Thursday, July 26, 2012

Five ways to KILL Suspense

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: I met Meg Gardiner in a cab. Well, outside a cab. We were at--something in New York, I forget, going somewhere, I forget, and she was about to take the subway. Come with me! I said. I have on heels!  I'm getting a cab.

So we talked the whole way to wherever it was--she was hilarious and personable and wonderful.  I confess that in these situations, meeting a best-selling Edgar-winning author, I always think--here's a successful writer, I bet she could teach me a lot. But that's not the kind of thing you can ask.

So, isn't this clever? I invited her to JRW, so we can all learn.   And I'll give a copy of Meg's new RANSOM RIVER to a lucky commenter! And an ARC of THE OTHER WOMAN to another.

And now..I don't want to keep you in suspense, but here's--well, no. I DO want to keep you in suspense. And here's how. Um, how NOT to.

Five Ways to Kill Suspense

Suspense is vital to storytelling. It keeps readers turning pages, desperate to learn what happens next. As a building block of drama, it’s as old as literature itself—Aristotle said suspense consists of having some real danger looming and a ray of hope.

The word comes from the Latin suspendere—to hang up—and writers are the hangmen. We keep readers dangling. But if we do it wrong, we kill the story.

Here are five surefire ways to do that.

1. Sacrifice tension for surprise. Unexpected twists can delight or terrify readers. But if you don’t build up the tension beforehand, readers will be bored senseless long before you get to Boo.

Hitchcock put it this way: an audience experiences suspense when they expect something bad to happen and know more than the characters do—but can’t intervene to stop it. Say characters are talking in a restaurant. If all the scene shows is their chitchat, it’s tedious. But if the audience knows that a ticking bomb is planted beneath the table, it’s suspenseful.

The writer’s job is to create tension and then let it build for as long as possible. Be cruel. The page is the one place where cruelty’s a good thing.
2. Commit howlers. I don’t mean minor errors about arcane facts. I mean clanging mistakes about common knowledge. Writers should know that the capital of Brazil is not Rio de Janeiro. That the president’s airplane does not have AIR FORCE ONE painted on its flanks. That Interpol doesn’t strafe fugitives from fighter jets (to name three errors I’ve seen in books or movies). Ludicrous mistakes kill suspense by pulling readers from the story, thinking, Oh, come on. Do your research. And after you’ve done it, have knowledgeable people check it.

3. Write idiot plots. Plots that depend on characters acting like idiots kill suspense faster than cyanide. You’ve read this story: an unarmed woman fails to call SWAT and instead wades into the swamp alone, at midnight, in heels, to rescue her best friend from the maniac with the chainsaw. Go on, honey. Readers will be cheering—for the maniac.

4. Mistake mystery for suspense. Mystery propels our genre. But withholding facts from readers doesn’t always increase suspense. Sometimes it just annoys. Say the hero keeps everything he’s learned to himself until the final pages, when he reveals all. This is meant to make him sound brilliant and the revelation seem huge. But if the audience hasn’t struggled along with him as he digs for the truth, they haven’t experienced the story. They’ll feel shortchanged. (This is another reason to show, don’t tell.)
Or say you hide the identities of characters in a scene. “Two men sat at the dingy bar, scowling.” Maybe the scowlers are assassins, circling for a kill. But if they’re your hero and his brother—and it’s the tenth time you’ve used this ploy—it’s not suspenseful. It's a cheap trick.
5. Put the main character in a tight situation where the only question is whether she’ll survive. Here’s the problem: Readers figure that in mysteries and thrillers, the protagonist is going to live. If your novel’s in first person, they know it. So don’t have the bad guys abandon the heroine in the desert, then spend 50 pages depicting her trek back to civilization. There’s no question she’ll make it, so her tough slog to town contains no suspense.

