How to Write a Suspense

by Susan May Warren, @SusanMayWarren

Summer is in full swing. Which means one thing: We’re one season closer to football. We love football, and the wait is killing us. But one of the things I love about football is that it’s a great metaphor for nearly everything.

Like writing a suspense novel. A football game has all the elements of a great suspense novel: the players we love, an objective, a playbook on how to win the day, villains, truth tellers (called coaches) on the sidelines and deadline for “game over.”

I could blogged all year about suspense, but I can’t cover all that territory today, so we’re going to touch on the one big element every suspense should have: The Big Event.
Every suspense must have a Big Event that looms in front of the character. It’s an Event they must either stop or achieve in order to save the day. The story may begin with a sample Big Event and lead up to another one. Or, it might have the Big Event in the middle, with the aftermath climax at the end. But the reader must believe that something terrible will happen if the hero/heroine don’t save the day, otherwise, there is nothing “suspenseful” to worry about. The key is that the story is building up to that event, yet the closer we get to the big event, the more obstacles are thrown before the hero/heroine.

Think of it like a football game. If the team doesn’t have the ability to lose, (or win), then we won’t believe they can lose, or win the day. We also need to care about the team, so they have to be heroes under all that gear. The game only last for four short quarters, so there is an immediacy to the threat (and a deadline) and finally, there must be a villainous team opposing them that makes us believe that all could be lost.

Let’s take a closer look at the Big Event. Whether the event that is/will happen is caused by the elements or a villain, it needs to have four components:

The Event must be Believable. You can accomplish this by showing a similar or like event happening in the beginning of the book, or a small glimpse of what COULD happen if things go awry. If I were writing a football book, I’d have them lose a previous game…Or perhaps have the undefeated team lose, to show that our team could go down, hard.

The Big Event also needs to be Compelling. See, if it doesn’t affect the life of a character (that we love), then we won’t really care. Or, if it doesn’t affect them in a way that matters to us, we also don’t care. It has to be personal. This is why High School football is way more exciting than professional football. It’s MY boys out there on the field, fighting for our small town.

There also needs to be an Immediacy or a Deadline to the Event. An end date. Four quarters, that’s it. The hero/heroine/readers must believe that the threat/Big Event will happen, and soon.

See, we need to believe that this horrible Big Event will be…Horrible, Terrifying, Awful. This is different from believing it can happen. It’s answering the questions — so what? If it happens, how does it affect me? One homecoming, we played a team we hadn’t defeated in six years. They liked to rub in our faces. To make us bleed, hurt and hang our heads. Not that year. We held them to four overtime goal line stands and beat them by a touchdown.

It was the most terrifying three hours of football I’d ever experienced.

Believable, Compelling, Immediate, Terrifying – the four components of the Big Event.

Happy Writing!

Susie, who is now really pining for football!


Susan May Warren is owner of Novel Rocket and the founder of Novel.Academy. A Christy and RITA award-winning author of over fifty novels with Tyndale, BarbourSteeple HillSummerside Press and Revell publishers, she’s an eight-timeChristy award finalist, a three-time RITA Finalist, and a multi-winner of the Inspirational Readers Choice award and the ACFW Carol. A popular writing teacher at conferences around the nation, she’s also the author of the popular writing method, The Story Equation. A full listing of her titles, reviews and awards can be found at: www.susanmaywarren.com. Contact her at: susan@mybooktherapy.com.

Getting Your Story Summary onto The Page

by Susan May Warren, @SusanMayWarren

I know that people panic about writing a synopsis. The fact is, there are many different synopsis styles and deliveries. There is no one right way – but there are few principles.

Let’s start with Delivery:

You can write the synopsis a couple different ways.
First, you can tell it is if you are the narrator – telling yourself the story.

e.g. This story is about Maggie, a former Red Cross nurse who lives in World War 2 New York City. More than anything she wants to get over the grief of losing her fiancé during the attack on Pearl Harbor, but her life seemed to stop the day she got the news and she doesn’t know how to start it again. Until, one day, she runs – literally – into a man named Peter. Peter is a sailor who received a medical discharge after nearly losing his leg during the Pearl Harbor attack. He is bitter and angry – but not at his injuries, but at the fact that he let his best mate die. More than anything, he’d like to go back and save his friend. But there is no way to atone for his mistakes. Except, there is. Because Peter’s friend was Maggie’s fiancé, and there might be a miracle at work that night when they meet…..etc.

See, you’re simply telling the story from a bird’s eye view.

