Tweet chat 19th March 2021 Writing suspense with guest Lesley Kara international best-selling author of The Rumour.

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Participants: Kathleen Marple Kalb, Gerald Hornsby, Maria Johnson, Sandy Stuckless, Bradley Galimore, Rik Lonsdale, Elizabeth Holland, Deborah Klée


Lesley: My name is Lesley Kara and I write psychological suspense. I read all genres, but especially love crime fiction.

Elizabeth: Hello everyone I’m Elizabeth from Kent. I love reading and writing romance. Hoping to keep writing romances with a few twists and suspense in the future.

Deborah: I think your recent novel Finding You has a lot of suspense, Elizabeth.

Elizabeth: It does! A recent review has said the suspense is too ‘film like’ so I’m excited to see what everyone has to say about suspense in today’s chat.

Lesley: I think ‘too film-like’ is a compliment!

Rik: Hi, I’m Rik, writing thrillerish cli-fi and other stuff, and reading anything.

Sandy: I’m Sandy and I pretty much read and write the same things: fantasy and scifi. Also like the techno-thriller spy novels Tom Clancy used to write. 

Hi! I’m Maria, originally from North Wales and living now in NW England. My main focus is my Celtic historic fiction series and I also have a standalone fantasy novel. Unsurprisingly my favourite genres are also historical fiction and fantasy, but I’ll read modern too.

Bradley: Hi, I’m Bradley. I write in free verse poetry. I love to read autobiographies/biographies, flash fiction, motivational, philosophy, poetry, sci-fi, short stories and spiritual. 

What are the elements that need to be in place to create suspense in any genre?

Lesley: I think strong relatable characters the reader will care about first and foremost and a central question or mystery that piques the reader’s curiosity. Preferably more than one question or mystery!

Elizabeth: I really agree with this. When reading if I don’t connect with a character then the mystery that they’re involved in doesn’t interest me.

Rik: Good starter! Risk, danger, vulnerability, threat, how many do we need? Oh, characters and plot and that sort of thing too.

Lesley: Yes, vulnerability is a good one. And the threat can be either physical or psychological

Elizabeth: I found a big part of suspense is balance. You have to give just enough information to hook the reader whilst also leaving them guessing.

Deborah: How do you keep the suspense going?

Lesley: I think by continually raising the stakes and complicating the original problem. Also including micro-tensions throughout. And by continually creating anticipation and expectation. Making the reader promises.

Rik: The dripping tap that refuses to be fixed.

Deborah: How do you do that? make readers promises?

Lesley: It’s like the Chekhov’s gun thing – if you draw attention to something early on, you’d better use it later in the novel!

Rik: It’s like the Chekhov’s gun thing – if you draw attention to something early on, you’d better use it later in the novel!

Maria: Twists and turns, characters being elusive or suspicious, your MC not knowing who to trust. One of my favourite things is when you’ve not totally realised something when realising and then the MC goes ‘wait, how did they know X’ then you go back and reread it for yourself. 

Sandy: I think the element of failure has to be there as well. Maybe I’m stating the obvious, but the reader has to at least think there’s the possibility the characters will fail.

Deborah: What about the way you write and structure scenes, chapters and sentences? Can that have an impact?

Lesley: Yes, I’m a great believer in creating suspense at the individual line level too. Sub-text is important as well – what isn’t said, what you choose to describe and what you don’t.

Elizabeth: For me, a mixture of long and short for scenes, character and sentences all build the suspense. It gives you that feeling of not knowing what’s coming next.

Rik: A little betrayal is good.

Kathleen: Agree with all of this! I’d add that the way suspense is handled may differ a bit depending on the expectations of readers in a given genre — thriller readers want different things than cozy mystery fans.

Lesley: Very true. I guess I’m talking very much from a thriller perspective!

Rik: Giving the reader information the character doesn’t have can create tension.

Lesley: Yes, dramatic irony can be really useful. In my novel #thedare, the reader knows a lot more than the main character from the midpoint onwards and I’m told this creates good suspense as you’re wondering when and how she is going to find out!

Deborah: I think it works well to start and end chapters with a bit of intrigue when possible. Things that make the reader question or turn the page.