But what if you truly want to abandon your protagonist in the desert? Then create real, looming danger… to other characters. And put a clock on it. The heroine must get to a phone by sundown—or the puppy farm will be blown up. Otherwise, cut everything after the bad guys dump her in Death Valley. Skip to her stumbling into the 7-11, dehydrated, covered in cactus needles, and hauling the corpse of the rabid skunk that attacked her.

Now, a confession: I’ve committed all these sins.
Sometimes I’ve caught these mistakes when revising. Sometimes an editor has noted, “Tiresome…” And sometimes I’ve decided a cheap trick is exactly what I need.
In my novel Ransom River, a juror finds herself fighting for her life when gunmen storm the courtroom. Then Rory Mackenzie discovers the attack is connected to an old case that was never solved. It's connected to her, and dark skeletons in her family's history. And bringing the truth to light might destroy her and those she loves.

My first draft opened with a long, procedural courtroom scene in Rory’s point of view. Then, boom—gunmen burst in. (Hello, surprise without tension.) I rewrote it to add scenes in a gunman’s POV. Now, while Rory hears testimony about two cops gunning down a teenager, the attackers circle the courthouse, arm themselves, and stalk toward the building. Readers know something bad’s coming, but they can’t tell Rory: Get out of there.

Then, to create a sense of real danger that would loom over the whole book, I revised again—so the story doesn’t open in the courtroom. It opens when Rory is nine years old. Late one night, she and her best friend see something they shouldn’t—something that scares them. They don’t understand it. They only know something's wrong. Something bad. But what—and how does it come back to haunt her twenty years later?

I’d tell you, but I’ve gotta keep you in suspense.

HANK: Thanks Meg! I'm off to look at my WIP one more time... How about you, Reds? Do you go back and add the suspense? Or write it a you go? I find when I'm in the suspenseful parts, somehow, I'm typing as fast as I can.

The most suspenseful thing I've ever read? Hmm. Dracula? The Stand? The most suspenseful movie I've ever seen? Hmm. The Vanishing? Rear Window? How about you, reds?

Remember--you can win!


Meg Gardiner writes the Evan Delaney and the Jo Beckett novels, best-selling series that have been translated into twenty languages. China Lake won the 2009 Edgar for Best Paperback Original. The Nightmare Thief won the 2012 Audie Award for Thriller/Suspense audiobook of the year. Meg practiced law in Los Angeles and taught at the University of California Santa Barbara. She lives near London. Her latest novel is the stand alone, Ransom River.

Her blog: Lying for a Living.
Twitter: @MegGardiner1


  1. Hank you are so funny !

    Very nice article Meg and always nice to "meet" an author I have not read!
    Wishing you great sales!


  2. Thank you Hank and Meg for the writing lesson. Excellent stuff, and explained well with examples. I hope the image of people having a conversation (boring) with a bomb under the table (not boring!) is going to stay with me while I write the next one.

  3. Great article. I love Meg Gardiner's Jo Beckett series and have Ransom River on my t-b-r list. I'd love to win a copy of anything she writes!

  4. Oops. Off to check the WIP! Thanks for the tips, Meg.

    I took Hallie's suspense class at Grub Street once. She showed us how to build the suspense, then (as I recall) reveal that things appear to be okay, then build some more, then let the reader relax for just a moment, then build some more. Not that I got very good at writing that way, but I keep trying.

  5. Hank is not only very funny but too modest - we shared a cab to the Edgars Symposium, where she was moderating a panel (with her killer heels and killer wit).

    I owe my thanks to her and all the Reds for letting me spout off about suspense.

  6. There's the "I know it when I read it" line between "NO WAY" and "well, okay, it could happen."

    ANd one of the things I like to do is include "little" suspense. The person is hungry, then they can't open the peanut butter jar, and then they're out of bread. Often, nothing bad happens as a direct result, except you get the feeling things are not going well, and it sets up a frustration level and a tone of defeat.

    Hey, Meg! SO great to see you here.. And see, if we put chance meetings like our in a book, no one would believe it!

