Suspense and mystery are supposedly my bread and butter as a crime writer, but since I started with literary short stories and somehow found my way into crime writing, building suspense is not really my strong suit. This is why I often invite veteran writers to this site, so that I can benefit from their wisdom, and also get it to share it with everyone.
Today, for this month’s post for Insecure Writer’s Support Group , I’m hosting Alex J Cavanaugh so we can all learn from his long years of experience in writing.
Alex J Cavanaugh doesn’t need an introduction to most writer-bloggers, or regular readers of this site. I’ve known him for about a decade now, and we met through the A to Z Challenge. He works in web design and graphics, and plays guitar in a Christian band. A fan of all things science fiction, his interests range from books and movies to music and games. Online, he is known as Ninja Captain Alex and he’s the founder of the Insecure Writer’s Support Group.
Today he’s here to share his advice on creating suspense and mystery in a story.
Take it away, Alex!
Mystery and thriller writers are very familiar with creating suspense. They are the foundation of those genres. But to a certain extent, every good story needs suspense and mystery. Otherwise, there is no reason for the reader to turn the page.
Neither genre is in my wheelhouse. Hats off to those who write mysteries and thrillers well. But even I need to add a certain degree of mystery and suspense to my science fiction novels. After five novels and countless short stories, I have a list of techniques that will raise the stakes and complicate secrets.
· Use locations to your advantage. Give a strong sense of place in each scene and immerse the reader. Don’t just use sinister locations—in order to add suspense, twist things up in happy locations so the reader thinks no place is safe.
· The main character needs to begin at a disadvantage or be placed at a disadvantage quickly. If the reader knows the character is good to go and can handle it, where is the tension? Throw something at him and make him stumble.
· Inner conflict is always good. This is a favorite of mine. Make the character struggle with his decisions. Give him a past that goes against what he must do to succeed. Pile on the issues that will cause him pause and wonder in agony, and leave the reader hanging in suspense about the reader’s next course of action.
· Conceal the characters’ true motivations. Let there be secrets among them. The main character can be led astray by others. He might start second-guessing, wondering, worrying—which means the reader will ,as well. The secrets can be small, and the truth dribbled out in segments, or they can be big, and fall like a bombshell.
· In the same vein, small revelations up the suspense. A little fact update might change the course of the story or the main character’s plight.
· For a faster pace, keep sentences and chapters short. Long sentences and big paragraphs have their place, but not when the goal is tension and action. Who cares about the details on the arrow when it’s flying straight at the main character? Think in real time when writing such scenes.
· Don’t lose momentum with flashbacks. Just like the long sentences and paragraphs, a flashback slows the story. It takes readers out of the moment and into another situation. Flashbacks have their place but use sparingly or the action will grind to a halt.
· Don’t let situations resolve easily. Tension needs to rise and for more than five minutes. If it’s not very difficult, if the character finds the answer without a struggle, the reader grows bored. It also creates a character who is almost invincible—and completely un-relatable.
· Characters need to speak more, think less. Tons of internal dialogue kills the pace. If something needs to be revealed, let characters discuss it. Not all the time, but don’t have paragraphs of a character’s thoughts. Inner dialogue is all right, just keep it brief.
· The hero needs to face insurmountable odds and difficult situations. But do give them some small successes now and then. Something to keep the reader going without losing hope that this character is never going to make it.
· Pile on the problems and challenges. Not so relentless that it exhausts the reader but keep upping the ante. As I like to say, throw everything but the kitchen sink at them.
· Sidetrack the hero. Maybe he thinks he knows the answer—but surprise, he doesn’t! Use red herrings to take the character down a rabbit hole.
· Create intriguing scenes that make the reader wonder. Why is that important? Is there a clue there somewhere? Make sure there really is a clue. Every scene needs purpose in a story.
· Use suspenseful dialogue. Let characters foreshadow or give warning. Use dialogue to keep the main character on his guard. If he’s suspicious, readers will be suspicious.
· Force the main character to act or decide. They have no choice but to resolve the problem or issue. They can’t move forward, sometimes physically, unless they do something. The reader feels the same stress as the character, torn by indecision.
· End chapters in an uncomfortable situation or on a cliffhanger. It doesn’t have to be life or death, just an issue that must be resolved, and the reader must know how. Or it’s a scene that makes the character squirm and readers want to know how he’s going to handle it.
