To uncover the plot of your story, don’t ask what should happen, but what should go wrong. –Steven James
One of the best lessons I learned when I was editing my first novel (thanks to my editor), was not to resolve conflict in a page and a half.
It’s something I share with my writer clients and friends, if I’m reading their work. It’s easy to want to solve a problem or mend a rift quickly, because we can. This is where writers play God, because in the world of our novels, we are the supreme beings.
The problem is, resolving conflict quickly doesn’t allow for the reader to have enough time to process what’s going on, or to have the emotional and physical reaction necessary to connect or worry. You needn’t put your character in physical danger, I never do (or haven’t, yet) because emotional peril is just as riveting, right? You know that knot in your stomach you get when you just have to know what happens next? That’s your goal. To create discomfort.
These are things I know and work hard to remember and incorporate into my writing.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot since I attended a session at WDCon with author Steven James. I’ll be honest, I’d never heard of him. He writes serial killer novels and was running a session on adding suspense no matter the genre.
I got the last seat in the room.
I won’t say that the content was all new to me (some was) but he did present all of it in a new way, and reminders are our best friends. How are we supposed to remember everything about writing a novel for every single page of our writing it? That’s where reminders come in, and why I am always reading books and blogs and websites. So if this is a reminder to you — revel in it. (And I don’t know Steven James but I’d bet his book, Story Trumps Structure, is brilliant. I’m going to buy it. You can find him on stevenjames.net.)
I think that adding a real element of suspense is often overlooked by WF writers because emotional journeys don’t necessary scream the need for it — but it’s there. For as long as I can remember I’ve framed the idea of writing suspense, conflict, and tension as MAKING THE READER WORRY. That’s the terminology that works for me, maybe because it’s so familiar to me in real life.
I’m going to share my notes with you — because I believe that adding different kinds of suspense to women’s fiction is the difference between mediocre and best seller. And I want us all to write best sellers!
Notes from an iPhone (with commentary)
- Suspense lies in apprehension (to me this means the reader’s got it all figured out, except she probably doesn’t. if she does, then “I knew it” can be satisfying too)
- Suspense lies in stillness (you know, the moment everything stops and you drag out a short time with detail that drives up that worrying)
- Mystery = curiosity — but Suspense = concern (to me this hearkens back to WORRY)
- Create reader empathy – what we want for them is what they want (this made me think of my WIP that includes a love story. The reader MUST want them together because that’s what my protagonist wants.)
- A wound we all share creates empathy. (think: grief)
- Impending danger to something valuable creates suspense. (this can be one’s sense of self, family, a friendship. doesn’t have to be a diamond)
- Way to add tension and suspense: character must be in two places at the same time (made me think of Hermione)
- A decent creates more tension than an ascent (I’m not sure about this one)
- Suspense and tension: isolate the main character, remove tools, helpers, mentors (lightbulb moment for WIP)
I’d typed more notes but they’re undecipherable! I hope these tidbits about how to (and why to) add suspense to you novel are as helpful to you as they are to me.
I’m inspired to write with these in mind!
What’s inspiring you to write today?