  7. Meg, wonderful post! I love the tip about reminding us to put other things at stake besides the protagonist's life.

    And we know Hank is modest--one of her many charms!

  8. Great post Meg. Thanks Hank for inviting Meg to Jungle Red.

    I would love to see you both on the same panel.

  9. Meg, loved your post - I always talk about the suspense/surprise tradeoff. Usually you can't have both... but do you ALWAYS want to come down in favor of suspense??

    Of course, best is to have your cake and eat it too. Draw out the suspense and then have whatever the reader is DREADING not happen, but something else does.

  10. Must admit; when Meg described the heroine wading into the swamp in high heels, I imagined Hank with a camera crew.

  11. Hallie, that's an awesome idea.
    (Scribbles: have what the reader is dreading NOT happen, but something else does...) I try to remember the maxim: Give readers what they want, but not the way they expect it.

  12. Meg, thanks so much for these thoughtful tips! Great examples too. I'm going to go over my latest draft with these in mind.

  13. James, I have done that! (But I always have backup flats with me, FYI)

    Interestingly, a reporter-who-will-not-be-named would NOT--she told the crew she was NOT sacrificing her expensive shoes for the story. The police found a body in the woods. But the reporter was not there. She was fired.

  14. Soo--let's hear it! What's the most suspenseful book or movie EVER?

    And the winner of PHOTO FINISH is....

  15. See? That was suspense.

    Th winner of Tuesday's prize PHOTO FINISH by Terry Ambrose is RAMONA! YAY! Ramona. email me, okay?

  16. Great post, Meg! Thanks for sharing your tips.

    The bit about the protagonist not dying reminds me of the Scream movies - stop trying to kill Sydney Prescott - she's never going to die.

    Hank I love your peanut butter suspense maneuver.

  17. Talk about serendipitious. It's 5:30 here on the West coast and I was just checking Twitter when I saw Hank's Tweet.

    What a great post! I have this argument in my critique group all the time with writers who say, "Oh, no, the tension and conflict are coming later!" Hello! You hit the nail on the head, Meg. I LOVE that maxim of giving readers what they want, just not how they want it. Perfect. And congrats to Ramona, hope she enjoys PHOTO FINISH!

  18. Kira: Hi!

    Terry: Thanks. I don't know how you can shake your critique group out of the idea that tension and conflict can come later... maybe a bazooka?

    And I forgot to mention: REAR WINDOW. That scene when Grace Kelly is in Raymond Burr's apartment and Jimmy Stewart sees him coming home, but can't warn her... perfect suspense. Plus it's Grace Kelly and Jimmy Stewart.

  19. Thank you, JRW, for introducing me to another author. My TBR lists keeps getting longer and longer.

    Nothing kills my interest in a book faster than an obvious error. I was reading a book by a very prolific and popular author that put a city on the Maine Turnpike that isn't even close to that highway. Immediately I was distracted from the story to mull over the error. I agree, small errors can really kill suspense.

    I have read everything that the late Helen Macinnes wrote. I found her books to be so nerve-wracking without being over the top. I loved them all. And the settings were wonderful.

  20. Oh, no! Not the puppy farm!

    Hallie's Never Tell a Lie is a good example of her advice to let bad things happen, then everything is okay, then more bad things happen, etc. I couldn't put that book down!

  21. I won, I won, yay! LOL. I will email you, Hank, and thanks, Terry. I'm looking forward to reading POTO FINISH.

    Great advice, Meg. I especially love the mention of Air Force One. I recently toured an AF base, and the guide mentioned that movie in particular. He called it a comedy. There's a difference between willing suspension of disbelief and "get outta town." A single error or unbelievable moment can pull a reader out of the story so quickly.

    Most suspenseful story? Hm. I am a big fan of Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine so I nominate The Crocodile Bird. Most suspenseful moment might be the final Harry Potter when Neville chopped of the head of that f'ing snake.