Lesley: I agree. Ending chapters on cliff-hangers – they don’t have to be huge life or death things, but a question is raised or something intriguing.

Rik: Giving the reader a reason to turn the page.

Kathleen: Absolutely agree — if you take the chapter out the right way, they’ll stay with you!

Maria: For me I like how 1st person can be used here, because you’re so limited to the MC’s/narrator’s POV. I just love the idea of following the MC and taking it ‘as read’ and then something shifts and you realise other stuff is going on/not what the MC thought.

Lesley: I agree. Ending chapters on cliff-hangers – they don’t have to be huge life or death things, but a question is raised or something intriguing.

Elizabeth: I’m not a big fan of 1st person but you’ve made me think of it in a whole new light here. It really can benefit suspense.

Kathleen: I agree on the way first person can be used…it’s great to have all of that stuff moving just beyond the MC’s vision.

Maria: I think the idea you can only see what your MC sees and their perception of things can really raise the stakes, especially if you as the reader start to realise something isn’t right but your MC hasn’t realised it yet!

Bradley: An indescribable question that pervades through the plot suggestions. 

How do you manage pace and timing effectively?

Lesley: For me, this comes after the first draft is written. It’s all about how you choose to structure the novel. Structure is everything. Knowing when to reveal something for the best effect. It’s often trial and error. Introducing a ticking clock deadline can help pace!

Elizabeth: I really struggled with this in Finding You! I think the pace speeds up and slows down throughout to try and keep the readers hooked. My beta readers were amazing with this. Knowing the mystery so well myself made it hard to gauge it from a reader’s POV.

Maria: The pacing was excellent in ‘Finding You’, especially when you had one chapter with your MC about to find something out then suddenly there was a flashback, or you jumped POV. You were playing with the reader in the best possible way.

Sandy: It was a problem in my scifi novel Criminal Impulses too. One of my beta readers said it read like a Die Hard movie and I needed to slow things down a bit. I think I’ve done that, but we’ll see.

Elizabeth: It’s hard to get it right but that’s why our beta readers are so important

Deborah: I have found that agents and editors really hone in on pacing. It is difficult but something to be mastered whatever the genre you write in.

Elizabeth: It’s a tough one. I found it much easier to pace my romance stories. Finding You has suspense, romantic flashbacks and multiple POVs so I made it really difficult for myself.

Bradley: My understanding of pacing wasn’t fine tuned until I started editing for others. That’s a great point I never realized until now

Rik: It’s all in the planning! Know beforehand when the critical scenes take place, and why.

Bradley: I have a mental structure of how a story will play out when I first outline. I write without consideration of the pace and timing. I edit with these constraints considered and weigh them against the story that needs to be told on the micro and macro plane. 

Kathleen: I keep a timeline — and I sometimes move things around to tighten things up. It does get away from me at times!

Lesley: Timelines are vital. With my first two novels, I got into a real muddle with timelines. Now I map out chapters I’ve written on a blank calendar for the month/year it’s taking place.

Elizabeth: love the idea of using a blank calendar! My dates just get scribbled on the edge of the closest piece of paper.

Deborah: I print off the calendar for the year and months I am using and make chapter notes on it as well as on my planning table.

Kathleen: One of my very sneaky tricks in my historical series is to enliven a slow evidence-collecting stretch with either a heated social discussion (it’s 1899, so there’s lots to talk about) or a little red-herring mishap.

Gerald: Planning! Knowing when the high and low beats will come ensures there’s never a saggy middle!

Lesley: I think that breaking readers’ expectations can also help with pace. Twists and reveals, for example.

Maria: Have you ever read ‘We need to talk about Kevin’ by Lionel Shriver? It’s a very dark suspense (with some gruesome bits I had to skip over a bit) but the author is an absolute genius in his writing and how he does this.

Lesley: She is a brilliant writer. Not overly keen on some of her opinions, but her books are well worth a read!

Deborah: Do any of you use a table of your chapters to review the pacing and highs/lows etc

Maria: I try to have a brief summary of what happens in each chapter in my plot notes which can include pacing. I haven’t been as organised with my recent #WIP so I might do this soon!

