Tuesday, March 06, 2018

4 Mistakes to Avoid When Building Suspense in Your Novel

By Laurence MacNaughton, @LMacNaughton

Part of the How They Do It Series (Contributing Author)

Have you ever read a book that you just couldn't put down? The whole time you were turning pages, you were probably desperate to discover the answer to a burning question. That's the essence of suspense, and it makes readers devour your book. So how do you build suspense in your novel? Start by avoiding these four suspense-destroying mistakes.

Mistake #1: Answering all of the questions.

At or near the beginning of every scene in your book, you need to fix a question firmly in the reader’s mind. Give them something to worry about.

For example:
  • Who committed the murder?
  • Does he really love her?
  • Will she get the job
  • Is someone really trying to kill him?
It doesn't have to be a huge, dangerous question. It could be as simple as, “Will she make it to work on time?” Readers will worry about almost any question, if—and this is a big if—you make it clear that the question is crucial to the outcome of the story.

As long as the answer to that question is important, the reader will keep worrying about it until you answer it.

And you do need to answer it, sooner or later. Smaller questions should be answered by the end of the scene. Bigger questions can take the whole book.

But here's the trick: never, ever answer all of the questions. Always make sure there are at least one or two questions in the reader’s mind at any given time. Before you answer one question, ask a new one. Keep those questions coming, and readers will keep reading.

Mistake #2: Giving the main character a vague goal.

Vague goals are the next biggest killer of suspense. If the reader doesn't know exactly what the main character is trying to do, then they won't worry about whether or not she will succeed. No worrying means no suspense.

A suspenseful story goal needs to meet three specific criteria:

1. The goal needs to be personally important to the main character.

2. The main character can only reach the goal by taking action.

3. Reaching the goal needs to be a specific event that you can visualize, like crossing a finish line or planting a flag on top of a mountain. It needs to be something that you could photograph. Otherwise, the reader won't necessarily know when the goal has been achieved.

Here's an example. In my novel A Kiss Before Doomsday (the Dru Jasper series, book 2), one of the main characters, Greyson, has gone missing and is presumed dead. But Dru has reason to believe the man she loves is still alive. Her goal is crystal clear: find Greyson.

That goal meets all three of the criteria. It’s personal, because she loves him. It’s active, because she has to go out looking for him. And you can visualize it: the moment she finds him, you'll see it happen.

For your novel, write down your main character’s goal in a single sentence, like this:


Example: Dru must find Greyson.

Use your character's name, plus a verb such as find, win, deliver, escape, stop, etc. And then finish the sentence with what he or she is after.

By using a verb, you're automatically making the goal active, because the hero has to take some kind of action to achieve it.

Next, check to make sure that the goal is personally important to the main character. It has to directly affect the main character’s life in a powerful way. (Note: in your story, make sure to show the reader why this is important.)

Finally, make sure the reader would be able to visualize the specific moment when the goal is achieved. In your notebook, write down a few sentences describing what happens in that moment.

If you can't describe a specific event, then it's a sign that your goal is not specific enough. Take a close look at the verb you used in the sentence (find, escape, etc.). Is it active enough? Keep working on it until you know what that winning moment looks like.

Once you have it, you'll be able to keep readers in suspense as they wait for it to happen.

Mistake #3: Making the stakes too low.

There's a lot of talk out there about the “stakes” in the story. But what are the stakes, exactly?

What's at “stake” is what the main character will gain by achieving the goal, or lose by failing to achieve the goal. Here's an easy way to think about it:

Imagine two tables playing poker. At one table, the players each have to stake a single dollar. At the other table, the players each have to stake a million dollars. Which game is more exciting?


Now, imagine that in the back room, there's a third table full of gun-toting criminal masterminds, and the players each have to stake their very lives.

Those are high stakes.

How high do the stakes need to be in your story? It doesn't necessarily have to be a matter of life or death. But some important part of the main character's life needs to be at stake, and it will literally or metaphorically die if she fails to achieve the goal.

Some example elements that could be at stake in your story: the main character's life, her career, her marriage, her family, her reputation. You get the idea.

In my novel It Happened One Doomsday (the Dru Jasper series, book 1), the story starts with Dru trying to help a handsome hot rod mechanic named Greyson. The guy has been afflicted with an ancient curse, and unless Dru can break it, he will lose his mortal soul. So right from the get-go, the stakes are high.

Do the same thing in your book. You don't have to endanger someone's mortal soul, necessarily. But you do have to make sure that something life-changing is at stake. If the main character fails in their quest, he or she will pay a steep price.

Mistake #4: Not raising the stakes.

The stakes should not only start out high, they need to actually get higher during your story. That ups the tension, which builds the suspense.

How do you do it? In your notebook, write down your original stakes, then add the phrase “even worse” and come up with something, well, even worse.

Here's an example. Halfway through It Happened One Doomsday, Dru discovers the nature of Greyson’s curse: he will not only lose his soul, he will also become one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. If Dru can't break his curse, she'll lose Greyson—and, even worse, the Four Horsemen will ride forth to bring about doomsday. The entire world will come to a fiery end.

That's definitely worse. The stakes are raised, the suspense builds, and the second half of the book just flies by.

In the beginning of your book, let your reader know what's at stake. How will the main character suffers if he or she doesn't succeed? Then, somewhere in the middle of your book, raise the stakes even higher. Not only will the main character suffer, but something else will happen that’s even worse.

Remember: suspense is all about asking questions.

Building suspense in your novel is not a one-time event. It's a constant process. You have to continually pose crucial questions throughout your book, starting in the very beginning, and keep the reader asking questions faster than you answer them. Make your readers worry about a burning question, and they'll keep turning the pages to find the answer. That's how you create page-turning suspense.

Do you struggle with building suspense, especially in the middle of your book?

Laurence MacNaughton is the author of more than a dozen novels, novellas, and short stories. His work has been praised by Booklist, Publishers Weekly, RT Book Reviews, Library Journal, and Kirkus Reviews. He lives in Colorado with his wife and too many old cars. Try his stories for free at www.laurencemacnaughton.com.

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About A Kiss Before Doomsday (Dru Jasper, Book 2)

When an undead motorcycle gang attacks Denver's sorcerers, only one person can decipher the cryptic clues left behind: newly minted crystal sorceress Dru Jasper. A necromancer is using forbidden sorcery to fulfill the prophecy of the apocalypse and bring about the end of the world. To learn the truth, Dru must infiltrate the necromancer's hidden lair and stop the prophecy. But she needs to do it fast, before legions of the undead rise to consume the souls of everyone on earth…

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Indie Bound | Kobo

1 comment:

  1. Thank you! I think I found out why I'm writing in circles. My characters have no clearly defined goal.