  22. I know, Karen, I laughed out loud at the puppy farm!

    Of course, Rear Window. Made more suspenseful, of course, because Jimmy Stewart can't get up. And because the story is driven by perception.

    Not to mention Grace Kelly's dresses. Her WAIST! And that little cosmetic overnight bag.

  23. Great tips. Hitchcock had it all going on, didn't he? I watch those things again and again which proves something about how even when you know you can't stop caring! Let's all revise to rub out our mistakes today. Back to work.

  24. I've been enjoying Ms. Gardiner's books for a few years now. Need to read Ransom River soon!

  25. Great information. Love the tip about making sure the reader knows more than the hero. With First Person POV, I tend to have the reader know ONLY what the hero does. I'm going to try letting them in on more. Thanks!

  26. Great tips, Meg. And now I have another author to add to my TBR pile--the suspense is when the pile will fall over and bury me in books.

  27. This post was so timely for me! I'm struggling with a scene in the WIP, and Meg's advice has pushed me out of my own way (I get in my own way a lot). Hmm. . .little suspense? Love it.

  28. Excellent, excellent tips! This may be the best post I've seen about thriller writing in a very long time. I think Meg Gardiner may have just found herself a new fan -- I'll be picking up her book today. And all because of an impromptu cab ride. :)

  29. This comment has been removed by the author.

  30. Yes, "little suspense." Think about it in your own life--when things just seem to go wrong wrong wrong--you can't find your shoe, the milk goes bad, there's a ding in your car--isn't that portentious?

    (Is that a word?)

    And its also a VERY satisfying way to hide a clue. In a list of bad stuff there something that's more than it seems?

  31. Ramona, I hope you enjoy the book. I have to admit that I'm not one who likes much violence, but instead, I prefer the type of book or movie where one minute you're on the edge of your seat, then laughing out loud because the scene did a 180.

  32. Now there's suspense.... Hank's comment was removed. Who's next?

    Hi Meg. Just popping in from Lying for a Living comment Arena to comment over here. Very helpful article.

  33. Hi Meg! Timely indeed, as I'm about halfway through revisions now, and I keep seeing my editor's little scrawl in the margins--"Show, don't tell."

    No, don't blow up the puppy farm!!!

    I always try to have several suspense threads going in a novel. They don't always have to be big things (Well, maybe bigger than 'will Hank get the peanut butter jar open?' but not all suspense needs to be big bang.

    Great tips all round! And Meg, can't wait to read the Ransom River!

  34. Oh,so funny, Susan..don't you Always wonder why the comment was removed? I confess, did it--zapped my own comment for TOO MANY TYPOS!

  35. Welcome, Meg! I bought your books after seeing your terrific presentation for Sisters in Crime last year. Boy, are they filled with suspense!

    Hank, love your wit and modesty! I think I want to be like you when I grow up--and lose a million pounds and get beautiful and...

    Hallie, that is a fabulous idea! Build and build suspense for something awful to happen and then have something else worse happen.

    Most chilling, suspenseful movie = The Night of the Hunter. A bloodthirsty preacher who has killed their mother is after two little children (and a doll) who are hiding in the woods from him, alone at night. Robert Mitchum's greatest role.

  36. Thank you, Meg! Great pointers and they come at just the right time for me as I'm currently examining my own WIP for ways to increase the suspense.

  37. I have to say, as I read this I was TOTALLY going over my almost-finished manuscript and envisioning the places I could put Meg's advice to good use. Thank you, thank you, thank you for these great tips!

    I'm beginning to think we Reds ought to open up our own fiction-writing academy, staffed with all our brilliant author friends...

  38. Great post. Geographic errors always pull me out of a book. My all time favorite book for suspense is Habeas Porpoise by Paul Levine, part of his humorous Solomon and Lord series. It turned into al all night, edge of my seat, cover to read.