The second way to tell the story is to convey it as what I call a “Police Report.”

Think of the POV players as the eye-witnesses to the story, and that you have to file a report as to what happened.

You’ll start with a bio of each of them, and then let them each have their turn telling the story, each interjecting their motivations and decisions for each action as the story progresses… Let’s pick up our story and continue it with this method:

e.g. Peter can’t believe that a beautiful woman has nearly plowed him over on New year’s eve – and he’s even more horrified when she sees his injury. Probably he shouldn’t have been so rude to her – especially when he spies her later, crying. What’s a guy to do? He reintroduces himself and discovers that she’s crying over a lost love. He understands that kind of grief, and in an effort to comfort her, invites her to Times Square to celebrate the New Year. Maggie calls herself a little crazy when she agrees to leave the New Year’s Eve party with a virtual stranger. But somehow Peter doesn’t feel like a stranger. There’s something about him she finds familiar and it’s this feeling that woos her into a cab to Times Square. Maybe it’s a sign that yes, she can start over…

With this method, you are going back and forth in POV, still keeping it third person, but letting each player tell ‘their side of the story’.

Regardless of which method you use, you must always consider this: For every Action, there is a ReAction, which leads to a new Action. We’ll develop this more when we talk about scene construction, but for now, always ask: Is there a good reason (motivation) why my character reacts this way? A good reason (motivation) for his decision as he proceeds to the next action? Whether or not you have solid motivation for your characters actions will become evident as you tell yourself the story.

Now, let’s talk about tone:

You can write it in third person, past tense, third person present tense, or even first person (although this is much more rare, I’ve seen it done successfully). Regardless, the key is to keep it at a Bird’s Eye View – you’re taking a pass over the story, resisting the urge to “land” and explore key moments. Don’t skim over everything and then slow it down and tell us how the hero caresses the heroine’s face before he kisses her and declares his love. Keep the bird flying overhead and say, “Jeremy declares his love.” And keep flying. The synopsis is not a place to showcase your elegant wordsmithing (although yes, you want to make it interesting…).

So, let’s talk about wordsmithing:

After you have the synopsis written, and you’re ready to submit, now it’s time to smooth it out. Go through and add in “color” words – powerful nouns and verbs that add an emotional element to your story. Use active verbs instead of passive. Tighten sentences. Search for overwriting and delete.
Finally, if you need a roadmap, MBT uses what we call the Lindy Hop: The Three Acts simplified. Sometimes it helps to fill out these elements (for every POV character), as a rough draft to putting the synopsis on the page.

Most of all, don’t panic. Get yourself a cup of coffee and settle down to hear a great story…yours.

Quick Skills: Sketch out the Three Acts Structure, then tell yourself the story, making sure you have a motivation for every action your character takes (and every lesson they learn). You’ll use your Synopsis to help you write your novel.
Happy Writing!

Susie May

TWEETABLES

Getting Your Story Summary onto the Page by Susan May Warren (Click to Tweet)

For every Action, there is a ReAction, which leads to a new Action.~ Susan May Warren (Click to Tweet)

The key is to keep it at a Bird’s Eye View ~ Susan May Warren (Click to Tweet)

Susan May Warren is owner of Novel Rocket and the founder of Novel.Academy. A Christy and RITA award-winning author of over fifty novels with Tyndale, BarbourSteeple HillSummerside Press and Revell publishers, she’s an eight-timeChristy award finalist, a three-time RITA Finalist, and a multi-winner of the Inspirational Readers Choice award and the ACFW Carol. A popular writing teacher at conferences around the nation, she’s also the author of the popular writing method, The Story Equation. A full listing of her titles, reviews and awards can be found at: www.susanmaywarren.com. Contact her at: susan@mybooktherapy.com.

Finding Your Romantic Story Arc

by Susan May Warren, @SusanMayWarren

If you are writing a romance, it can sometimes be difficult to know exactly how to build all the pieces so that you have the right amount of tension in your story. How soon do you make them fall in love? When do you start breaking them up? How do they get back together?

This problem is solved by understanding the two main story arcs of romance: The Why/Why Not, or the Why Not/Why. (These arc models apply to both a straight up romance, or just a romance thread.)
Understanding the kind of story you have helps you understand how to layer in the tension and where to insert the different components of your romance.

Let’s a take a look: The first structure is Why/Why Not:
These are stories that have our characters falling in love in the beginning, with no major obstacles in their way, only to discover obstacles half-way or even later. It’s not about how we as the reader see their journey, but how the characters see it.

