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Successful suspense across genres: Editor's Notes #413
March 27, 2024

This suspense is terrible.
I hope it will last.

—Oscar Wilde

In this issue:

1. Successful suspense across genres
2. Tickled my funny bone
3. Interesting Web site
4. Writing prompt
5. Letters to the editor

1. Successful suspense across genres
We all expect suspense in thrillers. Writers of other genres ignore suspense to their peril. All genres benefit from the skillful development of suspense. This issue highlights three dichotomies to help you as a writer to improve the suspense in your stories.
  • Want/Fear
    Most advice to writers includes the need to create a character the reader identifies with and cares about. Then show what the character wants. Boost the suspense by also showing what the character fears. Triple points if the fears get in the way of meeting the wants. These can be physical, psychological, emotional, spiritual, inter-relational or any combination.

    Beware of adding frightening scenes too early. Fear of the unknown is the greatest fear of all. Once the fear is faced, some of its power leaks out. You want to capitalize on fear, not toss its power away on cheap thrills.

  • Promise/Withhold
    Writers make promises to readers all the time. The title is a promise. The cover of a book is a promise. All the aspects of the story you tell — the setting, the descriptions, the actions, the dialogue, the tone, the characters — are promises of what is to come. There is a tension between making the promise that something momentous will happen and the withholding of that momentous event. In between, the writer makes promises of increasing importance. Just as the character is to reach the immediate goal, another, more significant goal is revealed. Making the promise and withholding its fulfilment creates tension.

  • Add/Subtract
    Add threatening elements as the story unfolds. Each threat is more consequential than the last. They build on each other to create an increasingly insurmountable barrier between the main character and the goal.

    As the threats increase, subtract supports for the character. Health and wealth can disappear as can allies. The weaker the character becomes, the more suspense. If the character was in a deficit position at the start, adding to the deficit as the problems mount makes the stakes higher. Whatever the character wanted at the beginning becomes completely out of reach while whatever the character feared pales in the face of bigger threats.

Keeping these three dichotomies in mind as you write will help you maintain a level of suspense that compels the reader to turn page after page, and after the last page, beg for your next book.

2. Tickled my funny bone
How do you keep someone in suspense?
I’ll tell you later.

3. Interesting Web site
A great page on creating suspense, this link has information of interest to anyone writing any kind of story.

4. Writing prompt
We often talk about suspense as if it is a bad thing. Write a brief story showing good suspense.

5. Letters to the editor
A rhyming response to the last writing prompt.

Shared Sounds

Homonyms share sounds, sometimes share the same spell,
Their meaning’s quite different, the context will tell.
Now homophones sound the same, don’t be confused
As to the meaning, which spelling to use.

Homographs, meanwhile, are both spelled the same,
But differ in meaning, confusion’s to blame.
To bear is to carry fresh honey in jars,
But encounter a bear, you won’t get very far.

So be careful when writing, use their, they’re, or there.
It makes quite a difference, be sure you’re aware.
If you’re changing a color be sure to use dye.
Choose the wrong letter, instead you may die.

Knowing homonyms, homophones, homographs too,
Help you pick the right word when you choose between two.

John Alexander

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