Over the next few days I’m going to run the notes from my workshop given at the recent ACFW (American Christian Fiction Writers) Conference. The topic of the workshop was on inserting suspense elements into a novel. Any genre of novel.
Obviously different kinds of stories will call for different levels of suspense. Many of these notes are referring to pure suspense. But the point is to look at the elements that make a suspense story and see how you might use them to some extent in your own work. Why? Because suspense elements make the story more interesting. If suspense has one thing going for it, it’s that these stories present a higher level of stakes. High stakes lead to a strong driving question that will propel readers through the book. (I’ve read—or started to read—way too many stories in the past year that didn’t present a strong enough driving question to make me stick with the book to see how it ended.)
So take from these cryptic notes what you will. If you have questions or want something fleshed out more, just stick ‘em in the comments section, and we’ll deal with them later. And as usual, the comments section is also the place to throw your tomatoes, should you think I’m totally off the mark.
What is suspense? A story with a high level of tension, founded on fear for the character’s welfare.
This fear doesn’t have to be about the character’s PHYSICAL welfare, necessarily. Life and/or limb doesn’t have to be at stake. Suspense can also focus on the PSYCHOLOGICAL or EMOTIONAL welfare of a character. Many times the stakes are both physical and psychological.
When you think “suspense,” think “SPARK.” SPARK = Stakes, Pace, Aura, Reaction, and Knowledge. These all interact with one another. They simply can’t be separated.
1. STAKES. As suggested by our definition of suspense, a character must have more to lose, whether physically or emotionally, than in other stories.
Example: In my (women’s fiction) novel Cast A Road Before Me, Jessie wants to leave the tiny town of Bradleyville and return to the city, where she can follow in her (deceased) mother’s footsteps. Her overall Desire that pulls her through the story is: to enjoy a quiet summer in Bradleyville, then leave to pursue her mother’s footsteps of serving the poor.
In a general mainstream story, Jessie’s stakes might be all sorts of emotional problems with people that keep her summer from being quiet. Further, they might be issues that arise that could keep her from leaving town as planned.
With the introduction of a suspense element, her stakes rise dramatically--a step at a time.
First, she faces the loss of a quiet summer due to an impending strike at the saw mill, which employs half the town's men. Jessie refuses to have anything to do with the strike. She is a die-hard pacifist.
Then she realizes the strike could lead to violence.
Someone could really get hurt.
Maybe even killed.
In fact, that someone may be very close to her.
At a pivotal moment she realizes to her horror that SHE is the only person who might be able to stop what’s about to happen.
As a result, she finds HERSELF in the very center of the striking mob...