Note: this article first appeared on CYH Magazine, 2006
Writing suspense can be a challenging endeavor, but a writer armed with a solid storyline and just the right amount of detail, can turn a so-so tale into a compelling and highly entertaining novel.
Tell just enough to peak your reader’s interest until every detail is revealed at the end in engrossing detail. Build on one or two predominating themes, and surprise your reader by taking the less predictable route. Create a dark, moody feel to your story, or keep a high level of excitement with non-stop action. Developing strong characters who are multi-dimensional, unpredictable, perhaps even unstable, volatile, or emotional will add tension. Think about what you like to read or watch in a movie. Consider what motivates some – power, greed, love, lust. If you can keep a secret, you can write a suspense novel.
Look to everyday experiences and observations to formulate a unique storyline. I came up with the theme of my current novel by talking with some friends about various aspects of relationships and what (in fantasy) could be done about some of the problems and challenges people must overcome. I wanted to make a departure from the typical boy meets girl scenario and transform that theme into a complex character driven story.
Don’t be afraid to inject a sense of humor into your work. What a suspense writer wants to aim for is balance in her storytelling. If your story is dark and moody, lightening it up with a sense of humor can keep the faint of heart from shying away from your intense tale. If your novel is loaded with medical or legal jargon, give your reader a breath of fresh air with a few subtle and well-placed explanations of your professional terminology.
I’m not exactly a big fan of the phrase ‘think outside of the box’, but I can’t think of a better way to describe how important it is in finding one’s own voice and sharing it with the world. I published my book under my own company, Adrolite Press. I hadn’t witnessed enough variety as far as literature goes for people of color by people of color and I wanted to inject something unique into our choices. Creative control with my first outing was very important to me.
One of the most pivotal achievements in writing a great novel is to show and not tell. If you write, “Lucy picked up the gun and killed him.” You could just as easily show someone what happened by writing, “He begged for mercy as dripping sweat burned his eyes. Lucy pressed cold steel against his temple, and as her tormentor prayed and sobbed, she silenced his last desperate thought with the pull of her trigger.” You want to share your imagination with your reader, so that he can envision what you have envisioned.
Above all, write with your heart and from your gut and you will be surprised and ultimately pleased with the final product.
Chandra Adams (aka Chandra Chatmon) is the author of Shades of Retribution, a tale of three women whose plan to increase the pool of eligible men goes awry. Available at Adrolite Press and Chatmon’s Books.