Building Suspense

I just read an article in “The Writer’s Dig” by Brian Klems that particularly tweaked my interest. It was an interview of Elizabeth Simms, the author of The Lillian Byrd Crime and the Rita Farmer Mysteries series, on how to build suspense in your writing. There were actually twenty-one points of value, several of which I highlight here.

Fray an end. … On the page, little odd things that are not quite in order can create a subtle sense of tension in any scene. Think dangling apron strings, a guttering candle, a loose window latch, a jammed copy machine.

To me Louise Penny does that masterfully in Still Life. The example I’ve chosen is not subtle like a guttering candle but yet is an oddity that fueled my imagination: “Gamanche wondered about this woman who had chosen to live with so many secrets for so long, then chosen to let them all out. And died because of it? That was the question.”

In my mystery Beware the Sleeping Dog, I used it (hopefully with success). I.e. “Velcro peeked at me through the slit (in the box springs). I pulled her out and held her close. Her ears twitched and she swallowed a few times before she relaxed into my arms. She’d never behaved like this before. Had something frightened her?” and “It seemed strange that nothing else but the picture of the three of us was disturbed. Premonition pricked at me, but I shook it off.”

Pull a false alarm (or Fake ’em out.) … “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” is not only an instructive moral fable, it’s a nail-biter. … Ms. Simms says “obey the rules of three”.

In Beware …: (1) “The light chased the shadows, but the voice from my dream lingered. It always did.” (2) “However, as the clock blinked away, the minutes ticked on and the silence grew longer. I was alone with my fear.” (3) “My eye caught the play of moonlight across a shiny surface.” … which actually evolves into the payoff.

Make panic your friend. … A believable way is to build a character who is flawed, especially a person who displays flawed judgment early on. Thus a panic move not only will be plausible, but somewhat expected.

In the first discussion group of Beware … , one gentleman said he found Mavis irritatingly rash and foolish; another gentleman said he thought Mavis was very brave; a woman said that development of Mavis’s panic reactions into cool decisions is what drew her to the character.

Withhold the right stuff. … Withhold substance, but give tantalizing information.

I particularly like the way David Rosenfelt built that into Without Warning with progressive insight into his Predictor character. “(The Predictor) had to turn up the heat. There was only one way to do that. Someone else was going to have to die.” And: “Everybody was behaving exactly as “the Predictor” knew they would; it was as if he were pulling all the strings. …”

Rip it from the headlines. …The daily news is a terrific place to get ideas for suspense.

So true! I constantly scan headlines to trigger inspiration. It brings to mind the cliché “truth is stranger than fiction”.

Isolate ’em. … How else might you create isolation—which, by the way, can be temporary? How about a stuck elevator, a sudden storm, even a flat tire?

Yes, indeed, a fun tool! In Beware … , Mavis had a slashed tire on a deserted stretch of Wolf Road. In my current manuscript, Alice’s partner disappears and leaves her alone in the middle of the One-Hundred Mile Woods.

Thank you, Brian Klems and Elizabeth Simms for giving me something to share today.

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