Weekly Spark: Suspense Pacing—Utilizing the Reader’s Imagination

Have you ever watched a scene in a scary movie where the camera pans around the house in a tight zoom from room to room? Nothing bad or frightening is happening in those rooms, but for some reason you know it will. The camera focuses on a person watching TV, another cutting a sandwich with a sharp knife, innocent children playing in the yard. Maybe the musical score is filled with dissonant chords or whiney instruments. Your heart pounds. You contemplate covering your eyes to shield them from the likely assault, or at least having your palms at the ready.

A noise sounds to the right. The camera swings to spot its source. And then …

A small boy asks to go to the bathroom.

That’s right, no hairy monster. No one-eyed man with an ax. And yet you rode the pulse thrumming excitement of all that adrenaline, expecting something great—and loved it.

Deep breath!

This is what we call suspense. Hitchcock used it all the time. M. Night Shyamalan employed it in the movie Signs. It was also what made the film Jaws such a thriller. You thought the shark was coming toward the group of kids splashing in the water—but … no shark. The suspense is not about what happens. It’s what you think could happen.

Suspense is not action. It’s the expectation of something big and sometimes more intense than the event itself. It not only uses the writer’s imagination, but taps into all the possibilities swimming around in the reader’s mind as well. And the reader might fill it in with his or her own deepest, darkest fear—a suspense writer’s gold.

How do you write suspense? Unlike action pacing, suspense is slower, more drawn out, and filled with details that set a tone of expectation, leaving multiple clues of various possibilities. Like the camera angles in the tight zoom of a movie, the author shows very little of what is really there, but leads the reader to believe deadly hazards are all around. There may be a deadened silence, broken only by an eerie sound—footsteps on a vacant walk, the pop of a light bulb burning out, a black crow cawing.

Why do these things make our hearts pound? Because the anticipation of something awful is actually more anxiety producing than the experience of it. The anticipation makes us ask the questions, “What is the next challenge?” and “Can we get through it?” The experience shows us we can. Which is scarier to you? The not knowing.

However, unlike life, where we want these answers right away, the author’s bread and butter is in making the reader wait. So stretch these moments out. Add more description mixed with hints that are crucial to the story so they won’t miss a letter. That’s the essence of suspense.

What is your favorite suspense scene in a book or a movie? How did the writer play on your imagination to create the suspense in your mind?


Connie AlmonyConnie Almony is the author of At the Edge of a Dark Forest, a modern-day Beauty and the Beast story about a war-vet, amputee struggling with PTSD. You can find her writing book reviews for Jesus Freak Hideout, hosting InfiniteCharacters.com and LivingtheBodyofChrist.Blogspot.com, or hanging out on Twitter, Facebook and Pinterest.

Quick Skills: Suspense

Basketball season is over at our house.  Which means one thing:  We’re one sport closer to football.  We love football, and the wait is killing us. But one of the things I love about football is that it’s a great metaphor for nearly everything.

Like writing a suspense novel.  A football game has all the elements of a great suspense novel: the players we love, an objective, a playbook on how to win the day, villains, truth tellers (called coaches) on the sidelines and deadline for “game over.”

I blogged all year in 2011 about suspense, so I can’t cover all that territory today, so we’re going to touch on the one big element every suspense should have:  The Big Event. 

Every suspense must have a Big Event that looms in front of the character.  It’s an Event they must either stop or achieve in order to save the day.  The story may begin with a sample Big Event and lead up to another one.  Or, it might have the Big Event in the middle, with the aftermath climax at the end.  But the reader must believe that something terrible will happen if the hero/heroine don’t save the day, otherwise, there is nothing “suspenseful” to worry about.  The key is that the story is building up to that event, yet the closer we get to the big event, the more obstacles are thrown before the hero/heroine.

Think of it like a football game. If the team doesn’t have the ability to lose, (or win), then we won’t believe they can lose, or win the day.   We also need to care about the team, so they have to be  heroes under all that gear.  The game only last for four short quarters, so there is an immediacy to the threat (and a deadline) and finally, there must be a villainous team opposing them that makes us believe that all could be lost.

Let’s take a closer look at the Big Event. Whether the event that is/will happen is caused by an elements or a villain, it needs to have four components:

The Event must be Believable.  You can accomplish this by showing a similar or like event happening in the beginning of the book, or a small glimpse of what COULD happen if things go awry. If I were writing a football book, I’d have them lose a previous game…Or perhaps have the undefeated team lose, to show that our team could go down, hard.

The Big Event also needs to be Compelling.  See, if it doesn’t affect the life of a character (that we love), then we won’t really care.  Or, if it doesn’t affect them in a way that matters to us, we also don’t care.  It has to be personal.  This is why High School football is way more exciting than professional football.  It’s MY boys out there on the field, fighting for our small town.

There also needs to be an Immediacy or a Deadline to the Event.  An end date.  Four quarters, that’s it.  The hero/heroine/readers must believe that the threat/Big Event will happen, and soon.