Return to Me: The hero and heroine meet and instantly hit it off. They have a similar sense of humor, and they like similar foods and have fun together, even have some romantic sparks. Until she discovers she has her boyfriend’s deceased wife’s heart. Suddenly we’ve arrive at the Why Not part of the story.

You’ve Got Mail : The hero and heroine love each other online, have similar interests, similar love of New York and books and business drive. They are perfect for each other until they find out they are enemies in real life. Enter, the Why Not.

The key to the tension in these this story arcs is that the reader knows why they will break up, even if the character doesn’t. It’s waiting for that breakup that puts us on the edge of the seat/page.

Let’s look at the other structure: the Why Not/Why stories.

In a Why Not/Why story structure, the external and internal obstacles (Why Nots) keep them apart even as the Why pulls them together. Then, when it seems that the Why will win the day, the biggest Why Not rises to break them apart.

Sleepless in Seattle: The hero and heroine have so much Why Not in front of them, it seems they’ll never get to the Why. Again, it’s in the viewpoint of the character, not the reader, because from the beginning we can see that these two belong together. Why Not: She’s engaged to someone else, they live thousands of miles apart, she doesn’t even know him, he thinks she’s loony (or at least among the strange women writing to him). It’s not until the end that they realize they belong together and discover the Why.

While You Were Sleeping: The Why Nots are glaring: He’s her, um, fiancés, brother. And of course, she’s lying, but that only adds to the Why Not, until she’s revealed as a liar. But by then, they’ve seen the Whys and that is what causes the angst.

As you’re beginning to plot your romance—even before you nail down the component elements—think through the structure of your story. Do you have the Why first and then the big Why Not? Or is the Why Not glaring, until finally the Why is too big to ignore?

In the early stages of my plotting, I start with creating the hero and heroine. Then I assemble a few of the key ingredients: why they belong together, why not, what their sparks are, their happily ever after. Nothing is written in stone, however.

Then, to get going, I nail down the story arc: Why/Why Not or Why Not/Why. Knowing what kind of story arc I’ll have helps me to know where to drop in the components. For example, if I’m building a Why/Why Not story, I’ll build the interest, through in some wooing and Why elements, as well as the kiss, and perhaps even a glimpse of the happily ever after at the beginning. (They need to know what they have to live for!) Then, I’ll throw in the Why Not, with lots of sparks and the Black Moment.

If I have a Why Not Structure, then I’ll start with sparks, a touch of interest, perhaps a hint of wooing, all the while keeping the Why Nots paramount, gradually leading up to the kiss, before we get to the big sacrifice and the Why.

Figure out your Romance structure and it will help you build the right kind of tension into your story.

Quick Skills: Is your romance a Why/Why Not, or a Why Not/Why?
Happy Writing!

Susie May

PS – Are you looking for more in-depth training and face-to-face coaching!  Let’s hang out at the upcoming Oregon Christian Writer’s Conference (August 15-18th)!  I’ll be there teaching on how to create a fantastic career as an author, as well as tips and trips on creating back cover blurbs.  And of course just hanging out, helping writers with story problems.  This is an AMAZING conference—one of my favorites.  This year the amazing FRANK PERETTI is our keynote speaker.  Set in beautiful Portland, you’ll be encouraged, educated and empowered to write the story in you.  See you there!


Susan May Warren is owner of Novel Rocket and the founder of Novel.Academy. A Christy and RITA award-winning author of over fifty novels with Tyndale, BarbourSteeple HillSummerside Press and Revell publishers, she’s an eight-time Christy award finalist, a three-time RITA Finalist, and a multi-winner of the Inspirational Readers Choice award and the ACFW Carol. A popular writing teacher at conferences around the nation, she’s also the author of the popular writing method, The Story Equation. A full listing of her titles, reviews and awards can be found at: www.susanmaywarren.com. Contact her at: susan@mybooktherapy.com.

Black Moment Construction

by Susan May Warren, @SusanMayWarren

The Black Moment in your novel is the most important part of your novel.

I just had to say that because I see so many manuscripts that pull their punches on the Black Moment. Authors have fallen in love with their characters and they just don’t want to hurt them. But creating a powerful Black Moment is what both the character and the reader need to convince them they must change.
So, how do you create a powerful Black Moment?

First…let’s just take a look at the Black Moment Flow Chart:

Dark Moment of the Past (Greatest Fear + Lie) = Black Moment Event = Black Moment Effect = Epiphany = Character Change.

