gesserit knows..." and ends, "Do not be deceived by the fact that he was born on Caladan and lived his first fifteen years there. Arrakis, the planet known as Dune, is forever his place."

    Many books I reread. This one drags me down into the story instantaneously.

    Science Fiction can rise to the level of literature. Story is story.

    • Alicia, I'd forgotten this wonderful opening and closing...but your first line struck that thrill of recognition: "Oh, yeah, what WAS that story?" (Bene Gesserit provided the answer.) And, boy, I like your line about "Story is story." So very, wonderfully true.

      • The word Arrakis is enough to set me off - that first book is amazing, the first three pretty close. After that, it was interesting, but the thrill wasn't as strong.

        I write mainstream, but read gobs of good SF - and Herbert is the real deal.

        I have not, however, because I'm a purist, read anything HE didn't write that is in that universe.

  9. Tracey Turner says:

    Another great blog post Laurie. I remember one of the first romances I read was Merry Christmas by Emma Darcy. The heroine finds out she's pregnant just after the hero suffers amnesia. His sister and husband adopt the baby girl but 15 years later die leaving hero as guardian. Daughter wants to meet biological mum and the reader waits for hero to remember. Of course, as the story goes on we watch everyone get closer we wonder what happens when. This builds the tension.

    • Tracey, thanks for mentioning Emma Darcy...her "Song of a Wren" was what first got me started reading romance. And that's a great example of tension in a story where we don't NEED guns or knives or poison gas to sense danger lurking around every corner -- it's just plain nerve-wracking, waiting to see when the big revelation will happen and what it'll lead to!

  10. Nikki Kimbel says:

    I’ve been reading Lindsay Buroker’s Star Kingdom series. The reason I mention these books is that Lindsay balances rising tension with humor. How does she do that so successfully? Honestly, sometimes while I’m reading a book with an abundance of drama and tension, I skim over the tense parts. I’ve asked myself why. It may be because life is filled with challenges right now and I just need a rest and an escape from it all.

    • Nikki, you're absolutely right about the difference between tension during ordinary times and during, well, tense times. We all have different levels of "too much," and for every person who finds relief viewing happy-peaceful things there's another who finds relief by viewing scary-horrible things which AREN'T happening to them...go figure!

  11. Sharon Anderson says:

    Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simonson. Will the Major and his Ms. Ali get together despite all the hurdles - especially with family members. Loved the humor in the this book - but there was tension in every chapter.

    • Sharon, "tension in every chapter" is a perfect description of the goal. Whether the tension is the kind that has readers breaking into a cold sweat OR enjoying a leisurely sense of anticipation, keeping it going throughout the book is one of a writer's most important tasks!

  12. Terry Odell says:

    Going off on a tangent, but what I'm finding when I'm writing is that I'm having a LOT of trouble adding conflict to the novels. My newest solved a lot of the problems easily and/or quickly. There's so much negativity out in the world, that I want to infuse more "happy."

    Also - reading genre fiction is like getting onto a train. You know where you'll end up, but you look forward to the ride.

    • Terry, what a great line about looking forward to the train ride -- that's a wonderful description of genre fiction! As for adding conflict, the only way I could ever make myself do it is by deciding "this is being KIND to readers, showing them what people can survive" (even if it's just a rude clerk). 🙂

  13. Jenny Hansen says:

    I just approved 4 comments for you, Laurie. What a marvelous post! And this discussion is rocking my morning. 🙂

  14. Jacquolyn McMurray says:

    'Where's Papa going with that ax?' said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast... Charlotte's Web opens with one of my favorite lines in children's fiction. It was my go-to read-aloud for 3rd graders when I was still teaching. White handles this life and death theme with enough tension to make young readers want to read on while not frightening the daylights out of them.

    • Jacquolyn, good observation on the art of keeping readers curious without frightening the living daylights out of 'em -- while some people DO want to be terrified for a more powerful reading experience, others prefer being just mildly uneasy. It's a lucky thing that both types (AND all those in between) can find books that deliver what they want.

