Story Development and Execution Part 8: Writing Suspense

Ciao, SEers. If you’re in the US, I hope you had a safe and wonderful Independence Day.

Today is part eight of the series: writing suspense. While this is important for the suspense genre, I maintain all fiction needs an element of suspense. Craig has written a great post introducing the concept, and he gives fabulous examples. This post will build on that.

This first point doesn’t require any writing at all. It does require work, though. Once you determine your genre, you need to read in it. Vociferously. Many people worry they’ll inadvertently plagiarize if they do so. But it’s necessary. First, this is your preferred genre, so you should enjoy this work rather than find it tedious. Second, if you want to write in this genre, you should learn the tropes that readers expect. And third, you should be familiar with what’s being written so you don’t write the same old story everyone else is. If everyone is writing X, you want to write Y. Your uniqueness will set you apart. (Just don’t write G. That’s too far from what’s being done.)

I’ve mentioned mystery boxes before. Introduce a lot of them. As you close one, open two more with questions. Let every answer lead to a new problem. This series of unknowns to solve is great at building suspense. And as these new issues arise, make sure they’re more difficult than the previous ones. If opening mystery boxes builds suspense, raising the stakes builds them even more.

Always keep the reader guessing. As long as you can work within the framework of “suspension of disbelief,” doing the unexpected is always better than doing something predictable. If your main character falls for the red herring or chases down a lead that results in a dead end, your reader will, too. Lay the proper clues so those mistakes seem like the only answer, but hide the real clues that they can find later. These surprises have great payoffs.

Never let the reader think anyone is safe. Not even the main character. If you present actual peril and make the hero suffer consequences early, it will keep the reader glued to the page. Nothing’s more suspenseful than not knowing if the protagonist will win.

To summarize:

  • Research the genre, abide by its tropes, but differentiate yourself (a little) from the masses.
  • Introduce mystery boxes. Don’t close them without opening more.
  • Continually raise the stakes.
  • Keep the reader guessing. Surprise them.
  • Never let the reader think any character is safe.

Next time, we’ll discuss writing action. Until then, I’d love to know more about how you build suspense into your stories. Please leave a comment below. Grazie!

Links to the Whole Series:

January 7: Idea Generation
February 2: Story Bible
February 28: Character
March 25: Dialogue
April 20: Plot
May 16: Constructing Chapters
June 10: Pacing/Tension/Suspense
July 6: Writing Suspense
August 1: Writing Action
August 26: Macro-Level Self-Editing
September 21: Mid-Level Self-Editing
October 17: Micro-Level Self-Editing
December 7: Planning a Series

Note: Links will only work on and after the date the post goes live.

Staci Troilo bio box

54 thoughts on “Story Development and Execution Part 8: Writing Suspense

  1. Pingback: Story Development and Execution Part 9: Writing Action | Story Empire

  2. Lots of food for thought here! I think the G issue is one that requires the skill to make it acceptable to readers expecting X or Y. When I watch a televised thriller series I’m sometimes bored by the predictable nature of the piece. Occasionally, something will come along that bends the mould a bit and it’s refreshing, startling and a pleasant surprise. Occasionally, something will come along that is deliberately trying to shock with the G element and it doesn’t come off. Entertaining and informative, Staci – many thanks! ♥

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Suspense and thriller are my preferred genre. I love trying to figure out the clues. There is nothing I hate more than a boring read, when there is no red herring, no flaws with the characters. I love adding those to my work. Excellent post, Staci.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I like trying to solve the puzzle, too. My kids used to get so angry because I’d know who was guilty ten minutes into a show. Then they were excited that I could do it and would try to test me. Now they don’t bother asking. Very seldom do I get surprised, and when I do (provided I can look back and see the clues were right in front of me), I’m always delighted. Thanks, Michele.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Great post and advice about reading, Staci. I love great placed hints and the worry anything could happen in a story. I admit to like adding a bit of G into my writing 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    • Nothing wrong with leaning toward G stories, provided you do the appropriate set-up (which you do). True fans will suspend all kinds of disbelief if they trust you to deliver. Maybe I should have said G stories are much harder to pull off.

