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When Writing Suspense, More is More

The other day I broke my rule about giving critiques (I’ve lost too many friends by being honest) and responded to a writer who asked my opinion of his work. I gave him a few suggestions about comma usage and speaker attributes, then I put my foot in it. I said there was no suspense, no reason for me to read further. (To create suspense, a writer must raise questions in readers’ minds, and he didn’t raise any questions.)

This got me a long email explaining that of course there was suspense — we didn’t know who the killer was, who he was going to kill next, and if the detective would catch him in time. True, these were unanswered questions, but simply posing questions does not create suspense.

To raise questions and to make us worry about those questions, a writer must show us readers why we should care. Just a thought flitting through the killer’s mind that he was going after an unspecified “her” does not create any sense of immediacy or concern. If we know that he planned to kill a little girl that he (and we) saw playing with a kitten, we have someone specific to worry about.

Also, if we’re supposed to care if the detective catches the killer, we have to know the detective’s stake in the matter. A cop doing his job is completely different from a father worried about spending too much time on the job and not enough time with his daughter. And if it turned out the little girl with the kitten was the cop’s daughter, we’d worry about the characters even more .

The moral of the story is, when it comes to suspense, less is not more. More is more.

And the moral for me is, no more critiques.