  15. Fran Colley says:

    My go-to answer for "awful choices and ramped up tension" is HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS. We've already had 6 other books with tension and conflict, but when we come to the end, when Hedwig has died and Dobby has been killed, then we learn that Harry is also a Horcrux? That he must die so Lord Voldemort can be killed? GAH. The WORST. And then the scene where his parents and loved ones walk with him into the forest? I was such a mess.

    But other books that also capture horror and tension--the HUNGER GAMES trilogy, My Fair Assassin trilogy, et al. (I love YA for this sort of life-death stakes.)

    • Fran, Harry Potter sure does deliver "life-death stakes" in an enormous way -- all the more impactful because the tension's been drawn out over seven books, getting bigger with every one! That's an advantage to series, because even when each individual book ends on a somewhat satisfying note, that underlying thread is still pulling the reader along...

    • Jenny Hansen says:

      I cried during that entire part of the book. From Hermione saying "I'll go with you!" to Harry talking to Dumbledore in the King's Cross station. Big. Blubbering. Mess.

      • Fran Colley says:

        I'm kinda blubbering now just reading your comment about Hermione and then Harry's talk with Dumbledore...MAN, that was an exhausting read. I was fortunate enough to get the book on the night it was released, went home, and just started READING-READING-READING. Didn't come out of my room. Barely talked to people. By the time, I was finished, I was wrung out. *LOL* And that whole scene...from the time we see Snape's memories ("After all this time?") to the talk in the train station...SOBBING MENTAL MESS. *LOL*

  16. amusinglymags says:

    Another thought provoking post. Oh man, Gone Girl was the first novel where I wanted to see how it ended but boy was it hard to get through. I was on the edge of my seat wondering how it was going turn out and praying that justice would be served. It really illustrated how easily perception can be manipulated.

    • Mags, that's a great example of the tension you can get from an unreliable narrator -- a topic unto themselves, for sure. Wasn't that a mind-boggling read? All 15 people in my oversize book group had different ideas of the ending...talk about an up-in-the-air ending!

  17. Great blog post as always, Laurie! As an avid reader and lover of romance, I have to say each story is about the journey. From the first page, the reader knows the author must keep the promise of the HEA (happily ever after) but the reader keep reading to find out the what and the how. How will they settle their differences? What will they have to give up/compromise to reach that HEA? What will they discover about themselves and one another by the end of the book?

    • Carrie, those are VERY good examples of the kind of questions that can build (and sustain) tension throughout a romance -- in a shorter book, that can be all the tension readers need to keep 'em turning pages, and in a longer one it's still the biggest thread even if a few other issues add tension here & there.

  18. Amanda Pumilia says:

    This is such a great question!!! It really made me think about what hooks me in the book, what keeps me turning the pages and reading all day long. I actually just binge-read a mystery book called "One of us is lying" by Karen McManus. It was a Breakfast Club-style, locked room murder mystery of 5 students in detention and only four come out alive. So engrossing, I immediately ordered the sequel. Now, the obvious question for a murder mystery is "Who's the killer?" But, I LOVE locked room type mysteries because it adds in the added question of "HOW did they pull it off, killing someone with so many witnesses?" This particular book also had that "How will they be able to prove their innocence?" because everyone was under suspicion and "What are everyone's secrets?", because they all had them. It's so much more layered than a typical mystery and I think stories with MULTIPLE important reader questions are the ones that keep us binge reading. One gets answered, but there's still so many more.

    • Amanda, you're absolutely right about multiple important questions helping increase the tension -- and that's a nice balancing act for writers, keeping the biggest one going throughout the story while other not-quite-so-big ones wind in and out of the main one. Almost as tricky as escaping from a locked room. 🙂

  19. Laurie Dennis says:

    I think of the book "BONES" by Jan Burke. It's been awhile since I read it, I still remember about the time the murder is solved, the sleuth realizes she's being stocked by the murderer. The book turns from murder mystery to thriller in quick twist.