Gerald: Because I use Plottr @PlottrApp I see the short summary in the box on the screen. But, to be honest, Save The Cat dictates my pacing for me.

Lesley: Do you think it’s possible to apply Save the Cat after you’ve written the novel, to help you edit it? Or do you have to employ it from the get go?

Gerald: I like to employ it from the get-go, because then you’re not wasting time writing stuff which isn’t going to be used. But I have applied it retroactively. I created the plot from scratch, but then slotted in the scenes which fitted in the right places.

Rik: ‘Story Grid’ has lots about the expectations of particular genres. My go to if I think I’m missing something. By Shawn Coyne. There’s lots on his website too.

Bradley: Yes, and they vary in layout. However, they are always super intricate. 

Maria: I try to have a brief summary of what happens in each chapter in my plot notes which can include pacing. I haven’t been as organised with my recent #WIP so I might do this soon!

Gerald: Because I use Plottr @PlottrApp I see the short summary in the box on the screen. But, to be honest, Save The Cat dictates my pacing for me.

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When you are reading a book what makes for a satisfying suspenseful read and what frustrates you?

Lesley: I get frustrated when questions are answered too quickly. But then again, if the writer strings things out too long, that is also annoying! As with all things, striking the right balance is essential.

Sandy: Honestly, constant failure drives me nuts. I want to see the characters win a little too, even it’s only a small victory. I like it when I figure out the big twist a few pages before the characters do.

Gerald: I think, as @LesleyKara said earlier, you need to create a character the reader cares about. But there must also be shade, too. Nothing worse than a one-dimensional character!

Rik: Too much information is a turn off for me. Flawed characters who struggle against themselves are great.

Bradley: When I know what’s going to happen, but the wordplay is absolutely beautiful, I get excited and tear up simultaneously. I love to subconsciously scream “YES YES YES” as I read. Flat writing that incites no emotion frustrates me.

Maria: When you’re fully invested in the characters and you want to solve the mystery as much as they do. It can be an unsatisfying end when there are too many plot twists stacked on top of one another, or story is compromised for the sake of the twists.

Gerald: I agree with Maria. I think there needs to be a strong, central story thread. It must tie close to the theme. Twists are like a ‘T’ junction. Sometimes, they’re interesting, but sometimes, you just want to keep going.

Rik: I heard/read (can’t remember sorry!) someone say a while ago that a mystery should be a great read the 2nd time around. Ie it doesn’t all hang on the shock twist and it is still a brilliant book even if you know what’s coming.

Lesley: I think nowadays we writers are expected to come up with more and more innovative twists and that can end up being counter-productive. I have become known as the writer who always finishes with a twist in the very last part of the book. The pressure….!!

Maria: Twists at the end can be fantastic! Esp if they completely turn on its head what the reader has thought so far. I think I more meant the balance. If it becomes too difficult to follow or you finish the book and aren’t sure what really happened it can be disappointing

Deborah: I get frustrated if all is going well and then you know it is going to go wrong but there is no way back.

Elizabeth: It really frustrates me when the suspense goes on for too long! I like happy endings and romance That’s why Finding You is interspersed with romantic flashbacks. Also hate books ending on a suspense filled cliffhanger.

Bradley: This is interesting. I love cliffhangers that have chapters between resolutions from different perspectives.

Maria: ‘We need to talk about Kevin’ is pretty dark with some gruesome moments but it is written brilliantly. The Girl on the Train was also written well with her trying to remember what happened.

Lesley: Yes, memory can be used to very good effect in creating a suspenseful story. Fragments of disturbing memories that are gradually stitched together to reveal what really happened.

Elizabeth: I love reading some books a second time because the author has hidden clues throughout and until you know the answer to the mystery you can’t always spot them.

Kathleen: I will ride with almost anything if the writer is true to the characters. But make someone do something we all know they wouldn’t do for the sake of your fun trick ending, and you’ve lost me.

Maria: I heard/read (can’t remember sorry!) someone say a while ago that a mystery should be a great read the 2nd time around. Ie it doesn’t all hang on the shock twist and it is still a brilliant book even if you know what’s coming.

