Saturday, November 14, 2015

Want More Readers? Write SUSPENSE, not ACTION, Scenes
I don’t want to harm anyone’s health, but everyone needs a jolt of literary CPR now and then. How to do it?
SUSPENSE. No matter what genre, no matter what age group you’re writing for, it’s suspense that make your readers’ hearts race and their anxiety ratchet up to high as they worry what will happen to the beloved characters they’ve been rooting for.
Yes, action scenes are important to add in occasionally because readers want to watch your characters ACT in some way, but to me, prolonged action gets dull. (That’s how I felt watching 90 minutes of Mad Max racing across the desert and back….zzzz). When the tension never lets up, the suspense goes down. One of the keys to writing suspenseful tales is to rev up the suspicion and then make the character move on to something “normal,” only to have the anxiety reappear. Think ebb and flow.
In Wanted: Dead or In Love, an impulsive teen girl breaks into her father’s gangster memorabilia case and accidentally cuts herself with a bullet extracted from Clyde Barrow (impulsive character trait /stealing/consequences/outlaws all create suspense). As a result she awakens the spirit of Bonnie Parker in her own body, and then later that night, infects a guy she meets at a party with the spirit of Clyde Barrow (a pissed-off and unwilling companion adds suspense). They have a twenty-four hour deadline (a ticking clock) to figure out how to rid the outlaws from their bodies, or they’ll face changing places forever (possibility of death/crimes to be committed against their will). The reader feels compelled to continue reading to find out which of the four are successful and how all the problems will be resolved (multiple solutions / lots of questions). Whew! Hopefully the reader is breathless and their heart rate increases as the tension builds to the final scene.


Here are a few tips:

  • SHOW, don’t TELL us that your character is anxious about something, have them sweat, bite their lips, swallow a lot, look at their watch. In fact, the next time you’re worried about something, check out how you feel inside, notice what you do (drink water, check for texts, pace around your kitchen) and incorporate it into your character’s actions). 

  • LET US HEAR YOUR MC’S THOUGHTS. We’re scared if your character is scared. Let us know specifically what he or she doesn’t want to happen (if we don’t get to Louisiana in time, we’ll be in their graves and Bonnie & Clyde will take over our bodies!) You’ll need to set these worries up earlier in the book and give the readers small reminders building up to the scene where “it” might actually happen, and then of course, make the worst possible thing happen. Oh no….not that!! Yes, that. Now the reader has to find out what your poor MC will do.

  • SET LOTS OF POSSIBLE TRAPS and SUSPICIOUS ACTIVITIES. And then, have your character dismiss them as things that could possibly never happen, but then make it happen anyway. For example, Mr. Nice would NEVER do that to his wife, who happens to be your best friend (oh, but he did) and your character saw it. Now what? Tell his wife, keep it a secret, confront him? Let your character worry and mull over the right thing to do over the course of the next chapter or two before deciding. Make her squirm when she sees her friend and she brags about Mr. Nice and how great he is.

    Good luck!

    'Til next time,


Writing suspenseful stories often leads me to investigating creepy places and  gruesome stories of real events.  Oftentimes what the adage s...