(Continuing my series of blog posts about the Writer’s Digest Conference 2016 in New York City.)
The second session I attended at the Writer’s Digest Conference was on suspense. The presenter was a sensible person named Jane K. Cleland, who writes the Josie Prescott Antiques Mystery series. They are what the trade calls “cozies” which is to say they have people murdering one another in homey, friendly settings, and most of the people seem what passes for normal. That is, there are no busted private eyes (though there may certainly be professional detectives), or blonde bombshells (though there may be ladies with highlights or bouffant wigs).
You would not think suspense was a focus of cozies, but she made the point that suspense relates to all fiction writing. In order to keep your reader’s attention, you need to keep them reading ahead to find out what will happen. Even in a non-action novel, small issues can seem big to a character. Suspense, she said, arises from character, motivation, and tension, and from inserting twists and reversals. You have to raise the stakes, and make it personal. The reader must have an emotional investment and understand the stakes. Show their worry – use sensory descriptions – and be quiet (don’t shout).
There is a difference between suspense and surprise. Only use surprise in small doses. Don’t toss a bomb; instead, set the timer on the explosive device and make sure the reader is aware it’s ticking. Vary your sentence length; short sentences are good for action, long ones for reflection. You must have a logical and fresh spin on the material.
This was the first of a series of talks on writing craft that made me aware I had better go back and raise the stakes for my characters in my current story. Danger, threat, and challenge do not create suspense all by themselves.