Elements of Suspense: How Mystery and Thriller Writers Grip Readers

The article Elements of Suspense: How Mystery and Thriller Writers Grip Readers appeared first on The Write Practice.

Do you remember how you felt while reading The Da Vince Code or Gone Girl? The sweaty palms, the pleasant shiver, the jaw-clenching tension? Remember how those well-drawn elements of suspense held you in thrall, feathering along your skin, raising goosebumps?

Elements of Suspense

Can you recall the delectable slow burn suspense of Du Maurier’s Rebecca, or the heart-thumping thrill of a Jack Reacher novel?

Or maybe the bookworm memory that burns brightest for you was lit from the shadowy, secret reaches of In a Dark, Dark Wood or Before I Go To Sleep.

Suspense fiction comes in a variety of flavors, all delicious, and if you have a yen for building suspense in your writing and learning how to create the same kind of reading experience for your own audience, this is the place for you.

For a special series of articles, I’ll be your guide as we dig deep into the elements of suspense that grab readers and don’t let go. These elements apply, regardless of the publishing route you choose for getting your stories out to your suspense readers.

Here, we will learn how you can craft suspense in your own books, so read on—and stay tuned!

Anticipation…Worth the Wait

Anticipation is a critical part of suspense, and I suffered/enjoyed a long period of anticipation before I started my writing career. I knew from the time I popped open my first Nancy Drew book that I’d “grow up” to write mysteries. But as I matured, I also came to realize that for me, those writing days would have to wait.

With young children at home and a husband often away, serving on US Navy submarines, I didn’t dare sit down to write. For me, storytelling is an all-immersive thing. I go into another world and everything around me fades away, forgotten. Neglected. So I chose to wait until my baby graduated from high school and flew the nest.

But my writing dream did not sit idle during those years.

I read just about every book on the craft of writing I could find, focusing my study on suspense fiction, and reveled in learning all I could. I tossed stories around in the back of my head and let them grow there, nourished by new ideas and influences.

Most of all, I read and read and read for the sheer and utter enjoyment of it as I anticipated the season of my life when I would begin writing my own mystery novels, thrillers, and suspense stories.

At the time, I didn’t realize how critical this would be to my success. Understanding what grips readers in the thrall of mystery and thriller stories is key. And knowing how to enjoy a book for pleasure—to be a reader—is essential to being a good storyteller.

All this helped make my writer’s journey well worth the wait.

Learning From Story Masters

While working for our local library system, I attended an all-staff training day that changed my life.

Orson Scott Card was the keynote speaker and since I was part of the entertainment for the event, I shared the stage with him. I had visions of the two of us striking up a terrific rapport and him taking me under his wing as I prepared to enter the writer’s world.

None of that happened.

Mr. Card gave an excellent presentation on the power of words, but we never spoke beyond a hello.

However, in a breakout session after the main event, I had the great good fortune to meet the renowned writer and editor, Kristine Kathryn Rusch. She and her husband, the prolific author Dean Wesley Smith, have been my valued mentors for about the last ten years.

A good deal of what goes into my own work today sprang from the massive store of writerly wisdom they passed on to me, and it’s jumped my writing light years ahead, helping to make up for my late start.

I’m pleased to be able to share some of what I’ve learned from my years of preparation and experience with you!

Examining the Elements of Suspense (and Why This Matters)

What is suspense? What function does it serve and why is it so appealing to readers?

More importantly, how can you create it in your own work?

I’ve taken a deep dive into the subject over the years. I’ve studied, analyzed, practiced the principles, and written over sixteen published mysteries and thrillers utilizing what I’ve learned.

In this series of articles focused on the key elements of suspense, this being the first post in that series, I’ll share insights and techniques to help you craft your own stories filled with satisfying thrill and tension.

Here’s some of what we’ll cover:

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Suspense—what’s it all about?

We’ll take a stab at defining suspense and look at some important distinctions between suspense as a necessary ingredient in every story and suspense as a popular genre category. With a little help from the acknowledged master, Alfred Hitchcock, we’ll see how suspense is different from surprise and how they both function in a story.

We’ll examine why readers find the suspense genres so appealing and learn why such stories have become so popular and show every indication of continuing to attract a large audience.

We’ll also talk about the foundation you’ll need to build in order to use the elements of suspense to good effect in your own stories. For example, in order for readers to experience suspense in your stories, they need to be mindfully present and meaningfully invested.

Suspense depends on emotion. If the reader isn’t somewhere beneath the skin of your story’s world, caring about what happens to your protagonist, they cannot feel a satisfying level of suspense.

Give your reader that gift.

Pulling the reader into your story

As part of the foundation you must lay for a suspense-filled tale, you’ll need to grip and pull the reader deep into your story. Superficial involvement is not enough to stir the necessary emotions.

With all the competition in today’s world—social media, online streaming, video games, to name just a few—it’s more important than ever to establish that enveloping depth.

Without it, it’s just too easy to lose your reader’s attention.

You may not remember every plot point after reading a story, but you will remember how you felt. That’s why it’s so important that writers stir a reader’s emotional well.
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There are many writing techniques you can use to accomplish this throughout your entire story.

For example, when you solidly ground the reader inside the head of the point of view character, filtering every word through that viewpoint, your readers will forget they’re reading.

This is done through the use of specific types of details and avoidance of anything that will pop the reader to the surface, such as an abrupt shift in viewpoint or what my mentor describes as a fake detail.

This will also do a world of good for the rising action in your story, building stakes and smaller conflicts as they spiral into an intense, climactic moment. Silence of the Lambs is a great example. As Clarice Starling grew closer to discovering the whereabouts and identity of Buffalo Bill, Hannibal Lector’s masterful escape plan followed a parallel spike.

We’ll explore techniques like these and learn how to capture your reader so effectively that she won’t be able to put your book down. More to come!

Making the reader care about your characters

You could craft a scene full of exciting action and surprising revelations, but if you haven’t first engaged your reader in caring about your main character, it won’t matter much.

Flash and fanfare might hold your audience for the short term, but you’ll need to make your reader invest emotionally in your hero’s fate if you want to sustain his attention and generate that all-important suspense.

Readers like strong characters, but also appreciate that your hero will have flaws. We’ll explore character development, and look at a variety of ways you can make your reader invest in your protagonist and care about what happens to her.

There are specific techniques, such as making sure your character is good at what she does and showing how she treats others, that generate sympathy and resonate with readers.

Think about characters that stop to help others in trouble, especially children, animals, and elderly people, at the risk of their own well-being. Readers love these selfless actions and rounded characters in suspenseful moments, like Dr. Richard Kimble in The Fugitive.

We’ll cover these most effective and important aspects of character development in a future post.

Writing action to add suspense

Once you’ve accomplished the prerequisite

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