Adventures in Genre Writing: Lesson Eight–Suspense

By Jeanne C. Stein

How do you keep a reader engaged? Creating and Maintaining Suspense

Our goal as a writer is to entertain, and make the reader care about your story.

How do you do this? By creating and maintaining an emotional bond with the reader, by manipulating their emotions, by creating and maintaining suspense.

We’ve already decided that we want our books to be as thrilling as possible. That each chapter should end with a hook designed to grab our readers and not let ago until they’ve reached the last page.

Let’s look at some of the most popular ways authors accomplish that same idea throughout their books.

1. The ticking clock. The ticking bomb. This is probably the most often used. Our protag is up against a deadline. If she misses it, the world as she knows it will be changed forever.

2. The “fifth” character. Also called the “disposable” character. A character the reader has come to know and love. Our protag’s friend, sometimes, our protag’s mentor. As readers, we are invested in that character. We love him or her. Then in a startling development, that character is killed off. It ups the stakes for the protag and ratchets up the emotional impact for the reader.

3. Personal agendas. Giving our secondary characters motives unknown to our protag that make it more difficult for her to achieve her goal. This sets up anticipation in the reader who realizes a verbal or physical clash is bound to occur.

4. Red herrings. Should be used sparingly. It’s okay to create a couple of false leads, but peppering the book with a different one every chapter will frustrate the reader. The opposite of this, of course, is one we mentioned earlier: cheating. Don’t wait until the very last chapter and spring an antagonist on us we’ve never met before.

5. Greatest fear. Make our protag face what she fears most. Can be a physical or psychological or moral challenge. The important thing is that the result of failing that challenge means utter disaster.

Those are a few of the more common ways to create suspense. Now how we write it.

We mentioned Dwight Swain in the last lesson. In his book, Techniques of the Selling Writer, he shares the secret. They are called Motivation/Reaction Units. Or stimulus/response units. Here’s how they work.

The motivation is something our characters see, hear, feel, smell or taste. It’s a stimulus that results in a reaction or response. Motivation is external and objective—something happens. The reaction is internal and subjective—our character’s response.

Jack Bickham in his book The 38 Most common Fiction Writing Mistakes (and How to How to Avoid Them) puts it like this:

The law of stimulus and response works at the nitty- gritty level of fiction, line to line, and it also works in melding larger parts of the story. For every cause, an effect. For every effect, a cause. A domino does not fall for no immediate reason; it has to be nudged by the domino next to it.

Taking this one step further—the reaction/response must always occur in this order: feelings, reflex action, rational action. For example, our protag is attacked unexpectedly. First, she’s surprised (feeling), then she falls back (reflex action) next she gathers herself and responds to protect herself (rational action.)

Why do I say reaction MUST occur in this order? Because it’s logical. When the telephone rings, we answer it. Not the other way around. Sounds simplistic, doesn’t it? It’s such a small thing, why should we pay much attention? Because a sentence constructed this way: I walked to the door when the bell rang, marks us as amateurs. Remember when I said editors and agents are looking for reasons to stop reading our submissions? This is a big one. Along with typos, improper manuscript presentation and improper grammar. We’ll hit more ways to shoot ourselves in the foot in Lesson Ten.

But back to writing the page-turner. What else do we need to make our books come alive? Action verbs. Sophie plunged head first into the water. She didn’t throw herself quickly or drop precipitously into the water. Use action verbs. Omit adverbs and adjectives. Keeps the writing fresh and taut.

Use all the senses. Use sensory details and internalizations to:

Make the reader buy into our world (by suspending disbelief).
Create empathy with our characters.
Modulate pacing and tension to keep the reader hooked.
Keep the reader oriented in the story.
Key the reader to the important plot points.

Sensory details place the reader in the story through:

Sight
Sound
Smell
Taste
Touch (sensations)

Here’s an example:

Sophie smelled brine and seaweed before the cold enveloped her. Salt water burned her throat as the darkness rushed up to meet her. There was no sound. Just immense silence followed by…nothing.

Of course, you’re not always going to use ALL five senses. But use more than one. Brings the action to life.

Don’t interrupt action with back-story. There’s nothing worse than being pulled from the NOW for a trip down memory lane. If your protag is fighting for her life, there’s a good chance she’s not going to be thinking about how she came to be in this predicament. She’s going to be concentrating on overcoming her opponent. It’s all the reader should be concerned with, too. Our aim is to create a powerful emotional experience.