      Thanks, Denise.

      Like

  5. I have picked up tidbits from each segment of this series, Staci, and this post is no exception. I think one of the biggest points of writing suspense is, as you say, to keep raising the stakes. I think that keeps the reader turning the pages, or at least it does me. Thank you for sharing! Interesting discussion going on today.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. What great points, Staci. I agree with all of your thoughts on why to read in your genre. The tropes is a particularly sticky point with me. When I open a thriller, I want action and superheroes. In historical fiction, I want detail and atmosphere. Otherwise, I might get prickly!

    Liked by 2 people

    • I know mash-ups are the trend these days, but there are tropes and expectations for a reason. I say mash as much as you want, but you still have to deliver something the reader finds familiar, or you’ll alienate them. You said it perfectly, Jacqui. Thanks.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Excellent post, Staci. I totally agree that some degree of suspense has to be part of every genre; that’s what pulls the reader through to the finale. The mystery boxes is a great way to analyze a story’s structure. A great tool if the pace seems to be lagging. Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 3 people

  8. First of all, I can’t imagine writers who don’t take time to read. It’s ludicrous (or perhaps vanity) for a writer to “think” they know it all without studying the genre. Stephen King said it well, “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.” Okay, off my soapbox.

    As someone who prefers to write suspense, I spend a lot of time reading authors in that genre that I admire. I make highlights in my Kindle, not to plagiarize, but to note the way a writer lays out clues. I’ve learned that even small things that may seen insignificant play a part in the story’s resolution. The key is to make every word and every scene count. And I love the idea of mystery boxes. I also refer to the concept as laying out bread crumbs.

    Great post, Staci!

    Liked by 4 people

    • I think of that quote often when this topic comes up. King made me change the way I read. I used to read only for pleasure, but now I study as I go through a book. One of my mentors suggested buying a paper copy (that you’re willing to destroy) and highlighting every line in different colors. Dialogue was one color, internalization another, setting a third, exposition a fourth, etc. I never did that, as I could recognize those things without breaking down a book that way. (It was advice he gave beginners, and some of them did it and found it useful), but I do like the idea of highlighting passages that are cleverly done in some way. Thanks for sharing that tip, Joan.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. As a writer of mystery and suspense, I love opening mystery boxes and weaving red herrings into my stories. I also love discovering them in the works of others and trying to puzzle them out as I read along and experience the plot with the MC.

    I find the discussion about writing “G” fascinating. Indie writers definitely have it easier if they want to experiment with G. For the most part, I don’t think traditional publishers (even agents) are willing risk anything that doesn’t fit the norm. I remember sending a paranormal romance to an agent decades ago. At the time, “paranormal romance” wasn’t even a term. I received a rejection letter stating that the two genres simply didn’t mix and no one would be interested in reading that type of story. Oh, how I laugh when I think of that now! Sometimes it takes the traditional world a long time to catch up.

    I just finished a book (The Shack) that was originally self-published but went on to become a monumental NY Times bestseller and has since spawned a movie, millions of copies, countless debates about its content, and companion publications about its content. Stephen King even referred to it in one of his fictional tales. It’s probably one of the most unusual books I have ever read and I’m sure no traditional publisher would have touched it when the author self pubbed it in 2007. Definitely as “G” as you can get. Once again, it took the traditional pubbing world a long time to hop onboard. In that respect, I believe indie authors will forever lead the way. Sometimes–as in the case of The Shack–it pays off.

    As a writer, I like to color outside the lines but I also know not to stray too far. I find it a balancing act.

    Great post and great topic for discussion, Staci!

    Liked by 4 people

    • I bet that agent passed on a lot of good books. I’m sure you do get a laugh out of that comment now.