· Set the timer. Literally, place a deadline in the story. If this doesn’t happen by this time—boom! Working against the clock is an easy way to ramp up tension and keep readers turning pages.
· Begin each chapter with a sense of urgency. They ended on a cliffhanger, so start them with a situation or problem that must be resolved. Pull the reader into the chapter.
Add many of those elements to the story and it will be suspenseful with a side of mystery!
Alex doesn’t just talk the talk, he walks the walk in his latest, CassaDark.
“Cavanaugh returns to the world of his Cassa Series…for a fourth inventive space opera.” – Publisher’s Weekly
More about the book:
His world is unraveling…
Bassan’s father is stepping down from command. His best friend almost dies when Bassan freezes. Now, he’s being sent across the galaxy to speak at an important conference. Despite saving the eleven races years ago, he’s paralyzed by doubt. Could things get any worse?
Once there, new acquaintance Zendar convinces Bassan to visit his planet for a humanitarian mission. Bassan’s special connection to ancient technology is the key to saving Zendar’s people. One problem though—it’s a prisoner planet.
On Ugar, he discovers things aren’t so straightforward. As each truth reveals itself, the situation grows more desperate. If he can’t find the right answers, he might die along with Zendar’s people. Can Bassan summon the courage to be a hero again?
Print – 9781939844842 / eBook – 9781939844859
Science Fiction – Adventure/Space Opera/Space Exploration
Find it on:
iTunes – Amazon – Barnes & Noble – Kobo – Scribd – Goodreads
Today is the first Wednesday of the month post for the Insecure Writer’s Support Group.
Founded by the Ninja Cap’n Alex J. Cavanaugh, the purpose of the group is to offer a safe space where writers can share their fears and insecurities without being judged. This is a wonderful group–if you aren’t a part of it, I urge you to join in!
The awesome co-hosts for the September 1 posting of the IWSG are Kim Elliott, Melissa Maygrove, Chemist Ken, Lee Lowery, and Nancy Gideon!
I have Alex’s entire series on my Kindle and will re-read the previous books before I dive into this one! What about you–have you read Alex’s books? What’s a book you remember that kept you hanging in suspense? Do you have questions for Alex?
My own crime novel, The Blue Bar will be out this October with Thomas & Mercer. It is already available for preorders. Add it to Goodreads or pre-order it to make my day.
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Great post, Alex! Thanks for sharing this with your followers, Damyanti. All the luck with your new releases, Alex and Damyanti.
This is a writing class on mystery and suspense on one page! Great job. Excellent information from a pro. Thank you, Alex. Wishing you great success with your newest release!!!
Thanks! I did a lot of research to put together the list.
Lots of great ideas there! Got to keep those plots moving. Congrats to Alex and Damyanti for the new books!
Some great suggestions, Alex! Congrats to both of you on your books!
I really enjoyed CassaDark, and it stands pretty much on its own if you havent read the rest of the series, or have forgotten the details 🙂
Great words from our Ninja Captain there!
Great tips for ramping up suspense in a story. Congrats to Alex, and a big congrats to you too for your new book!
Thank you so much, Lynda. And a huge thanks to Alex for this wonderful post!
Thanks for the suspenseful advice!
Excellent advice! Sharing.
Great tips Alex, especially the one about setting the time, I like that in a story. I’ve read a couple of stories about keeping ahead of a hurricane, they worked well because although the hurricane was definitely coming, nature kept it unpredictable which added tension. I also like war spy stories because of their tension.
A hurricane would really add a sense of urgency!
Great advice from Alex – whatever the genre.
What great suggestions, Alex. “Sidetrack the hero”–of course! I don’t think I’ve been doing that.
Jacqui, I think I like that one because I am easily sidetracked…
Those are some very helpful pointers Damyanti. Thanks to Alex. I’m just back from another interview of his which was very informative as well. I haven’t tried suspense but I would love to. Maybe in a short story or something.
I like the tip for suspenseful dialogue. 🙂 Great post, Alex!
Thanks for letting me invade your blog, Damy!
You’re so welcome. I’m glad you took a chance and wrote a long post—it has received so many shares on social media!!
That is one fantastic list, yes, even for literary fiction writers (all hail the short chapter!) Saving–and sharing!