Suspense For Dummies, Or, Keep the Questions Coming, Baby

suspenseWe all know what suspense is, right? Suspense is that thing, you know, that causes you to turn the pages because you want to know what happens next.

Uh-huh, and I’m sure you’ve heard well-meaning instructors say things like, The secret to writing a thriller (or any genre) is suspense. You’ve got to have suspense on every page.

And you’re agreeing, nodding your head and thinking, Totally makes sense. I’m going to do that. And then you sit down at your laptop, and you think, Wait, huh, but what does that mean in practice?

Seriously, could anything in the world of fiction be more vague than the term “suspense”? When we open our toolboxes filled with the implements of our craft, what do we pull out to actually implement suspense in our stories?

Two words: Dramatic questions.

That’s the basics right there. The more questions readers have about what’s going to happen and how and why and when and where, the more they’ll turn the pages. There are the big story questions — will the good guy win? will the heroine get her man? — but also other dramatic questions that bubble up as the story progresses. You want open-ended questions, questions that tease your readers on many levels.

Sorry for the blur. If I weren't a Luddite, I'd have drawn it in a graphics program.

Sorry for the blur. If I weren’t a Luddite, I’d have drawn it in a graphics program.

I’m so enthusiastic about this topic that I even drew a visual aid. <tapping your screen with my virtual pencil> As you can see, open-ended questions overlap so that you always have something to compel the reader forward. And the more the better. Multi-layered stories are good.

Some of the questions are small, maybe only pertinent to a scene (will the good guy introduce himself to the pretty woman at the party?), some are larger, remaining unresolved over many scenes. In “The Wizard of Oz,” the question of whether Dorothy and her pals will arrive at the Emerald City intact is a major thrust of the tale, but eventually they do arrive and that question closes.

You may be thinking, this is all very nice, but how do you achieve all these dramatic questions? That, my friends, is the art within the craft. They naturally arise when you:

  1. Develop complex characters with flaws and agendas, characters we care about it.
  2. Include interesting subplots that have beginnings, middles, and ends. For example, in “The Wizard of Oz” the Scarecrow, the Cowardly Lion, and the Tin Man are subplot characters with their own arcs. Will the Scarecrow get a brain? Will the Cowardly Lion get courage? Will the Tin Man get a heart?
  3. Keep the conflicts and obstacles coming. They don’t have to be loud and action-packed either. For example, our awkward good guy could spill coffee on his suit right before he’s supposed to meet his new boss, who just happens to be the women he pined for at the party. How’s he going to handle it? What’s the boss going to think? Will this mean that he won’t get the raise so that he can pay for his mother’s medical bills?

What I’m talking about doesn’t only pertain to commercial fiction. Case in point, a few hours ago a friend called. Her debut novel is coming out soon**. It’s a literary novel. One of those novels you savor. It’s not fast paced. It lingers in lovely descriptions. My friend was excited because a bookstore owner had said that she couldn’t put the book down.

Why might this be? Suspense, granted a quiet kind of suspense, but suspense nonetheless. The story layers in all kinds of questions. Will Jack get guts? Will his wife catch a clue? What happened to Patty? Will they save the farm? Will the daughter make a new friend? Why is the wife such a snag anyhow? How did Jack get them into such a financial predicament? What will he find in Montreal?

Eventually, of course, you must resolve all the questions to the reader’s satisfaction, just don’t do it too fast. Resolve too many questions too early, and your story will stall out.

When it comes to an aspect of writing craft or anything for that matter, have you ever experienced the “wow” moment of comprehension, almost like a revelation?

** In fact, she’ll be guest posting here on March 1st! Her novel is WHEN PATTY WENT AWAY, and she’s Jeannie Burt.

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Lisa Alber is the author of KILMOON, A COUNTY CLARE MYSTERY (March 2014). Ever distractible, you may find her staring out windows, dog walking, fooling around online, or drinking red wine with her friends. Ireland, books, animals, photography, and blogging at Lisa Alber's Words at Play round out her distractions. Visit her at www.lisaalber.com.

14 thoughts on “Suspense For Dummies, Or, Keep the Questions Coming, Baby

  1. I think your diagram is really on the mark. I wrote a mystery novella once, and there was the main msytery, that was raised at the beginning and solved at the end, but there were also two smaller mysteries which came up during the case and were solved more quickly (and with some overlap).

    I like your Wizard of Oz example. I think too often people try to learn everything from whatever happens to be popular right now, but I think it’s important to study the perennials, too. If a story is popular for decades, or even centuries, it must have something pretty powerful. That’s why, in in my comment on Heather’s post, I went back to Sherlock Holmes.

    • Happy Friday, Anthony! I’m glad you like my diagram. I drew the half circles with a pot, a bowl, measuring spoons, and a stray button. :-)

      Wizard of Oz is so classic and so easy to deconstruct for story — and everyone knows it. I have to say, I’m curious about your novella!

      • Old school graphics! Excellent.

        I go back to Les Miserables, too, since I’ve been obsessed with the musical this year. The conflict between the protagonist and the antagonist has to be resolved, but not necessarily by a big fistfight or shootout.

        That series of mystery stories is here:
        http://u-town.com/collins/?page_id=1122 (there’s a link to a version you can download that will work on e-readers).
        The one I was referring to (which is actually a bit more complex, structurally, than I detailed before), is the last one: “The Mystery of the Quiet People.” It’s the last in the series, so a few characters from earlier stories pop in here and there, sometimes without a complete description, but I think most things are filled in eventually.

  2. Thanks for this! I think all good books have elements of suspense or mystery in them. There need to be questions that keep you turning the page to find answers.

    • I agree. Even though I write crime/mystery, I get annoyed when I read about suspense or plotting or whatever that doesn’t include literary (or women’s fiction or mainstream) novels in the discussion. As if those types of novels don’t use the same techniques to keep the reader reading. Please.

  3. This is EXACTLY what I needed to read today, Lisa. I finally got around to outlining the plot of my latest WIP this week, and so your handy chart is one I’ll definitely be referring to (in the past, I’ve had some much less fun methods to keep the tension moving forward…I like this so much better!).

    • Thanks, Natalia! I’m so glad this hit the right spot for you! The friend whose literary novel I mentioned? She’ll be guesting on the Deb Ball soon. In fact, I’m going to add that into my post right now even though it’s a little late. (Don’t know why I kept her anonymous anyhow.)

  4. This is how I spent my day, figuring out the questions and answers that I needed in my book after I cut so much out of the last draft. David suggested it as the main way to build suspense which is a good thing because the 27 people I killed in the last draft to build excitement seemed a tad excessive. :-) I’m finding figuring out each character’s secret (another suggestion from David) and using Q&A is making writing a working synopsis for the next draft relatively painless. I feel in control of the book, which isn’t always the case. I love your drawing, by the way. It works, unlike the sawtooth line they use for rising action.

    • Hi Larry! OH, I can’t wait to work with David. I’m hoping to as soon as I get this draft done. I like hearing that he’s a question person too. Figuring out each character’s secret — now THAT’S good. I do a lot of character analysis work before I start writing (I don’t outline, per se, but I do do this), and this helps me get at the heart of the characters’ aches. Secrets — gotta love secrets! — I’m going to add that to my development too. Cheers!

      • Lisa, if you do a lot of character work then David’s “The Art of Character” is essential reading. I do have a problem finding contradictions for my characters, tho, something he recommends.

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