      You’re right about indie authors needing to lead the way. New York is so formulaic; they’ll never make a change until someone proves it’s worth it to them. Talk about being driven by money.

      Thanks, Mae.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Pingback: Story Development and Execution Part 8: Writing Suspense | Jeanne Owens, author

    • Even Superman has to struggle, or his stories are boring. Yet the human heroes always seem to fascinate more readers… and I believe it’s because their challenges are more difficult than Superman’s and more relatable to us. A protagonist’s struggles is what suck readers in, for sure. Thanks, Yvette.

      Liked by 2 people

  11. Great post with some excellent pointers.

    It seems to me that the world in general, and thus our readers, is becoming less tolerant of ‘outside of expectations’, which I find incredibly depressing. I’ve seen a definite change in the nature of book reviews in the last couple of years on any number of trad and indie reads. For the same book, the reviews have gotten more critical of anything not listed as a possible trigger and/or on issues of diversity or lack of. And now we even have sensitivity readers. I wonder what next?

    Because of this, I feel that going for G is more risky than it’s been at any other time (outside of dictatorships, that is). Even sticking with what’s worked in recent years is landing some writers in the creek.

    As for the mystery boxes, I love how you describe those. One of my favourite parts of writing is planting clues and red herrings and building that suspense.

    Thanks for sharing, Staci. 💕🙂

    Liked by 4 people

    • Hiding clues in plain sight is one of my favorite parts of writing, too.

      You raise an interesting point about sensitivity readers, trigger warnings, diversity checks, etc. I think you might be right about readers being less tolerant of “other” even when we’re supposed to be more tolerant of everyone. What a strange situation. I wonder if we’ll ever see a shift back again. I’m in favor of authors writing the story they want to tell, not the story the readers want to hear. It’s too close to censorship otherwise. Too close to book-burning. We’re a better society than that.

      Thanks, Harmony.

      Liked by 1 person

  12. Roberta makes an interesting point, Staci.
    She’s hit on the reason I deliberately ignore traditional publishers – and one successful author has offered to put in a word for me. I prefer the freedom of independence because I’m free to write G. 🙂
    However, Staci, that doesn’t mean I haven’t taken on board what you’ve said and run a mental check over my WIP to make sure the problem for each character increases in intensity and pushes then towards yet more action. I’ve written romantic suspense and had reasonable sales over the years, but the stakes are higher with thrillers/police procedurals. Nowhere do either say “suspense”, but readers expect and deserve it.

    Liked by 4 people

    • You’re right, Sarah. Robbie’s comment was interesting and thought-provoking. But you both touched on one important issue… that’s a freedom indie authors enjoy. We can write anything from A to Z if we want. It just might be a little harder to pull the reader along with us. But at least we’re able to try if we want.

      I do think there’s an element of suspense to successful works in any genre. Those moments where readers are unsettled and wondering what the character is going to face and how they’ll respond to these situations keeps the pages turning.

      Liked by 2 people

  13. Pingback: Story Development and Execution Part 8: Writing Suspense | Legends of Windemere

    • There was a discussion about mystery boxes in an earlier post (I think it was Robbie who asked for clarity on them) but I can’t find it right now. Basically, a mystery box is just a puzzle for the characters (and readers) to solve or a question that’s introduced but not answered. Every time one of these mysteries is solved, it should lead to another question, ideally with larger stakes or a more confusing set of parameters. (Always try to up the ante, right?) If you solve all the mysteries early, nothing will happen in the middle of the story. If the mysteries get easier to answer instead of harder, the pace will slow because the readers will be bored. The story studio I used to work for called them mystery boxes. I don’t know if other people use that term, but it made sense to me and the image/term stuck. I hope that helps.