    When the mystery was solved, I remember thinking the book still had about 1/4 left so what's left? Then the sleuth was being stocked and the race was on to see if she survives.

    • Laurie, isn't it strange when a book seems like it's ending too early? After reading several by authors who tend to go that way, it's easier to feel confident there's still another great surprise to come, but the first couple times it happens there's kind of a disbelieving reaction: "How come there are so many pages still left?" 🙂

  20. Natalie J. Damschroder says:

    I just binge-read the entire Dresden Files books by Jim Butcher to refresh my memory for the new release. The books got more complex and less "genre" as he went on, in the sense of continuing story threads that didn't get resolved all in one book, etc. But he is a master of the questions. Okay, we know Harry Dresden will survive (except that time he didn't) but how will he overcome the insurmountable problems (because there are always at least three) and stop the unthinkable catastrophe and what will be the consequences and how will they feed the next story?

    • Natalie, good point about feeding the next story...once a series is ticking along nicely, it's a treat to know that anyone (although not everyone) we meet in one book could very well wind up in the next. And, hmm, what will happen if they DO?

      • Natalie J. Damschroder says:

        Oh, yes, waiting for beloved characters to appear is always a great level of anticipation, and joy when they do show up! 🙂

  21. Janis McCurry says:

    I know Sophie’s Choice has been mentioned, but consider a mother’s nightmare of having to choose which child would live. It is unfathomable to me and is a wonderful example of the question

    • Janis, isn't that a haunting question? It's probably the easiest example of An Impossible Choice in literature today, and it's hard to imagine how any future book could top it. But, heck, I'll bet whatever writer Styron replaced as "author of best Impossible Choice" thought the same thing!

  22. Meg says:

    I find an additional level of tension in science fiction or speculative fiction. The next decision or action or revelation is likely to be, or at least to include, something that would never have occurred to me. An example of that for me is China Miéville's "Embassytown". The plot is interesting but not special. What's special is that the native inhabitants of the alien planet speak a language that makes it impossible for them to lie. For the Earth people to remain safe, the alien people have to be taught to lie. Can it be done, and will they consent?

    • Meg, it's nice to have that extra dimension of possibility when it comes to building tension -- there are so many more ways a story could turn out! And that might be part of what makes SFF so popular...all kinds of endings the Ordinary World could never offer.

  23. dholcomb1 says:

    Lisa Wingate's recent book, *The Book of Lost Friends*, goes through parallel stories in different eras. We know the stories are related, we know the characters have to take a journey (not necessarily a trip) to get from the beginning to the end, but it's the story along the way which keeps one intrigued and hanging on, while danger lurks around corners.

    We follow three young women looking for family and property deeds and legal papers. During the search, they find themselves in danger and not knowing whom to trust. Along the way, they discover "Lost Friends" posts in papers and document many former enslaved people searching for family. Finding family and uncovering truths leads to many secrets.

    A young teacher, thrust into a classroom where children segregate themselves by class and color, tries to find a way to engage them with limited resources, children forgotten with lack of funding. Her project to get the children interested in their community, the past, and history, stirs up the surrounding area. What they uncover will forever change many and connect the dots to a part of history some would prefer to ignore.

    Hannie and Benny show us history cannot be swept away. This book serves to open eyes, hearts, and minds with understanding while educating us on a forgotten history in our country.

    Denise

    • Denise, this sure sounds like a grabber book! The tension seems to arc over the search as a whole, but also spike in places where each of the women encounters her own Greatest Challenge -- which is a great way of increasing the levels throughout the story.

  24. Hi Laurie. As usual you have raised such an important question. No matter what the genre of the book, unless there is some tension and high stakes it's difficult to make the reader turn the pages. There have been plenty of books that I never could finish because it lacked this crucial element. And many others, with the simplest of plotlines (and perhaps even predictable as well) that made me read the book till the final page.