Let’s review, then, how we construct a good novel. We use:

Scenes containing Goals, Conflicts, Disasters

Sometimes followed by Sequels: Reaction to the disaster presenting a Dilemma, which leads to a Decision (used sparingly)

And we write these scenes and sequels as a series of Motivation/Reaction Units

In every paragraph, motivation/reaction units should propel the action. Every paragraph. It won’t be easy at first. In fact, what I want you to do now is to look at a scene you’ve already written. Make it the best scene in your entire book.

Now rewrite it as a series of motivation/reaction units. Get rid of everything else. Make sure the sequence of your M/R units is correct: feelings, reflex action, rational action (including dialogue, by the way.)

Done right, you should have an action packed scene that leaves the reader breathless.

Here are some examples of the Good, Bad and Ugly of what we discussed:
The Good: Warren Hammond’s EX-COP:

She ran her hand across the rack’s surface and began fiddling with the shackle again. I found my eyes moving from one rack to another. She caught me in the act, and smiled naughtily, fully back into her kinky librarian persona. I felt a good kind of stirring in my stomach that made its way down into my pants. For the first time in forever, I felt intoxicated on something other than booze.

The Bad:

She left the bar, drink in hand, and headed back to her table. Oh no! Somebody bumped into her, knocking the drink out of her hand.

The Ugly:

Bryce turned to see Jackson, who had just tapped his shoulder. He shoved Jackson with two hands, the memory of what Jackson had done to him making it impossible to control his emotions. Bryce’s cheeks burned red with a rush of blood.

The Ugly Revised:

Bryce felt a touch on his shoulder and turned to see Jackson. The memory overwhelmed. Blood rushed into his heating cheeks, anger surging beyond his control. He shoved Jackson with two hands.

Remember, too, every stimulus deserves a proportional response.

Try these simple exercises:

Stimulus: The waitress whizzed by, dropping the bill on the table, a waft of perfume hitting my nose a moment later. I eyed the bill, the seven-digit number making me think those were some damn expensive eggs, until I realized I was looking at a hand-written phone number.

What would be an appropriate response?

Every stimulus deserves a proportional response
Stimulus: The growl echoed in the dog’s chest, ears pressed against her head, and she pulled her lips back. Incisors. Canines. Molars.

What would be an appropriate response?

Every stimulus deserves a proportional response
Stimulus: The guy came out of nowhere, shoved me back against the car. “Give me your wallet.”

What would be an appropriate response?

Every stimulus deserves a proportional response
Stimulus: I looked at the wad of cash in my hand. The bank teller had given me too much. “I think there’s been a mistake, “ I began. She looked me right in the eye, “I never make a mistake,” she said.

What would be an appropriate response?

Next we have some fun: SEX—Do we need it (in our books, I mean ☺ )? How much do we need? How do we write it?

Remember, until next time: BICHOK—Butt In Chair, Hands On Keyboard!! See you in May!

Jeanne C. Stein
Jeanne Stein is the award winning, national bestselling author of the Urban Fantasy series, The Anna Strong Vampire Chronicles. Anna Strong was named one of Paranormal Fantasy’s Top ten Ass-Kicking Heroines by Barnes and Nobles’s reviewer, Paul Goat Allen in 2013. Jeanne also has numerous short story credits, including the novella, Blood Debt, from the New York Times bestselling anthology, Hexed. Jeanne lives in Denver, CO and is active in Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers (where she was honored by winning the Writer of the Year award in 2008.) She has taught at numerous conferences and on-line academies. Her newest venture, The Fallen Siren Series, is paranormal romance written in collaboration with Samantha Sommersby under the pseudonym S. J. Harper. The first book in that series, Cursed, debuted last year. A prequel novella, Captured, is available free on Amazon and the second book in the series, Reckoning, will be released October 7. More about Jeanne on her website.

2 thoughts on “Adventures in Genre Writing: Lesson Eight–Suspense

  1. Jeanne, this whole series is outstanding. This one on suspense is my favorite so far because it addresses some of the techniques I struggled with as I tried to make the transition from straight mystery to suspense novels. Thanks!!

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