Thank you so much to Nicola Cornick for writing today’s article and giving us much food for thought on how to add suspense into our writing.
I’ve always enjoyed adding a bit of intrigue to my historical romances but when it came to writing a big romantic historical mystery novel I knew I was going to have to weave a whole lot more suspense into the story. For a pantser writer like me, plotting 3 different timelines was a bit of a nightmare in
itself but I knew that the art of writing a suspenseful story needed more than tight plotting. It needed twists and turns, that element of surprise that makes readers think: “I didn’t see that coming” and it needed PTQ, page-turning quality to keep them reading until 4am.
One of the best ways to learn is to study the masters of the particular skill you want to develop and so I turned to my heroes, to Mary Stewart, Daphne Du Maurier and Susanna Kearsley. “I met him in the street called Strait” Mary Stewart writes at the beginning of The Gabriel Hounds, and I’m hooked already by that hint of exoticism and the need to know who “he” is. Daphne Du Maurier is another author who uses atmosphere for great suspenseful effect, building up the reader’s journey back into time in Frenchman’s Creek until you are there with her characters centuries before. For me, a sense of atmosphere and place can contribute a great deal to a story as you wait on tenterhooks for something you know is about to happen…
In a podcast on suspense, thriller writer Harlan Coben says that he always knows the ending of his books and the final twist and surprise. Once he knows where he is heading he can lead the reader astray on the way. He uses misdirection and plays with readers’ perceptions so that they think they know how a story is unfolding but then he springs a surprise.
Harlan Coben distinguishes between suspense, which is keeping the reader gripped and turning the pages, and surprise, which happens when the books takes you somewhere you didn’t expect. He suggests that a corpse is useful for creating suspense – readers want to know who committed the crime – but that he finds a missing person more interesting. Anything that allows for an element of hope raises the stakes in a suspense novel.
Research into suspenseful films, TV programmes and books has suggested that an average of three plot twists is the optimum to use. Too few twists and readers are bored; too many and they are overwhelmed. You need a balance between these two states and it is better that the twists grow organically from the story rather than appearing from left field. Sometimes, though, a great twist can be too much. This happened to me when I got to the end of House of Shadows. I had a wonderful idea for an epilogue, something that added a huge final twist and put an entirely different slant on the end of the story. Alas, this was a twist too far. My editor suggested I take it out – unless I was planning a sequel!
Another way in which to create suspense is to build up the emotional investment the characters have in their home, family, friends, all the things that are important to them. As they wrestle with problems and difficulties you can cut to the people who are really significant to them as a way of emphasising the conflicts they are going through.
As I mentioned, that final twist is very important but at the same time a romantic suspense novel has to do exactly what all other romantic novels do and be a powerful and human story. So when you hit your readers with that final surprise, it not only has to make them gasp with shock but it also has to move them emotionally.
Thank you, Nicola and good luck with House of Shadows.
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