where the writers are
Creating a Story, Cont'd: Suspense

After taking a break for the election and to talk about my cute new UK cover, I'm following up on my recent posts about creating a story.

You may recall that I hadn't quite finished the synopsis for my next book while in the Outer Banks. Once I got home, I whipped through to the end. . .well almost to the end. My last sentence reads: Brilliant last sentence goes here. LOL.

So I emailed the synopsis and its lame final sentence to my agent, who quickly got back to me with the news that she loved it. Since she loves it and I love it, this is the synopsis we'll take to my publisher. . . soon. My agent and I both recognized what is missing from the synopsis: suspense. That's the element I'm building into the story this weekend.

I don't care what kind of story you're writing, it needs an element of suspense to keep the pages turning. Those of you who've read my books know that, even though my stories may not fit the definition of "suspense novels," in the usual sense of the term, they are suspenseful. Even the books that are focused on relationships have elements of suspense in them. The reader wants to know what's going to happen next. This doesn't occur by magic. It takes planning and the sort of thinking that makes your head ache, but it's oh so worth it in the end. 

So how does a writer add suspense? One tried and true method is the ticking clock. The reader knows that, if a character doesn't do X by a certain time, Y will happen, and that will be devastating. Many other conflicts can create suspense. In Before the Storm, will a special needs boy go to prison for something he (probably) didn't do? And how far will his mother go to protect him? In The Secret Life of CeeCee Wilkes, will a woman tell the truth about what happened even though it will cost her her family and her freedom? 

One of my favorite ways of adding suspense is to give each character a secret. I may not use them all, but in the "thinking stage," I actually write down what each character's secret is--we all have them; don't try to tell me you don't! Then I see whose secret can tie into the storyline. And then I drop hints to make the reader sit up and take notice. In Before the Storm, for example, I continually allude to the fact that Laurel distrusts her former brother-in-law, Marcus, but the reader doesn't know why. I reveal this fact from both their points-of-view, over time, increasing the curiosity of the reader to find out what led to the serious rift in their relationship. (Then, of course, there needs to be a pretty powerful reason for the distrust, or the reader will be quite annoyed with me, but that's for another post.)

So today, I'm adding suspense to my synopsis in several ways: 1) I'm changing the order of how I reveal what happens, so that the reader (editor, in this case) will want to know what's going to happen next. In other words, I'm taking care not to reveal too much up front; 2) I'm "mystifying" one of the major revelations so that it's unclear to both the reader and the characters what is really going on; and 3) I'm giving at least one significant character a juicy secret that ties beautifully into the central storyline and that will give me a nice subplot at the same time.

And finally, I hope to come up with that brilliant last sentence!