Five crime writers reveal their secrets for creating suspense
We all love a good page turner. But how do you write one? We asked some of the Crime Writers of Canada for their tips on making readers say "Just one more chapter" before they turn out the lights.
1. INVEST IN YOUR CHARACTERS.
Building suspense means creating emotion inside the reader—a feeling of anxiety and uncertainty that can only be resolved by getting to the end of the story. That’s the mystery writer’s job in a nutshell.
Some will tell you that a twisty plot is the key to suspense. I disagree. Suspense starts with character, always. Your plot needs to move, sure. But readers won’t have a stake in whatever plot twist you’ve cooked up, unless they’ve connected with the characters first.
When it comes to plot, remember: it’s not all explosions, car chases and sadistic psychopaths. The greatest tension arises when that character your reader cares about is forced to face his own flaws at the hands of the antagonist. That’s the blueprint for the kind of suspense that can only be resolved by reading to the end of the book."
Deryn Collier is the author of Open Secret, which was recently published by Simon & Schuster. Her debut novel, Confined Space, was shortlisted for the Arthur Ellis Award for best first novel.
Photo credit: Laura Wilby
2. BUT THEN AGAIN, MAYBE NOT.
The cardinal rule in building suspense is to strip away anything that’s extraneous to the action. Now is not the time to share a character’s back story, for instance!
I keep description to the bare minimum needed. I’ve also noticed that my sentences tend to be shorter and more “muscular,” with very few state-of-being verbs. Any dialogue also comes in short bursts and I try not to use any descriptors (“he said/she said”). Since you’re describing a tense situation, doesn’t it make sense for the writing to be equally tense?"
Rick Blechta is an active professional musician and also the author of ten novels and novellas. Just published is The Boom Room for Orca Books. November will see the publication of Roses for a Diva, the next of his very popular “music thrillers”.
3. RAISE THE STAKES.
There has to be something at stake: The hero is going to do what he has to do because if he doesn't do it, he stands to lose something very important. In most cases, it's going to be a loved one. Our protagonist has to save/rescue/avenge someone dear to him.
The story has to move: great thrillers are about momentum. They are a big rock rolling down a hill.
Torque it up: Just when you think nothing else bad can happen to your hero, throw another obstacle in his way. The more you turn the screw on your protagonist, the more tension you're creating for the reader.
If you're bored, the reader is bored: Keep looking for twists. Keep looking for the unexpected. When you reach the end of a chapter, ask yourself, what's the most logical way to wrap this up? And then, if possible, do something totally different.
After writing four comic thrillers featuring the character Zack Walker, Linwood Barclay turned to darker standalone novels, starting with No Time for Goodbye, which became an international hit. Since then, all of Linwood’s novels have appeared on bestseller lists.
4. MAKE YOUR READER CROSS THAT BRIDGE.
Think of building a bridge over a chasm. Below is extreme danger, on the other side is safety. Each piece of the bridge is linked to the one in front. You want your reader to be curious as to what will happen, constantly worried, and proceeding with beating heart to the next step. You won’t let them down Or will you?"
Maureen Jennings has three series, one set in Victorian Toronto, featuring detective William Murdoch; one a contemporary series featuring a forensic profiler, and the most recent set in the U.K. during WW2. A television program based on the Murdoch Mysteries series is broadcast on CBC Television.
5. SHARE WITH YOUR READER, NOT WITH YOUR CHARACTERS.
Share the secret with the reader, but not with the characters in the scene: E.g. the reader knows there’s a lipstick stain on the husband’s collar, but the wife is unaware.
Reveal the secrets slowly and gradually: When does the wife spot the stain? How long before she realizes what it is? How long before she does something about it?
Distract the characters from the secret: make the suspenseful element (the lipstick stain) a minor item, unrelated to the main scene, so it ramps up the tension when it appears.
End with a teaser: End scenes and chapters with a hint of something even bigger about to come. You want to the reader to say, 'Just one more chapter before I turn out the light.'"
E.R. Brown's first novel, the BC-based crime thriller Almost Criminal, was short-listed for an Edgar award (Best Paperback Original) and an Arthur Ellis Award (Best First Novel).