Ramping up the suspense

There’s always something new to learn about writing, isn’t there? I’m delighted when my readers tell me they ‘couldn’t put my book down’, or that ‘I’m shattered today – I was reading your book till two this morning’. I thought I’d got it right in my latest novel too, but a report I commissioned told me I need ‘more danger’. First of all I was puzzled, then concerned – then I took a deep breath and thought about exactly what I need to do.

Painted_sign_on_concrete_wall_at_the_Hoover_Dam_(28849021943)Danger isn’t necessarily about violence, or lots of action – it’s about establishing your heroine’s goals quickly, then ensuring that your readers know that there are bad things to come. I believe I’ve felt a little constrained by the need to conform to historical facts, which has made me focus on what I think needs to happen next, rather than asking myself, ‘How can I promise my readers that my heroine is going to be driven to the limit by the challenges that will confront her? Conformity_Hazard.svgI need to make radical changes, and I’ve been going back to storytelling basics. Here are a few great ideas about how I can increase the danger my heroine faces:

  • Make sure her main goal is made clear early on
  • Promise one challenge after another to obstruct her way
  • When one disaster is surmounted – bring in another, bigger and more threatening one
  • Make sure every challenge is properly surmounted
  • If the story sags, don’t throw in action – make your readers worry more. Action resolves suspense, it doesn’t create it, so ramp up the tension by promising another disaster for the heroine to face.
  • What is her greatest fear? Make her face it.
  • What makes her vulnerable? Force her to deal with it.
  • Make sure the goals are big enough – and show why she wants it so much.
  • Danger – this can be an external physical threat or something that hampers your heroine’s ability to rise to the challenges she faces.
  • Raise the stakes. You’ve made her goal clear at the beginning – now increase the price she has to pay to achieve it.
  • Make the problem more difficult to solve.
  • Halve the time she needs to achieve her goal.

My characters need to be set up in a way that will heighten the tension too. My heroine has to face big challenges, so she needs strong opponents. I must:

  • Make my antihero as strong or stronger than the heroine
  • Make him not evil, but human and believable
  • I will consider giving the antihero a point of view, so that the reader can be made aware trouble is on its way even though the heroine doesn’t know yet
  • What does he have that the heroine lacks? A strong place in society, loyal supporters, charm that might lure the heroine’s friends away?

My heroine does have many personal limitations. I’m going to delve deeper into these too!

  • Is she timid? Plagued by self doubt? Overoptimistic?
  • Does she falter under pressure?
  • Make her challenges more difficult by hampering her ability to deal with them

Perhaps it all sounds obvious, but sometimes we become so immersed in the story inside our own head that we forget to stand back and judge how others will react.

So – for me, it’s back to the drawing board, and I’m going to take a big swallow of my own advice!

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