  39. Thanks, Meg, for a really thought-provoking post. Suspense always keeps me glued to the page!!!

    Most suspenseful film? Anything Hitchcock . . . a true master of the genre.

  40. I was in Book Passage book store and came across the first Evan Delaney book, China Lake. Meg Gardiner held fast to her rule: know the location. My dad's defense company had business in China Lake and we often went with him on weekends.
    But the more important part of discovering Meg and Evan: great suspense and storytelling. I like to say I had recommended her long before Stephen King, but, obviously, he has exposed her to many more readers and that's a good thing: it doesn't take me a week or two to receive her books from Book Passage anymore. I can actually pick them off the shelf myself.
    I've eagerly awaited each of her books and somehow missed the publication of Liar's Lullaby (life interrupted) which I just finished. Looking forward to this stand-alone (or is it?!), Ransom River.
    Thanks, Reds, for bringing Meg to yet another audience.


  41. Night of the Hunter--yes, I remember my mother wouldn't let me watch it when I was a kid. (Is that..possible? Or was it--Cape Fear?)

    Has anyone seen The Vanishing ? The real one, the Dutch version. It's SO scary and suspenseful, I actually wish I hadn't seen it.

  42. Hank, it likely was Night of the Hunter that your mom wouldn't let you watch. It's still scary. They made an album (vinyl) of the soundtrack of the movie. Terrifying! And without all the gore, etc., that movies use now.

  43. Great tips. Thanks. I must say I agree with Hallie that there is also a place for surprise. The trick is knowing how to place both for maximum effect and the best reading experience. (And I have by no means even approached mastering that trick yet.)

  44. Hi Hank & Meg,

    Great post and examples. I'm nearly finished with a first draft of my novel, so these tips will certainly help.

    Plus, Meg, I have to read Ranson River now!

  45. Thanks for the tips on suspense. I have read way too many books (speaking of suspense, my ex used to say he was waiting for the living room to end up in the basement from the weight of my books!) :) to have just ONE that I can name. I do agree tho' that Hitchcock was the master of suspense in film.
    pmettert @ yahoo

  46. I've read "Ransom River," and I loved it. The tension and pacing was perfect. The story wasn't bad either. For me, this was a standout. I wish I wrote, but i enjoy the lessons anyway, and point out what is bothersome sometimes.

  47. Thanks, Pen! (I wonder about that floor thing, but my husband assures me we're safe..)

    And, dear Lil, we rely on that!

  48. Great discussion! I am wondering how many readers needed to look up the capital of Brazil?

  49. And the winner of John Curran's book is: SUSAN ELIZABETH!

    Email me at h ryan at whdh dot com with your address! Hurray!

    And don't forget--he'll be back here Saturday..with new scoop and info!

  50. What a great interview. I really enjoyed it and I don't write. As a reader I completely agree with you. Several times I've walked away from a book for an obvious mistake. The most suspenseful book I read I think would be The Eight by Katherine Neville.

  51. Hi Meg, always love to read your articles and comments. I'm a great fan of your Evan-Delaney-series: really breath-taking suspense. Also looking forward to read Ransom River. Think, I just can't wait for the German translation and I 've to read it in English.

  52. Cliches kill it for me. Unless you're going to back up "It was a dark and stormy night" with an entirely tongue-in-cheek narrative, don't use cliches.

    And you are right, Meg, about suspension of disbelief...I will gladly suspend my disbelief as long as it's not too farfetched.

    And I loved "Ransom River". Just one twisty after another! But I have loved all your books, Meg. Thanks for keeping me busy!

  53. I love Meg and all her books! Wish I had the talent to write, but I loved the article all the same.

  54. Hi, Mare! So great to see you! Long time now talk! xo

    Hi unknown! Wish you weren't--unknown...

    And I love twisty, too, Lora. Especially if I'm not expecting a twist!

    Margarete, are you in Germany?

  55. Thanks for these great tips. I'm going through my suspense one more time with your comments close by.

    I've read Hank's books, but I'm glad to meet you, Meg.

