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.

Micro-Tools of Suspense

By Ronie Kendig

Microscopic. Micro-changes. Micro-expressions. They’re little pieces that cumulatively make a big difference. That is true of writing and of suspense as well—we have micro-tools for fine-tuning suspense (a scene or a whole novel). 

Suspense is not merely someone or some city in danger. There is more involved in creating suspense than putting a weapon in a villain’s hand or having the heroine fighting for her life. Outside the plot and your characters, suspense is nuanced throughout a story using many techniques, but we’ll focus on two: word choice & placement, sentence/paragraph length and pacing. 

Don’t use words too big for the subject. Don’t say ‘infinitely’ when you mean ‘very’; otherwise you’ll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite. ~C. S. Lewis 

The point? Be intentional with your words. Word choices should: 

  1. Reflect the pace – the more general the word, the more benign the impact. Make them matter!
  2. Reflect your character – your characters should not all sound alike
  3. Reflect the mood – use more intentional words to mirror what your character is feeling of what’s being done to them. Our word choices change when we’re frustrated or angry; so should your character’s words. 

Consider word choice placement. In my “Mind Magic” workshop, we talk about “white/negative space,” a marketing/design concept that capitalizes on the negative (white) space of a design, letting the audience’s brain naturally fill in the rest. Also, speed readers are often taught to read the beginning and end of a sentence, and the beginning/end of a paragraph and then let their brains fill in the rest.

Negative Space forms face

By being intentional with word placement, writers can use the white/negative space concept to capitalize on what readers’ brains do naturally—fill in the rest—to create hooks. We’re taught to do this at scene and chapter breaks, but we should also be more intentional with word placement throughout our scenes and chapters. We have stronger words now that we don’t want to bury in the middle of a sentence or paragraph. If you have to, rearrange so the stronger words are more easily detected and a quick (often unconscious) first impression of what’s coming is engaging. 

Another topic in the “Mind Magic” workshop is length, which applies to blogs, articles (ahem), books, speeches, and so on. Ultimately, no matter if it’s a sentence or a paragraph, length determines viability and interest. Think about Twitter, which restricts tweets to 140 characters. Today’s society wants things faster, and we need to keep that in mind when writing scenes. Here are a few tips for brevity in writing:  

  1. Monitor Sentence/Paragraph Length – Make it as simple as possible for a reader to move through and enjoy your story. Sentences should be a natural length and there should be a variety of lengths as well. It’s a good idea to break narrative passages into smaller chunks and ensure that each is vital to the story.
  2. Fragments Are Our Friends (Sometimes) – it’s okay to cut a sentence short if it fits the character, pacing of a scene or chapter, or the mood (more suspenseful). Fragments are wonderful for creating a jarring presence, which is perfect for action or surprise. 
  3. Shorter Sentences Create Movement – Shorter sentences are read faster (obvious, huh?) paragraph and a sentence are great ways to increase the reading speed, giving the reader a sense of faster movement with the characters. 
  4. Longer Sentences Allow for Breathing – if you’ve amped up a scene and sliced/diced sentences, then draw it back down after with longer sentences that allow your readers’ breathing to slow. Think of it as the giddy (or nervous) exhale of relief after a roller-coaster ride.
Suspense nuances really ratchet up the tension and your reader’s heart rate! Were these tips helpful for you? Do you have a question for Ronie to address about writing suspense? Comment below! 

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Micro Tools of Suspense by Ronie Kendig (Click to Tweet)

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Ronie Kendig is an award-winning, bestselling author who grew up an Army brat. After twenty-five years of marriage, she and her hunky hero husband have a full life with their children and a retired military working dog in Northern Virginia. Ronie can be found at:
     Facebook (www.facebook.com/rapidfirefiction)
     Twitter (@roniekendig)
     Goodreads (www.goodreads.com/RonieK)
     Instagram (@kendigronie)
     Pinterest (http://www.pinterest.com/roniek/)!

DOWNLOAD Ronie’s newest release–the FREE digital prequel novella, THE WARRIOR’S SEAL! 

CONSPIRACY OF SILENCE (Tox Files #1) releases Dec 6th and was given 4.5 stars & named a TOP PICK by RT BookReviews!

