Are We Keepers of Suspense?

Book beginnings and middles give way to endings. If the beginning of your book doesn’t grab the reader, then she or he (usually) won’t read further. If the middles, and ending of your book are not satisfying to a reader, then you’ve lost that reader.  Simple wisdom? Yes, but how many books have you read this year that disappointed you?  I read several books a week and I have read several this year by writers that lost me as a reader. (As an aside here, I know that all readers will never be pleased with any book.) So how do we keep our story so readers stay satisfied?

According to my mental mentor-writer, Phyllis A. Whitney, suspense is one important key. That doesn’t mean you must have dozens of dead bodies strewn around in your novel. There must be a problem, there must be conflict, there must be a goal. Your main character must be actively involved in solving the problem(s) and in the conflict. If your character just drifts along, letting things happen to her, soon your reader may be yawning and putting your book down. Action is needed.

The more unexpected, unforseen, and unpredictable the outcome, the stronger the story interest, the stronger the suspense. Urgency–if possible, a time limit–increases suspense.  Make sure your main character’s purpose is opposed in nearly every scene.  What will it cost him if he doesn’t succeed?  If your opposition is only a misunderstanding that could be cleared up at any point, it isn’t strong enough.

(Oh, I wish I had a dollar for every romance I’ve ever read when a “misunderstanding” was the only thing that kept apart the main characters!  I really dislike “misunderstanding” in books.)

Books full of suspense hold onto a reader.  Surprise also helps, but writing about that is for next time.

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About Sue

From the time, as a young girl, when Sue read the Narnia series by C.S. Lewis, she was hooked on fantasy. She loves to read fiction and write within many genres, but she always winds up going back to fantasy. For years she has had fantasy stories spinning around in her head and now that she is retired from many years of teaching, she is putting those stories into book form. She has many interests, including quilting and playing the mountain dulcimer, but writing is the most satisfying of all. Sue lives in the great state of Maine with her husband of 38 years. She has been a factory worker, a waitress, a librarian, and a teacher. Her biggest job was being a mother and she has three grown children. Now that she is a grandmother, she is enjoying that role immensely.

Posted on November 20, 2013, in Authors - Sue Santore, or browse all books and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. Oh yes. I hate romance that only is in peril because of a misunderstanding. People have mouths to talk and work things out…

    I completely agree with you on the suspense part. Suspense doesn’t mean dead bodies everywhere. A dead body doesn’t mean much if we didn’t experience his/her struggled through (fictional) life before. The impact of the (virtually) living in a story is usually much stronger than the of the dead.

  2. Yes, I agree, we need to experience the character’s life, and if we don’t care about the character as a person, why would we care about his/her fate?

  3. Heyyyy… I see what you did there, beginning middle and end, you clever person. Maybe I should start calling you Aristotle! Fabulous post and good points.
    One thing I recall hearing from a writer-friend early on- I was worried that my story-line wouldn’t work because the novel (still in progress) concerns a character from a previous book, but the stakes are so much smaller. In the tale, he’s working to keep his foef. But he just got done saving the world! Yet I thought what I was writing in the sequel was good, it seemed right. And my friend pointed out, not to worry: “the consequences only have to be high for your CHARACTER. If the readers like him, they’ll care about what he cares about” Bulls-eye. I’ve never forgotten that.
    And it dovetails with what you said about dead bodies (not that I have any objection to a nice pile of those, writing epic fantasy). If the character needs to get in the door, then even struggling with the lock can be conflict, heighten tension, etc.
    Another advantage of fantasy writing- the orcs and elves, thank God, never MISUNDERSTAND each other!

  4. And I don’t think we will see any orcs and elves facing off within a romance, either. :)

  5. Great post, Sue. I’m with you on romances where the only barrier is a lack of communication. If the problem can be cleared up with one simple conversation, you don’t have a story worth telling… and certainly not worth reading!

    • Another of my pet peeves in romances {Don’t get me wrong–I love a good romance} is when the heroine takes nasty gossip about the hero as the complete truth without a having a single gram of doubt.

  6. :: finger on nose :: THAT’s exactly why I like “The Quiet Man” so much. There are times when it does NO good whatsoever to talk it out, anyway! John Wayne’s character has a decision to make, and you only hear about it when he “confesses” to the priest near the end. Maureen O’Hara is tempted to think the worst, and gets very upset, but she hangs on until he works things out. When they throw the money in the oven I stand up and cheer- great flick.

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