See, we need to believe that this horrible Big Event will be…Horrible, Terrifying, Awful.  This is different from believing it can happen.  It’s answering the questions — so what?  If it happens, how does it affect me?  We played, on homecoming last year, a team we hadn’t defeated in six years.  They liked to rub in our faces.  To make us bleed, hurt and hang our heads.  Not this year. We held them to four overtime goal line stands and beat them by a touchdown.

It was the most terrifying three hours of football I’d ever experienced.

Believable, Compelling, Immediate, Terrifying – the four components of the Big Event.

Quick Skills: If you’re writing a suspense, think like a sporting event (preferably football) and build in the components of the Big Event.

Happy Writing!
Susie, who is now really pining for football!

P.S 19 Days left for the Frasier contest!  check out details:  http://frasier.mybooktherapy.com

P.P.S.  As you might already know, MBT is now offering an advanced membership with access to our full library, advanced teaching through webinars and video talk shows and a monthly advanced class.  For more info, check out:  www.mybooktherapy.com/join-the-team/.  Hope to see you at practice!



Conversations: The basics of writing a Suspense Novel

“How is your writing going? Do you feel ready to dive into crafting the Black Moment and Epiphany?” I asked Sally as she came to the table with a chai latte.

“Not yet. I want to write a suspense into my romance.” Sally sat down and pulled out her notebook. Outside, the sun shrank the snow banks, spring in the air. “I watched Eagle Eye on FX over the weekend, and I realized how much I love suspense.”

“I love suspense too,” I said. “A romantic suspense combines the fun of falling in love with that edge-of-your-seat-fear that the people we care about could get killed.

“Let’s take a look at what that would mean for your story. Writing a romantic suspense means adding another story structure/plot to your novel. You’ll have to learn to weave the romantic beats in with the big suspense elements in the right rhythm. The good news is that you can often combine some of the big moments of a romance or suspense so they merge. For example, the heroine or hero might meet at the onset of the suspense. And the final battle/grand gesture or sacrifice can be combined in the final sequence. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s talk about the structure of a suspense.

“First, know the difference between a mystery, suspense and thriller. A mystery has a dead body at the beginning. The suspense has the dead bodies along the way. And the thriller has the threat of dead bodies at the end. Of course, there after often dead bodies throughout all of these, but the threat is emphasized at different points in the plot. Eagle Eye is part thriller, because the Big Event is at the end, and part suspense, because we are driven through the story in one suspenseful scene after another.

“The Big Event in Eagle Eye is the assassination of the President,” Sally said.

“Yes. But that’s only one part of a suspense structure. You might also have Big Event in the middle, but that lead to something bigger as a result. For example, War of the Worlds, an alien invasion movie with Tom Cruise has the Big Event happen at the end of the first act, and yet the terror continues as the aliens chase after and eliminate the Americans. So, figuring out the Big Event is crucial. Once you figure this out you must set up the suspense.”

“How do I do that?”

“First, early in the First Act, you have to set up the hero and heroine as the likely players in the suspense plot – and you have to give them a good reason for being there. For example, in Eagle Eye, the hero and heroine are picked in what seems like a random act, but they are also the only ones who figure out what is going on (and only Jerry, because he is a twin) and can stop it.

“Then, you have to set up a villain, or an antagonist that is causing the threat, or keeping them from saving the day. And you’ll have to give him a reason for being there, as well as work him into the plot.

“You’ll also have to plot external conflict related to the suspense that will keep them away from their goals of saving the day. Some of the conflict in Eagle Eye is the hero and heroine’s mutual distrust of each other, then the impossible odds of them accomplishing their tasks, and then the reality of taking on a computer/villain that controls everything.

“Finally, you’ll have to give them the ability and motivation in every scene to overcome the obstacles and save the day. This is where I use what is called the “Push Pull motivation.” But you have to make sure your scenes contain the right motivations for both threads.”

“Do I need to plot the suspense plot thread from the romance?” Sally made a face as she looked up from her notes.

“It helps initially to plot it separately, just to make sure you have all the key plot points for your suspense. But then you can weave the plot into the emotional and romantic journey. One thing to remember is that the word count for your novel doesn’t increase with the addition of the suspense thread – you have to write tighter to get it all in. But, romantic suspense continues to be a strong seller in the market, so it’s something to consider.”

Sally took a deep breath. “Maybe I should just finish the romance, and then think about the suspense.”

“Or, write this one, and we’ll work on a romantic suspense next. It might help to get one technique mastered at a time.”

“So the truth is, I’m not quite ready for a romantic suspense?” She gave me a wry grin.

“I’m not saying that. I am saying it might take starting over with a new plot, or at least extensive rewriting. It’s up to you, but writing a romantic suspense isn’t about just inserting a guy with a gun – it takes an overhaul of the plot.”

She tapped her pen on her paper, looked outside at the thaw, back at me with a smile. “So what’s my homework?”

