We met this spring when you flew up from Nashville to speak to the New York Chapter of Sisters in Crime. You gave a fascinating presentation on craft. Afterwards, you and I had quite the discussion about what makes for good suspense. You were rather persuasive. So, will you explain what you think makes for I-cannot-put-this-book-down suspense? Thank you. Alison. That was a lively conversation, and as I remember, you were pretty persuasive yourself. I’m a big proponent of Donald Maass’s mantra, “Tension on every page,” and I think suspense is tightly connected to that. But I also think writers interpret it too narrowly. They add bickering, car chases, explosions, and fight scenes in hopes of raising the stakes and heightening suspense. But we’ve all read books that had non-stop action and yet came across as flat or even humdrum. That happens when the writer forgets to give the reader an emotional stake in the story.
To me, tension is a feeling evoked in the reader. It’s created when we a) care about whether the point-of-view character succeeds or fails, and b) aren’t sure whether the desired outcome will happen. When I think of the “Tension on every page” rule, I interpret it as having something on every page that makes the reader care about the characters and what will happen to them.
Suspense is created when you’ve evoked that tension and then delay the outcome until exactly the right moment. In the meantime, you’ve been weaving in other sources of tension so that as each question is answered or each source of tension resolved, there are always new ones being generated, right up until the (hopefully satisfying) end.
Besides suspense, what do you think makes for an un-put-down-able book? Complex, believable characters are at the top of my list. I prefer them to be likable, but more important, they must be interesting. There has to be something about them that makes me care about what’s happening to them. Pacing is also vital. A string of heart-pounding action sequences can become monotonous, as can pages and pages of quiet moments and introspection. Weaving them together effectively can be incredibly powerful.
In your own writing, how do you determine if you’ve hit the mark in terms of suspense? I’m never a hundred percent sure, but I get a good sense of it by setting the manuscript aside for a week or two so I can read it with fresh eyes. If there’s a section I find myself skimming, it may need an overhaul. Once it’s as good as I can make it, I ask a few trusted readers for their opinions; if they tell me they couldn’t put it down, I send it to my agent. She’s an insightful editor in her own right, and she points out any pacing issues or plot holes. Once she and my publisher and their editors have all signed off on it, I feel pretty comfortable with it.
Will you tell us what you’re writing process is? I spend a lot of time on groundwork. I do free writing about various characters and ask myself questions about the plot and characters. Before I start writing, I need to know what really happened (who killed the victim, how, and why), who the other suspects are, what their motives are, and where they were. I’ll make a timeline of the crime and make sure all of them had motive, means, and opportunity. Then I make a list of clues that could lead Jared (my detective) to the real villain and a list of false clues that will point to the other suspects. I usually have several scenes in mind by then, and I noodle around with how Jared can find each clue and what order he should find them in. I do any major research I need to do, and when I have a loose outline of where it’s going, I start writing.
It will change as I go, as my brain says, “Hold on, I have something better!” If it is, I roll with that and adjust my outline. About halfway through, I become convinced that I’m a terrible writer and that I will never be able to finish this book, and that if I do finish it, it will be so dreadful I’ll never be able to look another author in the eye again. Yet, somehow I manage to finish. At that point, it’s often it’s very mushy in the middle, so I spend a lot of time tightening, polishing, and moving things around. Eventually, it goes from a big pile of metaphorical slag to something I think is good.
What are you working on now? Thanks for asking! I have a cozy black cat detective mystery, Trouble Most Faire, coming out on October 7. It’s a light read that takes place at a Renaissance Faire, very different from anything I’ve written before. I’m also about halfway through a standalone thriller, and I’m researching the fifth Jared book, which takes place in Alaska.