“…fast-moving, roller-coaster thriller…” ~Booklist

Kendig keeps the tensions high and the pace lightning fast, with military action scenes worthy of Vince Flynn.” ~Publishers Weekly

For Thereby Hangs a Tale (Using the Hook in Writing)

by Linore Rose Burkard

Don’t you love a television serial where every episode leaves you hanging? Each installment reveals something new while resolving the prior hook you were left dangling from. Then, just when you’re taking a sigh of relief—your protagonist is safe! Again! A new hook arises, peril is re-introduced and—the episode ends.
They did it again—they left you hanging.
And you loved it! You can’t wait for that next episode to see how your endangered favorite characters are going to get through this one unscathed. You are poised on that closing hook–captured by the writers–just where they want you.
Recognize that this is a formula and make it your template.
When I write YA/Suspense, you better believe I’m putting hooks at the end of each chapter, and sometimes (since my current series has three protagonists) at the end of each scene. Not all hooks are equally compelling, but they will make your reader eager to keep those pages turning.
This isn’t ground-breaking technique for writers of suspense. However, if you are NOT using the hook as a regular feature in your novels–no matter the genre–you’re leaving money on the table, so to speak. Your stories are probably not page-turners.
The Handy Red Herring
Sometimes a hook is nothing more than a red herring, but these hooks are handy because they allow you to quickly resolve the peril and get back to the real story. It’s not a letdown or contrivance, though: It has to seem like a real threat—that just happens to have a real reason for not remaining a threat.
An example is in order: (You’re getting a peek into my soon-to-be released novel, RESILIENCE.) A brother and sister pair of survivors have come across an older man on a farmstead who, after briefly assessing them, decides they’re safe enough to bring inside and offer water. In a post-apocalyptic world, water is life, so Sarah (the POV character) and Richard, her brother, accompany him with high hopes.  The old man discloses gruffly, 

“We old-timers have a good amount of information you young people have no clue about. We know how to survive!” As we entered the house, he stopped to face us. “That is, if we’re left to do it. People keep trying to kill us, though. Don’t they, Martha?” 

“They do,” said a voice to our left. And there, on her feet in a little side room stood “Martha,” the littlest old lady you can imagine. She had on a nightgown and robe, and an old-fashioned sleeping cap, from which white curls stuck out on the sides. She would have been cute, like anyone’s grandma–except she glowered in our direction and held a shotgun, pointed right at us. [END SCENE] 

The next page moves to a second protagonist so the reader won’t know if Martha takes a shot until the narrative returns to Sarah’s POV. But Martha is a red herring. Sarah, who is physically and emotionally fragile, bursts into tears–which melts Martha’s maternal heart. The danger ends quickly–but not until the reader reaches that next “episode” in the book. The hook serves to draw them there. 
What Happens Next?
A hook is an upside-down question mark.

An effective hook begs the question: What happens next?
Remember: A hook is an upside down question mark. Leave the reader with a question they must  know the answer to–and you’ve hooked ’em. 

2nd Example: Andrea is now the POV character. Shortly after her little brother is taken hostage and used for leverage by ruthless marauders (endangering his life), the following occurs:

The alarm wailed at us and we jumped to our feet. “Get those kids inside and downstairs!” Mrs. Martin cried, hurrying ahead of me. I soon passed her, my feet flying. No way was I gonna let my brothers or any of the kids face another hostage situation! I ran to the yard and looked frantically around. The children were nowhere in sight. [END SCENE]

How to Create A Hook
If writing hooks is new for you, here’s a tip: When people hear a story they naturally want to hear the end. For a smaller story you’ve got going (within the greater story of the novel) simply cut off the end–save it for the next chapter. You’ve just created suspense, even if it’s mild suspense. If you can stop the action at  a pivotal point you’ve created a hook. Your hook doesn’t require a life-or-death situation, but the greater the stakes involved, the more the reader will need to see what’s next.

Does it Work?

Judge for yourself: I quickly grabbed a few lines from Amazon reviews for PULSE, the book that precedes RESILIENCE in the PULSE EFFEX series.

 “Grips the reader from the first chapter and has you begging for the end.”

“A page turner from the very beginning.” 

“Never a dull moment when reading (Linore Burkard’s) stories!”

“Had trouble putting it down. I kept reading, wanting to know what happened next.” 

