The Mystery Writer: Keeping the Reader in Suspense
May 1, 2020
Ken Follett: the author must sustain this anxiety, or suspense, for about 100,000 words or so.
ALL MEMORABLE STORIES are built on the framework of suspense.
The genre doesn’t matter.
In a mystery, who lives and who dies?
In a legal thriller, who’s guilty and who’s innocent?
In a romance, will she or won’t she. Is he the one or just a fraud like all the rest?
In science fiction, who reaches the distant planet, and who gets left behind?
Life is in jeopardy.
So is love.
I touched on both jeopardy and love when I wrote a suspense scene in Secrets of the Dead:
“You have something I want very badly,” the big man said. “No. Let me put that another way. You have something that the President wants very badly. Let’s discuss the film you have smuggled out of Baden-Baden.” He shrugged again and laughed softly. “Smuggling is a very serious offense, I’ve been told.”
Lincoln leaned back in the seat and closed his eyes.
Had it all come to this, he wondered.
The big man had made a serious mistake.
He thought all people were afraid of dying.
He did not know Ambrose Lincoln.
But Lincoln possessed a fear he had never known before.
He was afraid of Rachel dying.
That’s my entry, but what do others say about the importance of creating suspense, then tightening the screws to keep the reader breathless?
Oscar Wilde: This suspense is terrible. I hope it lasts.
Robert Burns: Suspense is worse than disappointment.
Damian Lewis: I think people like to be scared. I think people like tension and suspense in a movie.
Alfred Hitchcock: Luck is everything. My good luck in life was to be a really frightened person. I’m fortunate to be a coward, to have a low threshold of fear, because a hero couldn’t make a good suspense film.
Mignon McLaughlin: Even cowards can endure hardship. Only the brave can endure suspense.
Gus Van Sant: The rules of suspense are that you do know, and you just don’t know when. In the Hitchcock rules of suspense, you are supposed to know that there is a bomb on the bus that might blow up, and then it becomes very tense. But if you don’t know that there’s a bomb and it just blows up, it’s just a surprise.
Jeffrey Deaver: In suspense novels, even subplots about relationships have to have conflict.
Mary McCarthy: The suspense of a novel is not only in the reader but in the novelist, who is intensely curious about what will happen to the hero.
Jeffrey Deaver: What is my responsibility as a thriller writer? To give my readers the most exciting roller coaster ride of a suspense story I can think of.
Nelson DeMille: You have to go out of your way as a suspense novelist to find situations where the protagonists are somewhat helpless and in real danger.
Ollin Moralis: Don’t withhold sensitive information that could put your characters in danger Instead, broadcast that sensitive information to your readers as soon as possible. That way, your reader has no choice but to walk on eggshells for the rest of your story, keeping them engaged and glued to the page until the very end.
Fawn M. Brodie: Show me a character whose life arouses my curiosity, and my flesh begins crawling with suspense.
Ken Follett: For success, the author must make the reader care about the destiny of the principals, and sustain this anxiety, or suspense, for about 100,000 words or so.
Dino De Laurentiis: The audience wants to be attracted not by the critics, but by a great story. You must deliver to the audience emotion – and when I say emotion, I mean suspense, drama, love.
Suspense should not be that difficult to understand.
It should not be that difficult to write.
After all, as Mary McCarthy said, “We all live in suspense from day to day. In other words, you are the hero of your own story.”
Please click HERE to find Secrets of the Dead on Amazon.