      Liked by 3 people

  14. Hi Staci, thank you for this interesting post, I read it with great interest. Now I want to open Pandora’s Box. You wrote (Just don’t write G. That’s too far from what’s being done.) and I’ve been thinking about that (not just as a result of your post, but long before it) and I wonder if this has become the modern take on writing because of peoples aspirations to be traditionally published and the knowledge that publishers don’t take chances with stories any more. It is very commercial and all about money now, as with all other capitalist enterprises (and I’m not knocking them for it either). I just wonder if that view is correct for writers. Think about The Murders in the Rue Morgue by Edgar Allen Poe which is considered to be the first ever murder mystery story. He had to make a big leap to write that. Other famous books are Brave New World, 1984, Fahrenheit 451, even Stephen King’s Running Man or The Long Walk. These books were all ground breaking when it came to ideas and what had not been done before. I suppose HG Wells would fall into this category as would Jules Verne. So I suppose you can write G but your audience may need to grow into your work. What are your thoughts about that? Does it boil down to choosing between money and potential future fame?

    Liked by 7 people

    • I think there is some fame-chasing involved, at least from the traditionally published. But I was thinking more about being true to the reader’s expectations in a given genre. I wasn’t around for Poe’s release, but I would guess that there were people who read his story expecting something they were used to and found this new take uncomfortable, perhaps to the point of not reading him again. We always talk about mash-ups of different genres to make things new and fresh. I have no data to prove this (only my own experience with change being uncomfortable and the knowledge that many people feel the same), but I suspect many of those attempts don’t land favorably with traditional readers, and those that are works of genius that eventually go on to become chart-toppers and history-makers still leave a segment of the population dissatisfied… not because the books weren’t good, but because they just didn’t give readers what they’d come to expect from a particular genre.

      You know how people say it’s fine to break the “rules” but only if you know them first and understand how and why to break them? I posit it’s a similar thing here. Go ahead and buck the norms and attempt to write G, but only if you understand that readers expect X and know how to deliver your new story without letting them down. Being edgy for edgy’s sake probably isn’t enough to pull off writing G.

      As to whether time and growth will eventually let readers catch up with a “G” kind of novel? I guess we’ll have to wait and see on that. We caught up with Poe and Verne and the like. But how many “G” books did readers never embrace? It’s a fascinating question to ponder.

      What do you think? Have you come to a conclusion yet?

      Liked by 3 people

      • HI Staci, thanks for this comprehensive response. I don’t really have an answer. I suppose it also depends on what a writers concept of G is. I like books that are different wrt their ideas and thinking processes but I don’t like weird writing. I must be able to follow the story and their must be one, even if the game posts have been moved. It is just an intriguing question for me because most of the books I read would have been quite disturbing when they were released. Dickens, Orwell, etc. certainly made stirs and raised eyebrows.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I’m a fan of many of the authors you listed, and I’m sure they did raise an eyebrow or two in their day. I love this topic and could spend hours discussing it. Let me pose this question to you (because I think it’s at the root of this issue):

        It wasn’t that long ago where a gay character or a biracial relationship was a scandalous thing to read about or see on the screen. I remember Billy Crystal’s gay character on Soap causing a stir. Tom and Helen on The Jeffersons was a problem for some people. Many episodes of Barney Miller dealt with issues like women officers, gay officers, and cross-dressing (which I didn’t even realize was a crime at one point). These days, we realize people are just people, and we (well, most of us) don’t take issue with race, religion, sexual orientation, etc. The advent of the Internet opened many doors to us, shrinking the world and making all kinds of things available to us when before we might never have heard of them. Now, there are content moderators making sure posts containing graphic sex, gory violence, and crimes against children are taken down, but almost anything else goes. We’ve become desensitized to so many formerly shocking things now that it’s hard to surprise us. And maybe that’s why when a writer writes “G” stories, they don’t always work. Because they’re not exposing a seedy underbelly of truth that’s painful to examine, but rather they’re going to the extreme and outlandish and unbelievable, taking us out of the story instead of drawing us in. I’d love to know if you see a similar correlation or if I’ve gone off on a tangent.

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