Funny old world, isn't it?
Just when you think
you've got it sussed, or something important suddenly seems clear, life
has a way of throwing you back into the dark.
Despite our best
efforts, none of us can really second guess the future. Not
marketers or stock analysts or even psychics can accurately
predict what will happen next.
There's no such animal
as a sure thing. Writers and publishers know this better than most -
and we are as surprised as anyone else when a bestseller emerges -
against all the odds and for seemingly no special reason.
But still we must persist, just in case our next work is the one.
Writing Suspense Fiction
There are three keys to writing suspense fiction - and a few practical considerations we will look at later in this article.
Key One: The writer knows more than the reader
any kind of suspense fiction it's important that the writer has a clear
idea of the twist and turns his / her story will take - and hide their
inevitability from the reader. As soon as the reader can second guess
the plot, the element of suspense is lost.
have to understand that when readers are absorbed in your book,
they are actually reading two stories: the one you put on the page and
the one inside their heads. Your job is to make the reader believe the
story in their head is the correct one, while introducing twists and
turns they could not have predicted given the information you've
fine line between credibility and innovation. An unbelievable twist
won't work - you'll break the fictive dream. But turns that are too
obvious will have the reader yawning and wondering why they're
continuing to read.
King says he likes to write without knowing what's going to happen. The
logic being that if he doesn't know what's coming, then the reader
won't see it either.
Patterson takes the opposite tack. He plans his stories minutely,
building in shocks and twists right from the planning stage.
Either way, the element of suspense is an implicit key element in the storytelling.
New writers have a tendency to want to put everything in, to fill the pages with their genius - and hold nothing back.
experienced writers know that often the less said the better. You need
to let the reader do some of the work - because they like doing that.
In the simplest terms this is why crime authors often don't explain
what police acronyms mean anymore. Not to show off or to confuse - but
allow readers to become part of the fictional world.
more experienced writers know that it's a game - that by deliberately
misdirecting the reader, you create in them a kind of awe at your
writing prowess - because they can see it's not all about the words.
The reader is impressed that it's the storytelling journey you've taken
them on that's clearly more important to you, the writer.
I like to think I used a combination of Stephen King's and James Patterson's techniques when I wrote PSI Kids: Willow.
From an early stage, before the writing, I had the plot down - filled
with unexpected but credible plot turns - but I didn't know the exact
The big twist at the conclusion occurred to me as I was writing - about five chapters from the end.
It was an invigorating moment because I knew I had successfully hidden the end twist from view by simply not knowing it myself!
The ending has the advantage too of making sense of the entire story - giving PSI Kids: Willow a beautiful symmetry - the kind of thing I love when I read other great writers.
Key Two: The protagonist knows less than the reader
The easiest way to visualize this key in action
is to imagine those scenes where the good guy is walking slowly down a
corridor, gun primed, not knowing if there's anyone in the house BUT the reader knows the killer is already there - or at least thinks he probably is!
more sophisticated fiction where action and adventure are important,
you'll often see the protagonist heavily involved in hunting down
clues, saving villagers and maidens and chasing bad guys, while at the
same time, the writer is showing you the authorities making plans to
help or thwart the hero without his knowledge.
This technique has two advantages.
the reader feels a sense of objective control - and can root for hero
when the odds are against him. This is the equivalent of the armchair
news reader who likes to keep up with daily intrigue. It's the same
mentality involved, hence the success of writers like Frederick Forsyth
and Tom Clancy.
Two, the protagonist always has the element of surprise
up his sleeve. Robert Ludlum uses this technique all the time. A
seemingly impossible scenario is solved by the sheer grit - and often
physical prowess - of the hero.
course, in these types of stories, the writer knew all along how the
hero was going to react in any given situation. And even the more
modern, vulnerable, workaday heroes like Logan McRae in Stuart
MacBride's fabulous novels can end up using his tenacity in ways the reader
finds unexpected - but totally credible.
Key Three: A combination of the above two keys
Since Dan Brown helped popularize the way we experience thrillers with The Da Vinci Code, modern suspense writers have understood the importance of plotting for shock value. And ending on a twist.
One of the major results of this way of writing is that the reader has to do more work.
you're in a new environment and you have nobody on hand to explain
exactly what's going on. You see the action, you listen to people
talking and you try to understand what's happening...
Viola. This is what you must do in your suspense fiction.
don't need piles of exposition to explain who is who, what they're
talking about or why anything is happening. You just need to show it
all - and let the reader figure it out.
The reader will trust you if they sense you know what you're doing.
And the way to achieve that trust is to work hard on your plot and characters and story before you begin the writing. Know your story inside and out, upside and down before you begin.
even if you're not sure of everything, don't labor over explanations or
try to justify anything the reader might not get, at least at first.
I guess it's about not talking down to your readers.
Regard them as peers who understand what you mean without baby talking them through every scene.
all implicitly understand character motivation these days. We see it
all the time in movies and on TV. We don't need a translator on hand to
explain: this is a human, he has needs, goals, he will be tested etc. We get all that.
your suspense writing, have the courage to leave information out. Either
stuff that is implicit or obvious or things you want to shock the
reader with later on.
Suspense is not just about what's on the page. It's about what you don't write too.
and remember to edit fiercely after the first draft. Especially when
you need to remove the author, namely you, from your story.
There's nothing more irritating to a reader than to be constantly reminded the story was written by a 'writer'.
As Elmore Leonard famously advised: immediately strike out anything that smacks of 'good writing'!
Good suspense writing is that which appears effortless - and comes from the
characters and never, these days, from the omniscient author.
The Easy Way to Write
THIS WEEK'S WRITER'S QUOTE:
"The greatest discovery of my generation is that a human being can alter his life by altering his attitude of mind."
Article: "Dust in the Wind"
Quote by Robert Browning
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