When Writing Suspense, More is More

The other day I broke my rule about giving critiques (I’ve lost too many friends by being honest) and responded to a writer who asked my opinion of his work. I gave him a few suggestions about comma usage and speaker attributes, then I put my foot in it. I said there was no suspense, no reason for me to read further. (To create suspense, a writer must raise questions in readers’ minds, and he didn’t raise any questions.)

This got me a long email explaining that of course there was suspense — we didn’t know who the killer was, who he was going to kill next, and if the detective would catch him in time. True, these were unanswered questions, but simply posing questions does not create suspense.

To raise questions and to make us worry about those questions, a writer must show us readers why we should care. Just a thought flitting through the killer’s mind that he was going after an unspecified “her” does not create any sense of immediacy or concern. If we know that he planned to kill a little girl that he (and we) saw playing with a kitten, we have someone specific to worry about.

Also, if we’re supposed to care if the detective catches the killer, we have to know the detective’s stake in the matter. A cop doing his job is completely different from a father worried about spending too much time on the job and not enough time with his daughter. And if it turned out the little girl with the kitten was the cop’s daughter, we’d worry about the characters even more .

The moral of the story is, when it comes to suspense, less is not more. More is more.

And the moral for me is, no more critiques.

10 Responses to “When Writing Suspense, More is More”

  1. Chelle Says:

    I agree. More is more. I don’t care as much about some no name person as I would if it were the hardworking cop’s daughter. Sure there’s a killer who’s name we don’t know, a cop who might or might not catch the killer, and a unknown victim. OK. I get that. Suspense is knowing that Mr. Killer (name is known) is in Ms. Victim’s (again, know the name and place) bedroom closet waiting for the perfect moment to attack. Mr. Good-Cop (the hardworking father) is on his way to his sister’s house. Why? Ms. Victim is actually Mr. GC’s sister. Will he make it? Will she live? Will Mr. K kill?

    That, to me, has a great base for building some suspense. But, I am just a lowly nobody, what do I know? =) Thanks for sharing.

  2. Ken Coffman Says:

    I agree, critiquing people’s babies can be a thankless, troublesome chore. I know so little about grammar and syntax that my advice in those areas is worthless. The only thing I can do is tell people how I do things. But, who wants to write like me? Often, even I don’t, and so it goes.

    Suspense is tricky. How do you generate a curiosity in the reader’s mind to carry them through the story? I doubt if there is a formula. That’s art of story-telling.

  3. Nancy J. Parra Says:

    I, too, have sworn off critiques and yet-fall into “helping” on occassion. 🙂
    You are very right, in this case, Pat. More is more when it comes to suspense. A thriller can be suspenseful even when everyone already knows who did it. Why? Because the reader cares about the characters every step of the way.
    Thanks for a great blog.

  4. Pat Bertram Says:

    Nancy, A thriller can also be nonsuspenseful when you don’t know who did it. Suspense is everything, otherwise why should we read?

    Thank you for stopping by!

  5. Autumn Says:

    I am just so very sad you did not read me before swearing off future critiques. When one writes anything with the desire to be read then one must accept what others have to say regarding the writing, otherwise why write at all. Even the hidden diary is written with the hopes that someone will read it, someday, somewhere. I am jonesin for a read in the worst way. I may have to enter rehab if I can’t get a read soon. I can only add that when it comes to my baby I prefer those who critique her to read the entire novel. If they have (they could not possibly have anything negative to say) then their responce would be positive even if it is negative.

  6. Pat Bertram Says:

    Autumn, truly, you would not want me to critique your work. I am a crumudgeon even when I am trying to be nice — I’ve read so much I’m jaded. (And I have lost friends because of it — one woman still won’t speak to me, and it’s been a year since the critique. And I was nice.) Have you posted your work on sites like gather.com? Or on a blog? I know people who have done that, and they’ve gotten a lot of good feedback.

  7. joylene Says:

    I’ve been exchanging critiques for over 13 years online. I work strictly under controlled conditions, rules set up with a reputable workshop. It’s no good otherwise. What you were attempting to do for him was invaluable. One day he’ll recognize that. At least, if he’s passionate about his work, he will.

  8. Autumn Says:

    Haha…Pat I would have the drunk next door critique my work if he could actually read the whole thing. My whole reason for writing is to be read. I had it up on line as a free read for a couple years. Was read in fifteen countries by thousands. That was how I found my agent actually. Then she had me pull it off line and I haven’t been read since. I know nothing about blogs and suppose I may look into obtaining a website at the end of my contract if my agent hasn’t been affective. Still I believe every writer wants to be read. It’s like being a chef with noone eating. A teacher without a student. A priest without faith. I cannot write if I have noone reading. I am trapped. It is not writers block. It is something more intense. Something deeper, something….unexplainable.

  9. Pat Bertram Says:

    Autumn, write articles, short stories, a new novel. (Under a fake name if your agent objects.) Post them on Gather or Facebook (fb calls them notes). Start a blog. (It’s easy.) Truly, the most fun I have on the internet is blogging — and that’s saying a lot because I’m becoming an internet addict.

    There is no reason to wait around for your agent to get back to you. I know — I’ve had three, all worthless.

  10. K.S. Clay Says:

    I agree with you here. The first two beginnings to my last novel started by including unnamed “mysterious” characters. I didn’t realize until the second attempt that the reason they were falling flat was because of this, because I was trying to be too mysterious. Now it’s more straightforward and I’ve gotten much better reactions. There are still questions raised, but like you mentioned the readers care more about the answers because they have a better understanding of who the characters are (I mean a mysterious woman stalking a little boy is one thing. His grandmother who seems to have nefarious purposes is another, more unique, situation.)

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