“Such an exciting story…I absolutely loved this book! I kept reading it and reading and reading. I just couldn’t put it down.”

“Sizzles with tension.”

Action Step
Try and plant a hook at the end of the chapter you’re working on.  Keep doing so, and like those television serials we love to watch, your hooks will keep the story from sagging, holding it up even throughout the notoriously difficult middle section. Who knows? You may even discover that thereby hangs your tale!

Linore Rose Burkard writes historical romance and, as L.R.Burkard,  YA/Suspense. Linore teaches workshops for
writers, is a mother of five, and still
homeschools her youngest daughter—preferably with coffee in one hand and an iPad in the other. Her newest novel, RESILIENCE, will release on April 29th.   

SIT! STAY! LOVE!

Dana Mentink is a two
time American Christian Fiction Writers Carol Award winner. She is the author
of over thirty titles in the suspense and lighthearted romance genres. Her
suspense novel, Betrayal in the Badlands, earned a Romantic Times Reviewer’s Choice Award and she has also been honored
with a Holt Medallion Award of Merit. She is pleased to write for Harlequin’s Love Inspired Suspense and Harlequin
Heartwarming. Besides writing, she busies herself teaching third grade. Mostly,
she loves to be home with Papa Bear, Yogi, Boo Boo, a dog with social anxiety
problems, a chubby box turtle and a feisty parakeet.

My writing is
going to the dogs lately. No kidding. It’s strange how life parallels art
sometimes. As I worked on Sit, Stay, Love, my first dog-themed book
about a pro baseball pitcher and a geriatric pooch named Tippy, my own sweet
old doggie was about to take her final walk. Nala was a part of our family for
thirteen years and I knew that she was entering her final weeks as I pounded
away on my keyboard. I found the scenes I wrote about the fictional Tippy were
extra poignant, as I watched my sweet Nala enjoy napping in the sun and eagerly
plodding along through her (slow) morning walks.
In addition
to Sit, Stay, Love, I was working on a K-9 continuity for Love Inspired
Suspense! I delved into the world of bloodhounds, otherwise known as “noses
with dogs attached” for that story. So while my fictional dogs flourished,
my own darling Nala passed away, just as both books were headed off to the
editors. Oh how I cried. I still do. There will never be another dog like my
adorable Nala, my writing partner, my devoted friend. For a long time the house
felt empty without the jingle of her collar, and I looked for her in the
hallway and lying on the grass in every patch of sunlight.
But time has
a way of passing, doesn’t it? Spring has brought us a wild, wiry little mutt
named Junie. We went to the Animal Rescue foundation in search of an older,
mid-sized dog and we emerged with a ten-pound puppy who adores her squeaky toys
and steals my pencils at every opportunity.
Odd, that a
similar wild, wiry little mutt named Jellybean is currently finding his way
into my work-in-progress. Junie’s a bundle of zany energy, she eats absolutely
everything and as I type this, she is knocking all the pillows off the sofa.
Will this insanity be a part of Jellybean’s character in Paws for Love? Oh you
betcha. I wonder what our box turtle will think after she awakens from her three-month
hibernation to find out there’s a puppy waiting to sniff, poke and pester her?
“Doggone it!” I imagine she’ll say before she goes to find a nice
hole to hide in.
I don’t even
want to know what the parakeet thinks!
Sit Stay Love
Take one abrasive professional athlete, a quirky out-of-work
schoolteacher, and an overweight geriatric dog, and you’re ready for a lesson
in love…Tippy style.
Pro baseball pitcher Cal Crawford is not a dog guy. When he
inherits his deceased mother’s elderly dog, Tippy, he’s quick to call on a
pet-sitting service.
Gina isn’t thrilled to be a dog sitter when her aspirations lie
in the classroom. Furthermore, she can’t abide the unfriendly Cal, a man with
all the charm of a wet towel. But with no other prospects and a deep love for
all things canine, she takes the job caring for Tippy.
As Gina travels through Cal’s world with Tippy in tow, she
begins to see Cal in a different light. Gina longs to show Cal the God-given
blessings in his life that have nothing to do with baseball or fame. When her
longing blooms into attraction, Gina does her best to suppress it. But Cal is
falling in love with her too…
Discover the charming story of Tippy, the dog who brought a
family together.
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