Wednesday, October 19, 2016

The ABC's of Suspense and Mystery Writing

Before we start, let’s take a look at the difference between mystery and suspense. The traditional definition usually says that a mystery is when you’re trying to discover who murdered someone and suspense is when you’re trying to stop a murder from happening.

It’s a good definition, but I’d like to add a bit more for a little more clarification. I think mysteries keep the main characters in their day-to-day life while suspense thrusts the characters into a running-for-their-life scenario—if not their life, someone’s life has to be in danger.

A good mystery should have elements of suspense and vice-versa so for our purposes I’m going to focus on suspense—since that’s what I write.

A is for ACTION! ACTION!! and more ACTION!!!

Readers today don’t want to read pages of description, backstory, or about a characters everyday life. They want action and lots of it. And that needs to start on the first page but…

It doesn’t mean the action on the first page has to necessarily have anything to do with the main plot of the book. Often I start my story with the end of some other incident—catching a bad guy; a car accident; an odd phone call from a child.

 Whatever opening you choose it needs to make the reader curious about what will happen next so that they keep reading.

 In one of my books, REDEMPTION, I start the story out with an argument between twin sisters.

My opening line is: “You’re retired from the spy business. Remember!” to which the other twin responds with, “I was never a spy.”

So action doesn’t necessarily have to mean BIG action—but people need to be moving, doing something—anything! They can’t be sitting at the beach reflecting on the failures or successes of their life—unless you’re planning on having a huge shark come out of the water and chase them!
And you can’t pull a bait and switch on your readers either. You don’t get to start with a gripping action scene in the first chapter and then spend the next hundred pages giving them backstory about why it happened.

That’s not suspense. That’s just… boring!

So the action needs to continue throughout the story and it should be escalating in nature. Don’t use all the great action up front and then let the story end with a whimper. Keep raising the stakes with each incident.

Quick Review:

1.    Start the story with action.
2.    Keep the story moving forward with more action.
3.    Escalate the danger with more action.


Writers love backstory!

Readers hate backstory!

At least suspense readers, hate backstory. They don’t want to know what happened to a character fifteen years ago that makes them do what they do now.

The rule of all stories is to move the story forward. This is even more true for suspense/mystery novels. Refer back to A! Readers want action—not history.

But…as I said writers love backstory. And I’m a writer. So in my first draft and even into my second draft, I put in backstory. I want to get to know my characters—who they are, where they came from, why they do what they do. It helps me to understand the story and the characters.

Even in my first and second drafts I don’t put in pages and pages of backstory or even a paragraph at a time. I sneak it in. One thought here another there. A comment that adds to the reader’s knowledge.  A question from another character that will let the other character reveal just a bit about himself.

But as I said, I do that in my first few drafts. During the third and all subsequent drafts, I make a point to cut out as much of the backstory as I can. Some stays, but most of it gets cut.

Does it hurt? Sometimes, it does. Sometimes, I’ll sit and stare and stare at my backstory sentences for the longest time. Then I hit the delete button and reread the section. If the story still makes sense I don’t add it back in. If it creates some confusion, I’ll add it back in and let my editor decide.

Let’s take another quick look at those opening lines in REDEMPTION

“You’re retired from the spy business. Remember!” to which the other twin responds with, “I was never a spy.” Yeah, right—that’s what my brother-in-law used to try to tell me, too.

Did you pick up on the backstory? Right there in the first lines. But back story that makes you wonder—was she a spy or not a spy?

Remember—keep the story moving forward. For the most part, backstory stops the story. It doesn’t move it forward. What we writers think is crucial is usually not!

Quick Review:

1.    Readers hate backstory!
2.    Backstory should be necessary to understanding the present story.
3.    Sneak it in—a little bit at a time.
4.    Cut-cut-cut as much of the backstory as possible!


Curiosity may have killed the cat but it won’t kill your readers or make them die of boredom. No matter what genre you write, curiosity is a necessary part of creating a great story!

Your goal as a writer should be to make your reader want to read just a little bit more even though they have something else to do—like go to work or make dinner! You want them to say, “just one more page…”

So, how do you do that?

Create surprises! Don’t let your reader get bored or too comfortable. Just when they think they know what’s going to happen—mix it up. Back to REDEMPTION-again.

As I was writing the story, I was at the point of what many writers refer to as the sagging middle. Where you’re struggling to find enough to write about so that you can reach your target word count.

I was writing and I was bored. My character was in a motel room and planning on meeting her partner at a restaurant but… as I said, I was getting that bored—ho-hum feeling…so when she opened the door…I had someone knock her down.

It shocked me…and my readers! And that was the end of the chapter so, of course, my readers had to keep reading and I had to keep writing to see who knocked her down and why.

And I’m happy to say, that little surprise really got the story moving. I love when that happens—it’s what makes writing fun!

That brings us to another strategy. Each chapter should end with something that will make the reader want to know what’s going to happen. Sort of think of it as a literal hook that you place around their neck and will pull them into the next chapter.

Another technique for keeping the reader’s curiosity and interest level sparked comes from James Scott Bell. If you don’t know who that is, you should. He not only writes mystery and suspense but has awesome writing books and workshops.

Anyway, his advice is to have something in every scene that will surprise the reader. It doesn’t have to be the BIG shocker like opening the door and getting knocked down. It can be something that will bring a smile to the reader, or just a widening of the eyes.

After I finish the first draft of a book and begin editing, revising, and polishing, I go through each chapter and try to follow his advice. I’m not saying I’m successful in every scene but I do my best.

Quick review:

1.    Mix it up—keep your readers on their toes.
2.    If you the writer is bored so will your readers be.
3.    End each chapter with a hook.
4.    Add something surprising into every scene.

So…there you have my ABCs of writing suspense/mystery novels. I could keep going… D is for Danger… E is for… but, alas, no time!

Others may think Jamie Jakowski is a hero, but she knows differently.
Haunted by her past, she seeks redemption by helping others in spite of the danger to herself. However, after almost orphaning her daughter, Jamie opts to retire. When a friend needs her, Jamie agrees to one last undercover operation.
She is determined to reunite a heartbroken mother with her kidnapped son. Used to working alone, Jamie’s not happy when she’s assigned a partner. And after a failed operation and their failed romance, Enrique Rodriguez is the last person she wants to work with—ever.
To succeed, Jamie must confront her past as well as the people who want her dead.

Lillian Duncan: stories of faith mingled with murder & mayhem!
Lillian is a multi-published writer with several Amazon bestsellers, including The Christmas Stalking and Betrayed. Lillian writes the types of books she loves to read—fast-paced suspense with a touch or two of romance that demonstrates God’s love for all of us
Whether as an educator, a writer, or a speech pathologist, she believes in the power of words to transform lives, especially God’s Word.
To learn more about Lillian and her books, visit: Tiaras & Tennis Shoes is her personal blog at

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