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On Writing Suspense

By Cynthia Swanson

Last week Benjamin Percy, author of the just-released thriller The Dead Lands, taught a workshop at Lighthouse on adding suspense to fiction and memoir.

I bet you wish you’d been there.

Damn, you’re thinking. I knew that workshop be great. I knew I should have signed up.

And now you’ll never know what Percy said.

Or will you?

Keep reading.


Benjamin Percy

What makes a suspenseful plot arc? In all stories, Percy claims, characters need to undergo an internal transformation – but the best stories have a dynamic mechanism to make that transformation happen. Think about Dorothy: at first, she wants to go over the rainbow. Ultimately, she realizes there’s no place like home. The journey through Oz provides the vehicle for Dorothy’s internal transformation.

So how do you pull off suspense in your story? How do you ensure readers continue to turn the pages?

By keeping a few things in mind:

  • Use Set Piece Moments. Both in written stories and on screen (Psycho, The Sound of Music – you’re getting iconic images in your head, aren’t you?), the most interesting and memorable moments are called Set Piece Moments. These are moments to amplify. Get through the less interesting stuff as succinctly as you can. Elongate your Set Piece Moments.
  • Check your doorways. Doorways are when a character makes an irrevocable decision. From here, there’s no turning back. In a screenplay, the first doorway appears around page 25 (about 25 minutes into the movie). Before a doorway, there has to be an emotional beat; we have to understand why the doorway occurs.
  • Remember that anticipation trumps events. We keep reading or watching because of something that might happen. To paraphrase Stephen King, “The most terrifying moment is when a character hears something behind a door – and walks toward it.”
  • Include lower-order goals in every scene. These represent what characters want in a singular scene. These “micro-finish lines” enhance the momentum. Characters can achieve a small goal, but only if it immediately leads to another challenge and/or moves the story toward the ultimate objective.
  • Think about the Dark Night of the Soul. This is the worst-case scenario. This the moment when the character really wants something. It can be an event or a physical object. But it has to represent something emotional. If the character goes on to get the thing (and thus rise out of the darkness), how is the character transformed? Conversely, if she doesn’t get the thing, how does that transform her?

And what shouldn’t you do?

  • Don’t allow characters to “sit down and talk.” Instead, ensure they do something that justifies their feelings. For example, in Kent Haruf’s Plainsong, the elderly, bachelor McPherson brothers take teenaged mother-to-be Victoria to buy a crib. The scene is about the brothers’ attachment to Victoria, but that’s never stated. Instead, rh-249_1zemotion comes through in what they do.
  • Don’t let each chapter read like a short story. Chapters should not have a satisfying ending. Instead, leave the reader hanging and wanting to go on to the next chapter.

Great, you’re thinking. And can you give me an example of a book with a well-written, page-turning plot arc?

Sure, Percy would say. Channel your preschool self. Reread There’s a Monster at the End of This Book.

Got it? Good. Now go write it.

Cynthia Swanson is a longtime Lighthouser and the author of The Bookseller: A Novel (Harper, March 2015).

About Lighthouse Writers Workshop

Lighthouse Writers Workshop is the literary center for writers, readers, and literary gadabouts in the Rocky Mountain region.

4 comments on “On Writing Suspense

  1. Anonymous
    April 24, 2015

    What a fantastic summary of the class! I was sorry to miss it and now I feel as though I’d been there.

    • Cynthia Swanson
      April 24, 2015

      So glad you enjoyed the post! It was a great class.

  2. bravelycreative
    April 24, 2015

    This is a great post—thanks for sharing. For those of us who wanted to see Percy but couldn’t, this helps mend the pain of missing it.

    • Cynthia Swanson
      April 24, 2015

      I understand your pain and am glad I was able to help. Thanks for the comment!

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