Stoking the Suspense

goodreads.author.widgetToday is the vernal equinox. The first day of spring, 2015. It’s snowing outside my window. But inside at my computer the sun suddenly bursts forth when I discover the January 12, 2015 “Writer’s Digs”. Somehow I missed that email in January and February and much of March. Its timing today is auspicious. I’ve been mired in that much-bemoaned author’s slump. Now Brian Klems’ guest columnist Elizabeth Sims has energized my writing with her 21 Fast Hacks to Fuel Your Story with Suspense.

I’ve identified 16 of her tips that I can apply to my plot thus far. Some of the threads already exist in my manuscript “Unbearable”, but her catchy phrases in this column reveal ways to enhance and intensify the effect. Thank you, Elizabeth Sims and Brian Klems, for rescuing my manuscript.

Several of the highlights for me:

1. Ms. Sims says ‘build an oubliette’ and ‘plant a hazard, then wait’. Early in my book the chasm introduces itself as ‘the forgotten place’ and continues to tease characters to the brink of disaster right up to the final twist of plot.
2. She says ‘pull a false alarm’ and ‘fake ‘em out’, squeezing out suspense through the ‘rules of three’ philosophy. My character-a teeters on the brink of disaster, then character-b is jerked back from death’s door at the last instant, and finally character-c screams a revelation all the way to the depths.
3. ‘Stash someone’ and ‘put a mask on it’ per Elizabeth Sims. Is my character-b really who he purports to be? Is character-d a red herring or the perp? Or is it perhaps character-e?
4. ‘Put a symbol to work’. She says look to nature for ways to incorporate this technique. Thank you, Ms. Sims, for validating significance behind my symbol. I can’t tell you how I use this because that might reveal too much.
5. ‘Isolate ‘em.’ She says characters in close proximity will fight eventually. In my case the ‘stuck elevator’ is a cabin in the middle of Northern Maine’s One-hundred Mile Woods; a campsite in the shadow of Mt. Katahdin; and cliff-side in the Debsconeag Lakes Wilderness.
6. And finally she says ‘get your head into it’ … you must live and breath your writing if you want your reader to stick it out to the end of the story. I feel like a stage actor as I write my 70,000 word mystery. I get into the head of each of my characters—to become them—to fabricate what they do and understand why they do it.

The prize at the end of today’s snow bow: Inspired writing thanks to Elizabeth Sims and Brian Klems. To risk a cliché: Let it snow. Let it snow. Let it snow. But please don’t squelch the daffodil sprouts.

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.” Continue reading