Tips for Building Suspense from the James River Writers Conference

by Amanda Marsico

MariscoHeadshotAfter giving myself some time to let the information overload of the 2013 James River Writers Conference settle, I’m finally got around to sharing the great tips from the “Suspense Across the Genres” session, with speakers Philippa BallantineChristopher McDougall, Kevin O’Malley, and Howard Owen, moderated by Julie Geen. Here are best pieces of advice from the session:

  • Write suspense into the little moments. Is that boy your protagonist likes going to notice her haircut? If he does, is that going to bring them closer and change the path of the story? It’s a small thing to wonder, but it can have big implications. Suspense doesn’t have to be saved for the big reveal of your protagonist’s life-changing decision or whether the serial killer gets caught.
  • Chop the story up between plot and subplot, or past and present in order to make suspense. Find the cliff-hangers.
  • Slow down and show the character. Make them the headline that draws the reader in, and then write the story with dynamic moments of suspense to keep the reader interested.
  • Make your character worth caring about, so the reader wants to know what happens to them when it gets suspenseful. Do this by making them real and human (even if they aren’t humans).
  • All fantasy has a kick-ass female heroine. Twist the trope by adding personality traits that increase suspense. Heroes need faults. Make readers wonder what the character will turn out like in the end, how she will grow.
  • “Emotion beats the hell out of the appreciation for good literature.” I wish I had been able to see which speaker said this from my seat in the room. They elaborated that if you can get the reader in the gut, get them where they feel, then the reader will be determined to find out what happens to that character even if the text isn’t appreciated as literature. My take on this—touch readers on a human level rather than an academic or scholarly level where the merit of the literature might take precedence.
  • Suspense is not just action, action, action. It can be emotion, character, setting, imagery, etc.
  • “You are telling one story, not ever scene from the characters’ lives… Let the curtain drop. Let it stay down.” (Again, couldn’t see who said this.) It’s great advice to those of us who have “over-narrator-itis.” Trust the reader to understand. Not every moment has to get a moment on the page. I never got an opportunity to ask what the speakers’ views on sequels are given that they say to leave the curtain down and let the story end. My guess is that a sequel, or books in a series, should only get written if that additional narrative is really needed. It shouldn’t rehash what was done. It should continue the story forward.
  • Use the end of each chapter as a second chance for a riveting first line. The last line is just as important. It tells readers to stay tuned. Make them want to.
  • Once you’re about 40 pages into your manuscript, something needs to change the characters’ lives. Keep the plot moving.
  • Even plateaus in plot should ramp up for the next scene.

I hope these tips on suspense and plot progression are as useful to you as they have been to me. As soon as I got home from the conference, I pulled what I thought was my finished manuscript out of its binder and started rearranging pages, marking through dull moments, and rewriting the unnecessary. Remember, change is good!

Amanda Marsico is an on-the-couch, cat-on-the-keyboard writer whose work is found on local business’ websites, self-published on her Self-Editing Tips website, The Write Site, and on Dott Art Gallery’s featured artist editorials. Between editing and copywriting, finalizing a novel, and earning her MA in English and Creative Writing at SNHU, friends would label her a “Word Nerd.” She prefers “Red Ink Enthusiast.” Amanda is grateful for the opportunity to mix her work with her passion.

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  • William Worsham

    OK, so I have been reading, “Tender is the Night,” which is a Fitzgerald novel. You wouldn’t think there would be much suspense there, but then I ask myself, “Why do I keep reading?” After all, Fitzgerald writes stories that might loosely placed into the “romance” genre, and I know some will argue against this, which is why I say loosely. Anyway, I don’t much go in for romances. Something about the writing style or how he builds tension must be the reason, as I cannot see any other. OK, another one is “The Sundial” by Shirley Jackson. Wow! So I have never been into a book where a bunch of people basically sit around a house, but the conflict and the tension building to this final thing at the end (never really explained, which makes it great) is what does it for me. “Turn of the Screw”, by Henry James is, at first, a story I see no reason to go on reading. Part of that is James, who writes in a kind of Charles Dickens fashion (do not use a small word where a large one could be placed…and make sentences as long as possible). Nevertheless, when I get past the beginnings, there is a sense of isolation and a sense, well, I guess a sense very like what I felt with “Haunting of Hill House”, also by Jackson, that I am within a character’s mind, and maybe I don’t even want to be there. Anyway, those are just some thoughts that came up reading this article.

    • Amanda Marsico

      “Turn of the Screw” is definitely a suspenseful one if you can get past the party scene introduction. I haven’t read the others, but it sounds like I need to. Thanks for the additions to my reading list!