Are there different rules for managing suspense in different genres eg. romantic suspense, psychological suspense, horror? What are they in the genre you are most familiar with?

Lesley: Has anyone read ‘Book Architecture’ by Stuart Horwitz? He talks a lot about theme and that strong, central thread and how all the other narrative threads (he calls them ‘series’) have to feed into the central theme. His book really helped me with #WhoDidYouTell

Rik: I haven’t read that book, but I have read ‘Into the Woods’ by John Yorke, which is more about ‘story’ than writing. Recommended for scriptwriters, but useful for novelists too.

Gerald: I’ve read that one, too. Another really good “what makes a good story” book.

Lesley: Yes, ‘Into the Woods’ looks into ‘why’ stories work the way they do, rather than giving a prescriptive set of rules. I heard him interviewed on a podcast a while back – wish I could remember which one.

Gerald: Was it the Bestseller Experiment? (via Google)

Lesley: I think it might have been! Well done.

Maria: I heard/read (can’t remember sorry!) someone say a while ago that a mystery should be a great read the 2nd time around i.e., it doesn’t all hang on the shock twist and it is still a brilliant book even if you know what’s coming.

Lesley: It’s interesting that before I was published, I didn’t read that many ‘how-to’ books. Now, I devour them! The longer you are a writer, the more you realise how much you still have to learn! It never gets any easier.

Gerald: I seem to have read quite a few. I love the general storytelling books, like Story Genius by Lisa Cron. I highlighted so many paragraphs in that book. And I also like the technical, Save The Cat type books, too.

Bradley: Absolutely. Every genre has rules and maintaining approaches to those genres (such as suspense, heartbreak, love, etc.) requires you to follow the rules. For example: in poetry, to describe yearning, is to describe what’s missing in subtle yet polarizing wordplay.

Elizabeth: I think romantic suspense should always be resolved by the end of the book.

Gerald: Yup. No matter what genre, all loose ends must be tied up, and all questions answered. Most of the time, anyway. Some horror leaves the reader in suspense and frightened.

Maria: what about if you are writing a series? You might want to leave some suspense open if there are things you want to leave hanging for the next book.

Gerald: I think it depends on whether you’re writing a series or a serial. We had a discussion this week in our marketing group about this. I write series – same characters, different stories. My friend is writing a serial – one story split over 6 books.

Maria: interesting, I haven’t thought much about the distinction. For me it can be a difficult balance between having the story feel ‘complete’ but also seeding in themes which you will pick up and expand on in the next novel.

Lesley: I think in psychological suspense, it’s about drip-feeding clues as to what’s going on and building an atmosphere of unease.

Deborah: Even comedy has suspense because you can guess what is about to happen and cover your eyes.

Maria: Yes, the context can be very different. For me writing the suspense in #theveiledwolf was quite political and not knowing who was the spy. Whereas the mystery element in #lottieslocket was much more about my MC finding and solving clues, more of a classical ‘whodunnit’.

Lesley: Although in literary fiction (which is a genre too), loose ends don’t necessarily have to be tied up. There can be ambiguous endings

Kathleen: It’s really important to know what readers expect because they will definitely enforce it!

Your top tip or resource to help writers write suspense well? You have already started to answer this one but more recommendations and your personal tips please.

Lesley: Create believable characters, make the reader truly ‘care’ about them and then heap a whole load of trouble and anguish on them…

Elizabeth: Lots of beta readers! See how they react to the suspense. We’re too wrapped up in the story to fully critique it.

Lesley: That’s so true, Elizabeth. We are too immersed in our own writing to tell if it’s working sometimes. I have found Ian Irvine’s various articles on suspense incredibly useful. ’41 ways to create and heighten suspense in fiction’

Lesley: If it makes your heart race when you’re writing it, you’ll know you’re doing the right thing. If you are bored, the reader will be too

Maria: Keep that character development coming! The best suspense for me is when you can feel your MC’s heart beating that the murderer might be in the room, or the anguish that someone has betrayed them. Otherwise, you risk readers not really caring about the twists etc.

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