April 21, 2020
To celebrate the launch of my new thriller Prey I was invited to write a guest blog for The Booktopian on the topic of creating suspense in thrillers. It was great fun to write and I hope you find it interesting. Here is the link. I want to thank Booktopia for the opportunity and you can purchase paperback and ebooks of Prey through their online store here.
Just in case you can’t view the article on the Booktopia site, here is the original article:
Before the world was turned upside down by the Coronavirus pandemic and we could no longer fly to other countries, I was at ThrillerFest in New York City. One of the big topics for panel discussion was how thriller writers create suspense. Having a suspenseful plot that builds to a satisfying climax is what thrillers are all about, after all. As well as writing crime-thrillers, I also teach thriller writing at the Australian Writers Centre and I always get asked: what is suspense. One of my favourite definitions is Alfred Hitchcock’s – ‘It is when you expect something bad to happen and you are powerless to intervene.’ At ThrillerFest, best-selling author Meg Gardiner defined suspense as ‘a state of mental uncertainty about how something will pan out.’ It’s the uncertainty that keeps readers reading, it’s the puzzle we want to solve. Add to that the rollercoaster of emotions that readers experiences: the pleasurable but nail-biting excitement and anticipation regarding an outcome, such as the detective finally catching the serial killer, or the mother, who has lost everything, finding and saving her kidnapped child.
When I was writing Prey, the first question I asked myself was why should the reader care about Olivia Wolfe, the central character? If the reader doesn’t connect with her then they won’t experience her joy and despair, her terror and moments of hope. Thrillers are very plot driven, but it is the characters people remember: Jack Reacher, Phryne Fisher, psychiatrist Joe O’Loughlin, detective Jane Tennison. Which is why I spend as much time creating my characters as plotting the story. Wolfe is no ordinary journalist. She travels the world exposing heinous crimes and in so doing makes powerful enemies. She’s flawed and troubled by a past she wants to forget which creates a dramatic tension because the reader suspects her past will catch up with her. But when and how? She makes mistakes – she’s human. She’s in love with the wrong kind of guy. We’ve all been there, right? So, we can relate to her. But she’s brave and risks everything to expose a terrifying criminal syndicate who sends an assassin to kill her.
I like to raise a question and set up a mystery in the first chapter. In the opening chapter of Prey a woman is murdered by a professional killer and her boyfriend is warned to back-off or the same will happen to him. This raises the question: why was this ordinary woman murdered? Why it was made to look like a suicide. What information does the boyfriend have that’s worth killing for? In chapter two, we meet Olivia Wolfe and discover that the murder victim had met with Wolfe the day before she died and Wolfe knows a small part of a bigger mystery. It’s not until the last few chapters that we discover what the series of murders in four different countries is all about.
Here are some more of my favourite ways of building suspense:
• Don’t reveal too much, too fast – the reader wants to fill in the gaps in their knowledge about the plot and characters along the way. Keep something back.
• Drip feed vital clues and hints to the reader throughout, but keep the final piece of the puzzle until the very end.
• Use plot twists that surprise the character as well as the reader, especially in the middle part of your story.
• It’s fun to have the reader sometimes know more than the central character and be powerless to stop the character making a terrible mistake. It’s that ‘Don’t do it!’ moment.
• Ticking clocks really ramp up the suspense in a thriller too. Can he stop the faulty plane taking off in one hour? Can they diffuse the bomb in fifteen minutes? Will the serial killer take his next victim at the next full moon?
• Cliff hangers are great. They leave the reader wondering if all is lost at the end of a chapter, or hint at something bad is about to happen.
• Keep your reader unsure who will win at the climax– the hero or the adversary?
This all leads to an adrenalin pumping climax. As Jeffery Deaver once said, ‘Always keep in mind that people don’t read books to get to the middle; they read books to get to the end’.