Writing Suspenseful Novels, by Amy Kathleen Ryan
I endeavor to write page-turners. I love a book that has me so absorbed I will stay up late to finish it, knowing I’ll be tired the next day. I love the tension, the high stakes, the furious pace that makes me deliciously dizzy and frantic all at once. I am forever in awe of writers who can write them, because even if the page-turner is often considered a “commercial” book rather than a “literary” one, there is a world of skill involved in creating one.
Not everybody can be Stephen King, but everybody can learn a few tricks writers use to make their books hard to put down. Here are a few I’ve accumulated along the way.
Judicious use of cliffhangers. If you examine a page-turner, you might find that every chapter ends with a cliffhanger. If the endings of your chapters are too “pat,” you give your reader a natural place to stop reading, and they might not be so eager to pick the book back up again. If you end a chapter with your protagonist in a death embrace with a giant squid, your reader will have no choice but to keep going.
Be succinct. In the history of the universe, there has never been a verbose page-turner. Use details, use setting, use dialogue, write beautifully, but waste no time on words you don’t need.
Let the reader know more than the characters know. If you have a sweet little waif walking up a hillside, and your reader has no idea there is a lecherous troll waiting for her behind a boulder, there isn’t much suspense there. If the reader knows that she’s walking into a trap, you’ve made the reading experience much more harrowing and a lot more fun.
Have consequences. You know how you kind of fall in love with your characters, and you think they’re really great people, and you’d buy them a cup of coffee and have a nice chat if they were real? And you know how you don’t want anything bad to happen to them? Betray them. Torture. Maim. Destroy. Page-turners don’t tend to be sweet little flouncing stories, unless you’re Jane Austen. If you can’t torture your beloveds, forget the page-turner and write a romance, which has its own attractions. Whatever you do, have your character solve his or her own problems. Nothing kills tension faster than a clunky Deus Ex Machina.
Don’t outline. Plenty of people will disagree, but I find when drafting I do better if I don’t necessarily know what’s going to happen. Many times I have gotten to the end of the novel with no idea I was going to kill off a particular character. If you know everything that’s going to happen before you write it, you’ll miss the little breadcrumbs your subconscious is leaving for you about the surprises lurking in the forest. Follow the breadcrumbs. Be willing to stumble off your path, because if you surprise yourself, your reader will be surprised too.
Use the dramatic three act structure. This structure is a bit more involved than the simple ‘Exposition, Climax, Denouement’ we all learned in middle school. I’m leaving a more thorough discussion for my next post, but if you can’t wait, it’s available all over the web in myriad forms.
Perhaps some of you will have noticed other traits of the page-turner. Feel free to leave your ideas about it in the comments. And have fun with your writing!
Amy Kathleen Ryan’s author website: www.amykathleenryan.com
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