“Come next week with your hero and heroine’s Greatest Fears, and Lies, and we’ll create the perfect Black Moment.”

Truth: A romantic suspense novel has equal part romance and suspense plot intertwined. Both plots must be fully fleshed out and then combined to create the right balance.

Dare: Read a romantic suspense novel and see if you can find the big Event, the motivation and special abilities of the players, the villain, and the places where the suspense and romance threads intersect.

Tomorrow in Quick Skills we’ll dissect the Big Event of a Suspense!

Happy Writing,
Susie May

Happy Writing!

Susie May

P.S. By the way, if you sign up for the daily Flashblog reminder in your email box, you receive the 5 Elements of a Best-Selling
Novel. A quick class on those foundational elements ever editor is looking for! Sign up HERE!

P.P.S. As you might already know, MBT is now offering an advanced membership with access to our full library, advanced teaching through webinars and video talk shows and a monthly advanced class. For more info click here!  Hope to see you at practice!

Oh, and if you’re interesting in knowing how to create a fabulous first scene for the MBT Frasier contest, attend our FREE BLEACHERS CHAT tonight, 7pm CST, with our Skills Coach Beth Vogt. www.mybooktherapy.ning.com

Quick Skills: Genre makes you a better writer

I’ve written 35 books.  Many of them have been on the best-seller list.  A number have won awards.  And at least half are….romance.

When I get to that last sentence, whatever literary cred I’ve earned with the first three statements seems to vanish.  “You write Romance?” someone will ask, (as if they haven’t heard me) and sometimes add an accompanying look of…disdain?  Disappointment? As if writing romance is somehow less highbrow than general fiction.  I hate the assumption that general fiction is better written. Hogwash.

Words are words, and the truth is, writing fabulous genre fiction is harder than general fiction. You have to stand out in a category with your words while delivering a plot that follows the genre constructs.  General fiction can be wonderful…or it can be a “the emperor has no clothes” moment – everything thinking the same thing, but afraid to say it.

Here are some truths:
~ Genre fiction gives a writer framework that allows them to hone their wordsmithing.  Because genre fiction comes with expectations about plot, the author must adhere to them – and then work diligently on emotional layering and wordsmithing to stand out.

~ Genre fiction gives an agent or editor a niche in which to sell the novel.  It helps them find the right market or line, connects them to the right editors.

~ Genre fiction makes it easier for an author to find a following. If they can construct a story within the structure of genre, but with a winning, distinct voice, fans of the genre will champion them and their following will build….even over to other genres.  Look at JD Robb, aka Nora Roberts.

Here’s how to make Genre fiction work for you.

1. Find a genre and stay in it long enough to master it.  Work on one element of storycrafting or wordsmithing at a time.  I would use each book as an opportunity to hone dialogue, or storyworld, or emotional layering, or the romantic elements…whatever.  Eventually I felt confident in every area, and my books got better with each story.

2. Study the best-sellers in the genre and ask: what do they right?  Keep a highlighter with you and mark up your stories with passages or techniques that stand out.  How can you apply the principles you’ve learned from these best-sellers into your stories?

3. Look at the plot constructs and ask: what works, what doesn’t?  If you are going to have a rogue agent that kidnaps his former handler in a romantic suspense, how does the author make that agent likeable?  Or is he?  Find the nuances that make a story powerful.  Look at the rhythm of when these constructs occur.  How do they add to the character’s emotional journey and make the story more satisfying?

4. Ask: How can you make your voice stand out?  What unique element do you bring to the genre?  I wrote six novels for Steeple Hill/Love Inspired…all of them with an international theme.  But I lived overseas and could easily write stories set in an international – especially Russian (where I lived) setting.  This became part of my voice.

5. Focus on character.  Because you are writing inside genre, you’re plot will be a “repeat” to some extent.  (let’s be honest  – there are only 7 major plots in the world anyway!).  So, it has to be your characters who make your stories powerful.  Dive deep and create characters who live and breathe.  (we have a few techniques here at MBT.)

Quick Skills Exercise:   Read a genre novel (in your genre!) this week. Write down the genre constructs in the novel, and when they occur. How does the author make their voice or character stand out?  Are there any techniques you can apply to your own writing?

Genre is an author’s friend.  Make it work for you as you build your career and you’ll become a better writer.

Susie May

P.S. By the way, if you sign up for the daily Flashblog reminder in your email box, you receive the 5 Elements of a Best-Selling Novel.  A quick class on those foundational elements ever editor is looking for!  Sign up at: http://forms.aweber.com/form/35/866611135.htm

P. P.S.  As you might already know, MBT is now offering an advanced membership!  And, we have one more week of preview (expires Feb 10th.)  Go to:  http://teammemberpreview.mybooktherapy.com to find out more and sign up for your free trial membership.  No obligation, you get to join in the fun, and you’ll get an invite at the end of the week to join at our reduced rate! Hope to see you on the team!