5 Tips for Writing Suspense

I am a traditionally published thriller author. My latest book No Time to Die just hit shelves this week. When I first started writing suspense fiction, though, I had very little idea what I was doing. It took a humble amount of trial and error to get in a groove and overcome basic rookie errors. Now, seven years later, I like to think I’ve figured out some tricks of the trade. I’ve also been extremely lucky to receive the support and mentorship of some of the top names in the biz, like Jack Reacher’s creator Lee Child and the late Michael Palmer. So without further ado, here are some tips for budding thriller writers that I wish I’d known from day one…

GIVEAWAY: Kira is excited to give away a free copy of her novel to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (UPDATE: Irish2369 won.)

 

no-time-to-die-novel-cover     kira-peikoff-writer-author

Column by Kira Peikoff, a journalist and novelist in New York who has written
for the New York Times, Psychology Today, Slate, Salon, and Cosmopolitan.com,
among many others. She is the author of LIVING PROOF (Tor, 2012) and
NO TIME TO DIE (Kensington, 2014), which was praised by best-selling
author Lee Child. Connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.

1) Structure Scenes like Mini-Novels: Each one should contain its own narrative arc, with rising action and a climactic moment that signals the end of the chapter. It’s good form to finish most chapters on a cliffhanger—especially the first one. A major dramatic question should be raised in the opening scene, and then resolved in an unexpected or unfavorable way to hurl the main character further into the conflict (and thus drag your readers into the story). Get your protagonist in trouble as soon as possible and never let her get too comfortable or too safe. As far as chapter length, I’ve found that an average of five pages (double-spaced, size 12) works well for keeping up the pace.

2) Plot Strategically to Avoid the Sagging Middle: This rookie error is one I had the misfortune of making early on: I wrote the beginning of a book and then abruptly ran out of steam about sixty pages in. When you’re staring down 240 blank pages without a plan, it’s easy to freeze up. Now I have a method. Once I have the main cast of characters and their conflicts, I conceive a new book in four sections. At the end of each section, I devise a major twist to launch into the next section and keep up the narrative momentum. Once I’ve figured out my four big plot points, I go deeper into plotting the concretes of each individual section, dropping red herrings and hints about the twists to come so that they will be logical without being predictable. This is the most challenging part of the process for me and is apt to change when I actually get to writing. I think of the outline like a highway: you can go off-roading from time to time but you get back on the highway to get to your final destination.

(How many markets should you send your novel out to?)

3) Alternate Character POVs: I love writing in third-person multiple vision, alternating between protagonist, antagonist, and usually another main character who has a stake in the central conflict. Getting into each character’s head increases suspense for the reader, who knows to anticipate the moves of competing characters and either roots for or against them to succeed. It’s the easiest POV choice to use in writing a thriller. When you follow Tip 1 and end each chapter on a cliffhanger, then switch to a new character whose scene also ends on a cliffhanger, the reader will be tearing through the pages to learn what happens. A word to the wise: the hardest POV choice is writing in first person—and keeping with only one character—for the entire story, because then you can’t create dramatic irony. (i.e. when the reader knows more about the stakeholders in the conflict than each character alone knows.)

4) Obscure POV when useful: Say you’re writing a murder scene but you want the killer’s identity to remain a secret. I wanted to pull this off in my new book, since the killer was someone surprising in the story, but I didn’t want readers to know who until way later. The trick is to write the scene from the victim’s perspective. Don’t allow the victim to know or recognize the killer—so you can have a dramatic, intense scene without spoiling the mystery. This is the first chapter of No Time to Die.

(Book Payments and Royalties — Your Questions Answered.)

5) Raise questions and delay the answers: This technique is the absolute key to suspense. Pique people’s curiosity and then make them wait for a resolution. While they’re waiting, introduce a new tantalizing question, and then delay that answer too. Once you can layer these successfully, you’ve got a page-turner. The famous author Pete Hamill told me once that writing suspense is about planting diving boards and then jumping off them later. Best advice I ever got.

Go forth and good luck!

GIVEAWAY: Kira is excited to give away a free copy of her novel to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (UPDATE: Irish2369 won.)

 

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64 thoughts on “5 Tips for Writing Suspense

  1. mkesse

    These are all great tips for writing suspense; yet the most important one is missing: The author has to make the reader care deeply about the hero’s plight (via pathos and/or empathy). Without that, the story is nothing more than a bunch of narrative mechanics.
    Suspense is tantamount to the nervous system, and we are hardwired (through “mirror neurons”) to feel a character’s tension(s) when air dropped into a life threatening situation or decisive moment. That’s a great way to start a story, and the pivotal moment doesn’t need to have bombs going off or thousands of lives at stake to make it successful.

  2. Bigfoot

    Number 5 is just delayed gratification, important in many situations. While number 1 seems obvious, I had forgotten until you mentioned it, lol. Number 2 is just kickin’. A real jewel. Can’t thank you enough for that one. Your method will let me move on to another emphasis of the story line without getting too bogged down with the ‘flow’. The connection probably won’t be any easier later, but I can get the new direction down on paper, and edit later. Thanks so much!!

  3. dsgromance

    Kira,

    Thank you for sharing. I love helpful hints for writing…especially in suspense. Everything you say is true…I’ve heard most of it in all the workshops I’ve taken. I make it a point of ending all my chapters on some sort of a cliffhanger. It’s not only exciting for the reader to turn the page and continue writing, but it’s also exciting for me, as the writer to pick up where that scene left off and write what happens next.

    I write romantic suspense that’s very intense on the suspense. I’m no published yet, but I have 2 manuscripts ready, but from the same series (book 1 and book 2), and both have been finalling in contest.

    Good luck with your future writing and I look forward to reading you current book.

    Debbie S G

  4. dhammelef

    Wow! Great advice. I loved the diving board quote and that visual will stick in my head. I also liked reading about dividing the novel into 4 parts before writing so keep the reader turning pages. Thanks for the chance to win too.

  5. LynneGobioff

    Thanks Kira,

    I’m writing a novel now where I’m switching POV – works well for tension –
    I too love leaving chapters with cliffhangers and enjoy reading novels that do the same
    It’s always appreciated when a writer shares not only their successes but struggles to get where they are –
    congratulations on your new book !

    Lynne

  6. Debbie

    Thank you for the plot tips, especially. It’s so easy to forget where your concentration of depth is currently and where you should focus. I really appreciate the insight. Thank you again.

  7. EricJGates

    Really great tips. I’ve tweeted about the article. I particulary agree with the use of short chapters to ramp up the Pacing. Given the portability of digital books too, this is also a superb help for the readers as they can ‘plan’ their reading in spare moments (the daily commute, lunch breaks etc) during their day.

  8. aai4

    My next novel is going to be suspense, and I have a feeling I’ll be looking back at this post quite a bit. I have the most trouble with #5. Looks like I’ll be doing some brainstorming in the near future!

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