    Jackie L.


  56. Yikes, I step out for an hour to torture a friend into revealing what the Olympic opening ceremony will be like, and I come back to find 57 comments. Thank you, everybody who has found my article helpful - I'm glad. And many thanks to everybody who enjoys my books - I really appreciate it!

    As for my mission to find out about the opening ceremony, my friend kept as quiet as a Buckingham Palace guard. Not even a Jedi mind trick could get her to spill.

    And Reds: I wish I could ship you a pitcher of Pimms.

  57. We do, too, Meg!

    And it's such a secret! I saw Meredith Viera try to wrest Olympic details form the director this morning--and she got nothing. Except that Paul McCartney would be there. And maybe--Peter Pan? Can that be right?

  58. I think a Quiddich match in the Olympic Stadium would be pretty cool. :-)

  59. Oh, THINK?? I bet you are SO right.

  60. As a rookie writer this really helped me think about how I can change from mystery to suspense in my writing.

    ANd Hank.... you're personality so comes through in your writing, someone day when I grow up to be a real author I hope I write just as well as you!! :-)

  61. Lisa, you have made my day. My week. That is the NICEST...thank you.

    Good luck with your writing..keep us posted!

  62. Like others, I can't pick just one truly suspenseful book.

    Suspenseful movies: Rear Window definitely. No matter how many times I see it,I am always on the edge of my seat when I watch it. Also,The Man Who Knew Too Much.

    More recently, Michael Clayton had me on the edge of my seat, right through to the end of the credits.

    Meg, I realize that I MUST read your books!

  63. Hi Meg - I, too, became a big fan after the Sisters in Crime workshop at last year's Bouchercon. I've got roots in the disability community, so I particularly love the complexity of Evan and Jesse's relationship. For tension, I give highest marks so far to "Crosscut." My heart jumped around so much reading that book! Just bought "Ransom River" and itching to delve in this weekend. I'm thrilled to see you connecting with my New England Sisters in Crime! Great advice. - Mo

  64. P.S. I'm betting on a cricket player to light the torch.

  65. Thanks again, all. This has been great.

    Olympic flame: I'd love to see Roger Bannister light it.

    Or Kelly Holmes.

    We shall soon see.

  66. Meg, so sorry I'm catching this a day late, but wow, great tips for suspense! I'm in the middle of a suspenseful work-in-progress and going through exactly those this necessary, coincidental, booooooring, stupid? And there are days and hours and minutes I want to scrap the whole thing, but I know I'm in my "second" writing and there's lots to discover. Then I'll rewrite another twenty times (probably) before it all comes together, but I'm posting your tips on my office wall.'re saying Air Force One is not on the plane's exterior? LOL

    ~Daryl aka Avery

  67. Thanks, Daryl. And it's great to have you following me with your inspirational post today.

  68. Hi Hank,
    yes, I'm in Germany, living in a town called Münster.
    Just tried to find one of your Books, Hank. Unfortunately, they seem not to be available here in Germany.

    Meg, our local newspaper "Westfälische Nachrichten" reviewed "Todesmut" (The Nightmare thief) today, highly recommending to read it. Hey, I think, you'll soon have a lot of new fans here!!

  69. Thanks, Margarete. My German publisher, Heyne, is wonderful, and the German editions look really cool. Thanks for letting me know you found Todesmut.

  70. Margarete, they will be soon..but in the meantime, email me your address!

    Love to send you..

  71. Hey Hank, that sounds great. I will send you an Email with my address. Already very excited to hear from you.

  72. Every point true. Thanks. Great reminders.

  73. Coming in late to the party, but enjoyed both Hank' and Meg's modesty - and Meg's excellent suspense points. I also looked the fact that you admitted having made some of the mistakes -gives us all hope.

  74. One of my favorite thrillers is Jackdaws by Ken Follett -- he had the suspense thing down. Thanks for sharing these great tips!