The Art of Rolling In Suspense

Last fall I attended Bouchercon, the annual mystery/crime convention. The panels always provide great information on writing, whether it be  tips or perspectives I haven’t considered. As a writer of mysteries and crime fiction, the art of keeping readers in suspense is a favorite. Key take-aways are listed below.

  1. Plot: Germs of an idea including gender and age of your protagonist. As the initial story develops these aspects generally evolve.
  2. Characters: When readers first meet a character all they have are behavioral experiences and results. List six or seven traits for each character, both good and bad for fully developed characters.
  3. Backstory: Author Susan Calder, is adamant authors not write backstories for their characters. Calder explains it’s her philosophy that everything must be related to the story and will emerge as the narrative develops. She is also incorporating cultural experiences into her writing making for richer and diverse story telling.
  4. Motivation: Writers must understand what motivates their characters actions. If you don’t know a characters motivation, the story suffers. Tying into motivation is the relatability of characters.
  5. Character Development: Some of the best character development occurs if characters suffer terrible circumstances. It sounds horrible for your characters to hurt, but the rewards may be great.
  6. Plot Development: For good suspense, one suggestion is pushing the plot through the bad guys eyes or supporting characters. For example, the protagonist is moving toward the goal of solving the crime. The reader should be held in a state of suspense, still guessing the outcome. A way of accomplishing that goal is by leaving readers with a cliff-hanger or teaser at the end of every chapter. (Attica Locke and Louise Penny take this very idea to an entirely new level for can’t-put-it-down mysteries).
  7. Timelines: Condensing time in writing suspense is crucial. Most the authors employ a detailed timeline or a calendar. I use the latter, especially since I like the dates to be accurate and helps keep track of events.
  8. Details: Be cautious including too many particulars. Minute details run the risk of boring your readers. The authors note this is especially true with historical details.

One of the most interesting pieces of advice from the panel: Nearly every author said they learn the most from stories that are poorly written. My problem is I’m uncertain if I can read bad writing! All great tips for upping suspense no matter what genre you write in.

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