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Suspense Writers Take Note: It’s All About the Tension


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Tension is the jet fuel that propels a thriller. From the slow burn to the shocking reveal, I strive to pack as much of it as possible into my stories.

I am often labeled as a medical thriller writer, but I don’t view myself as such, because I also write psychological thrillers and historical suspense. Besides, it’s a deep rabbit hole to fall down to try categorizing suspenseful novels into specific genres and sub-genres of mystery, thriller, or crime fiction. For the sake of this article, and my sanity, can we lump them all into one giant category of suspense fiction? Because, regardless of which of those sub-genres you put a novel into, I guarantee you’re not going to enjoy reading it if it’s not suspenseful.

There exists an unwritten contract between the suspense reader and writer that no matter what else these stories offer—insights into the human condition, emotional attachment to the characters, crackling dialogue, lyrical prose, or enthralling scientific or historical facts—tension will always be a significant part of the ride.

And while a carefully constructed plot is pivotal to generating suspense, I hate the term plot driven, which is so often applied to thrillers. The most riveting plot ever imagined wouldn’t hold your attention if the novel was poorly written or you weren’t interested in the characters. In suspense fiction, the characters tend to be involved in more action and face more existential threats, but as a reader, you still must be invested in their plight. Whether you love or hate, pity or admire, want to be like or just want to shake some sense into them, you have to care what happens to those characters to care about the plot.

Therefore, my priority is to find the right set of compelling characters for every novel I write. Of course, I can load the dice and engender protagonists and antagonists with fascinating careers, eccentric habits and hobbies, and complex backstories to help enrich the plot, but I don’t begin to know my own characters until they speak to one another. For me, dialogue defines them in my mind and in my heart. Nothing serves to create conflict and tension more powerfully. Every word matters. And in my mind, nothing kills suspense quicker than rambling speech or exposition-filled dialogue. Elmore Leonard understood this better than most writers. He was the master of creating tension through dialogue, using it to essentially tell an entire story. Anyone who has read Freaky Deaky or Get Shorty will appreciate how Leonard crafted suspense almost entirely through his characters’ words.

I am fortunate in that, oftentimes, the premises for my novels will have inherent built-in suspense, such as stories about emerging pandemics or the recurrence of the Black Death. But whether I’m writing about a single crime or a global outbreak, the scale of the stakes doesn’t define the tension. It’s easier to make a reader care about the fate of an individual than that of a whole community. When I wrote The Last High, a novel set against the backdrop of the opioid crisis, I focused on the perspectives of individual victims or their family members to increase the suspense and establish the human toll of the crushing opioid tragedy.

Another aspect I, like all suspense writers, have to focus on, is the pacing of a novel. A breakneck pace can ratchet up the tension. Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code is a solid example. But good pacing is also about finding the right rhythm. Endless action can be exhausting for a reader. Knowing when to slow the story down and let the plot simmer is key to the art of pacing. Often suspense novels told at the slowest boil are the most gripping. A prime example is Emma Donoghue’s wildly suspenseful novel, Room, the ultimate locked room mystery.

Numerous other writing techniques and devices help to raise the tension in suspense novels, including clever red herrings, unreliable narrators, and cliffhanger chapters. But my favorite, as both a writer and a reader, is the juicy twist. A brilliant hairpin turn can immortalize a novel. Especially, one that flips all your assumptions on their head. But no matter how astonishing the twist is, it has to be believable. You must be able to look back over previous chapters and realize the breadcrumbs (in the form of subtle clues) to this unexpected trailhead have been left along the way. Otherwise, it’s cheating. There’s nothing satisfying about a massive twist that comes out of nowhere and is deux ex machina.

Several examples of legendary twists still stick out in my mind, years after I read the books. But to describe them is to spoil them. So instead, I’ll list a few of my favorites. We Need to Talk About Kevin, by Lionel Shriver, is told through a series of letters from a wife to her husband, and the ending hits like a shovel to the face. In Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane, a US marshal races to find a killer inside a remote 1950s asylum and, at the very end, the author pulls the ground out from under the reader. And in Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn, the writer doesn’t even wait until the final pages to upend all the reader’s assumptions.

I, myself, try to throw at least one twist into every story I write. My most recent novel, The Darkness In The Light, is a Nordic-noir, psychological thriller set in the northernmost town in Alaska. And it sprang entirely from an idea for a killer twist. I thought, “What if I wrote a psychological thriller in the first-person voice but the narrator…” Damn. I can’t even finish that sentence without giving up the whole game. Suffice it to say, the surprise is based on a simple literary device that I have never come across in a similar novel. And while it might represent the dramatic pinnacle of my story, it doesn’t replace any of the other key elements discussed.

After all, a devastating twist is meaningless unless it’s at the end—or possibly in the middle—of a rollicking good story!

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Michael Neff
Algonkian Producer
New York Pitch Director
Author, Development Exec, Editor

We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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