Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Uncertainty That Matters: Learning the Craft of Suspense Writing

Rick Aker is the author of  Dead Man’s Rule, a suspense legal thriller likened to John Grisham’s work.

The opportunity to attend a workshop on suspense writing lead by Aker at the ACFW conference in Dallas was a treat. I want to share with you a few essentials gleaned from that workshop.

One of the lessons I learned from Rick is that all novels need an element of suspense.” Actually, I think I knew that, tough I’ve never stated it explicitly.

Rick’s definition of suspense? “Uncertainty that matters to the reader.” I call them page-turners. Those moments we as writers create to make our readers need to know what happens next. Will she say yes? Will he escape? Will so-and-so return? Uncertainty.

“Suspense should be tightening throughout the novel.” I agree. The stakes get higher and we need our readers pulling for our protagonist. I think often though of a story as an ocean. We create those wave-crashing, knock-us-off-our-feet scenarios, but we also have to give our readers time to catch their collective breath before the next wave rolls in or the undertow knocks them down.

Rick also spoke of two kinds of suspense. Aside: Like the way I keep calling him by his first name? Yeah, well, we had dinner together. (Actually, he was across from me at a table that would seat ten in a noisy banquet room with loud music…but hey!)

Back to our study…the two kinds of suspense: PLOT DRIVEN SUSPENSE (Think The Bourne Identity by Robert Ludlum and yes, it was a book before it was a movie.) or CHARACTER DRIVEN SUSPENSE (A la Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris…making myself shiver here.)

I’m learning the craft of writing a suspense novel. I hadn’t thought about the mechanics of it or what drives it. I think that’s important information. It keeps you as a writer true to the story.

In my own attempt at crafting a romantic suspense, I find myself waivring between plot and character. Now I understand why. My romance is plot driven. The antagonist provides ample tension and an opportunity for my male protagonist to rush in and save the day.

At the same time, while I want my readers to pull for the protagonist, I want them to understand what makes the bad guy tick. I want them to feel sorry for him. Not sorry enough to acquit him if any of my readers were to sit in on his trial, mind you, but enough to hope he gets help and maybe even give him a job when he’s released from prison.

Sitting in a room full of novelists studying their craft with the likes of Rick Aker is a fantastic experience. Now the question…will she write a good novel or not? Oh, the suspense is killing me.

How about you? Do you have a suspense story rolling around your head?

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  1. Last night, I went to a book signing for a friend whose third cozy mystery was published. She shared her glory with two other authors in the same genre. It was interesting to hear how they crafted their stories. They also shared a little of the business aspect from the book proposal on. I would love to attend one of these writer's workshops, one day.

    1. Oh so true…we learn from each other. Crafting a good novel shouldn't be a "mystery." Conferences and writing workshops are extremely valuable. Have you looked for local one day workshops in your area? The first writing workshop I ever attended was a half day session at a local university for $25.00.

  2. Hi Rebecca, your post has made me sit and really think. Suspense is another piece of the puzzle which needs tightening up in my writing. Thanks for the tips. Fond regards, Rod

    1. So glad you found it helpful, Rod. Wishing you the best in all your writing endeavors.


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