    • Adite, good point about simplicity or complexity not being the deciding factor in whether a story sustains the readers' interest -- it seems like stories on BOTH ends of the continuum can deliver the kind of tension that keeps people eager to keep going!

  25. Delores Stewart says:

    Two very different types of novels come to mind in observed tension. For one, "Their Eyes Were Watching God" by Zora Neale Hurston. I would say it meets the standard of building tension throughout the novel, with the hardships of getting married to three different flawed men, all challenging in different ways. Near the end of the book, when things seem to be going well, there is a hurricane, which creates tension when the third husband's behavior changes for the worse, after being bitten by a rabid dog and in how the heroine survives this horrid scene, one of many where she comes close to losing her life. She displays many actions of fairness, and kindness. Another book that I really think did a great job of building tension was called "The Winner," by David Baldacci, where a poor and miserable woman, Lu Ann Tyler, is targeted to win a big lottery that has been rigged by a cruel manipulator, and she does become rich. The cost of being a winner, under the circumstances given t her, becomes too high a price to pay. The tension builds throughout the journey as she truly becomes the true winner in the end.

    • Delores, what a great illustration of how tension can be equally enticing in a mainstream literature classic OR in a work of genre fiction -- you're right, Hurston and Baldacci both deliver that edge-of-your-seat experience in completely different styles, but in both cases we're ROOTING for this heroine to come out okay.

  26. All of "The Dresden Files" by Jim Butcher books would certainly qualify, but the one that sticks in my mind is Ghost Story. It is truly a life or death situation and one that relies on others banding together to find and save Harry Dresden.

    • Jenny Hansen says:

      I haven't read ANY of these books KJ, and it sounds like I need to. If you take a romp through the comments, you'll see Jim Butcher recommended several times.

    • KJ, I'm so sorry I missed your comment yesterday! Especially when it's about Harry Butcher, the only character for whom my son ever requested "every single book" as a combination Christmas/birthday gift. Talk about a WINNER of a series...

  27. Charlotte Raby says:

    Hey, Laurie! Great post! I've recently read Circe by Madeline Miller, about the Greek Goddess and her long life - and what kept me going was to see how the author tied everything else from Greek mythology into her life and timeline and to see how the author humanized her. Also, I've just read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings and it was the same for me, with the relationships, and, I found I really enjoyed all of the detailed descriptions, in all three books. 🙂

    • Charlotte, good point about the Tolkien books' relationships, and now I can't wait to find Circe -- isn't it a treat when somebody brings a mythical character to life in such a way that you never perceive 'em the same again? This one sounds like a Percy Jackson story for grownups, so what's not to love?

  28. jeanne kern says:

    I know we're talking suspense here, but "Pat doesn't know whether to rescue Hobson or Sophie"! I laughed for a full minute. So thanks for not only your insights on suspense, but also for starting my day off with humor.

  29. G Lawler says:

    Amazing post Laurie, and your responders have such good points. I'm struggling between 'Name of the Wind' by Patrick Rothfuss, which has a circular start and finish but goes a long way in between, and 'Six of Crows' by Leigh Bardugo which places Kas and his gang in rising peril, with each new twist worse than the last until the end, when the price for peace is so high.

    • Grace, it's so unusual to see TWO cool-sounding recommendations by authors I've never come across -- usually, even if I haven't read the book I've at least seen the writer's name. But it's always fun making new discoveries, especially when I know we share reading tastes.

  30. Laurel Greer says:

    I really enjoyed Red, White, and Royal Blue, because I didn't know how they were going to end up together (Casey McQuiston managed to creat real doubt about an HEA, even though I knew there would be one.) The sense of the unknown ramped up the tension.

  31. Oh, boy, it's Saturday and I get to be the one who announces the free-class winner: congratulations to Jeanne Kern!

    Jeanne, just send me your email address (I'm at BookLaurie Gmail) and you'll be all set for https://groups.io/g/Tension -- in which you might recognize some quotations from people here. 🙂

    Thanks, everybody who provided such great examples!

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