Again, how do we find the Black Moment? We go into our character’s backstory and find a DARK MOMENT in their past that has shaped them, ask them to tell us about it (in a journal entry, so we can use it later), and then pull out from it the Greatest Fear and the Lie. The Greatest Fear is the EVENT you will recreate in some form, and the LIE is what you will make your character believe is True, and inescapable as an EFFECT of the Black Moment.

The result of this is the Truth setting your character free, (finally!) and then a Character Change finale where your character does something at the end they can’t at the beginning.

Now that we have that flow nailed down, let’s touch briefly on how to create a powerful Black Moment (Event and Effect!).

  1. Examine their Greatest Fear to find the acute pressure point.Often, an event like a parent dying isn’t the Darkest Moment. It’s the moment, two months later, at the Father Daughter dance when our heroine doesn’t have a date that this sinks in. Go to that moment and ask your character…why is this your darkest moment? Maybe it’s because he always asked her to dance, and she felt silly, so she turned him down. Or that she spent all year waiting for this dance, and now she had no one. What does this moment tell her about life, herself, God?

    Obviously, when you recreate the Greatest Fear, you can’t recreate the actual event. But you could create the pain of that event. Regret. Abandonment. Anger? The key is to create a Black Moment Event that produces the same emotions, the same conclusion. The same LIE.

    Think outside the box – turn it over, and take a good look. It’s the not-so-obvious moments that are the most profound.

  2. Build that fear in from page one. (Hence why you need to know what it is before you start the novel). You should slowly be pushing your character to confront this fear (even if they don’t know it), with every turn of the page.

    You know from the first scene that Frodo fears succumbing to the ring, or worse, having his failure destroy the shire. You know that Bourne fears he’ll never be more than an assassin. You know that Richard Kimball fears letting his wife’s killer go free. All these fears are voiced or shown in the early acts of the movie. Give us a hint of that fear, and the tension will build as we draw near it.

  3. Make the Black Moment Unexpected yet Plausible.

    Whatever Black Moment you choose, it must be something that could happen. I watched the latest Indiana Jones movie again this weekend (The Crystal Skull). And, even though I don’t love it as much (although Shai LeBeouf is a great addition) the black moment does work. No, I didn’t like the crystal skulls coming to life to suck out people’s brains through their eyeballs, and then vanish on a spaceship, it was pretty classic Indiana Jones. After all, in previous movies, the Ark came alive and punched out people’s souls, and then there was the melting man who “chose poorly” in the Last Crusade. So, even though I didn’t like the premise the screenwriters DID build up enough plausibility for it to happen. And, let’s admit it – it was sort of unexpected (and creepy!) So, you can get away with crazy out of this world black moments if you build up the plausibility.

  4. The Black Moment should be strong enough to bring them to their knees and re-evaluate everything they believe in.

    This will lead them to the Healing Epiphany. The hero must look back to his mistakes, and see what he did wrong. And only then will he come to some truth that will open a new door to a new future. In other words, deal with them on an emotional spiritual, even VALUES level to make them re-evaluate everything they believe in. One of my favorite movies is Planes, Trains and Automobiles. I always cry during the epiphany where Steve Martin realizes that John Candy, his annoying travel partner has lied to him about his life and has no place to go. All Steve Martin’s annoyance is put aside by his gratefulness that he has a family to return home to. His perspective is just in time for the holidays.

Makes sure your Black Moment rends their heart, and their epiphany heals it.

Quick Skills: Construct your Black Moment Ending before you write the first word of your WIP so you understand how to increase the tension on every page of your novel.

Happy Writing!

Susie May

TWEETABLES

Black Moment Construction by Susan May Warren (Click to Tweet)

Black Moment rends their heart, and their epiphany heals it.~ Susan May Warren (Click to Tweet)

Construct your Black Moment Ending before you write the first word.~ Susan May Warren (Click to Tweet)

Susan May Warren is owner of Novel Rocket and the founder of Novel.Academy. A Christy and RITA award-winning author of over fifty novels with Tyndale, BarbourSteeple HillSummerside Press and Revell publishers, she’s an eight-time Christy award finalist, a three-time RITA Finalist, and a multi-winner of the Inspirational Readers Choice award and the ACFW Carol. A popular writing teacher at conferences around the nation, she’s also the author of the popular writing method, The Story Equation. A full listing of her titles, reviews and awards can be found at: www.susanmaywarren.com. Contact her at: susan@mybooktherapy.com.