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!

Putting the ‘commercial’ into commercial fiction

Take two novels: each has lively, interesting characters, each is well written. Each has a theme – let’s say, a love triangle. Each explores the strengths and weaknesses, desires and motivations of the main characters. Yet one is described as ‘literary’, the other as ‘commercial’.

What underpins that distinction?

A year or so ago, a friend urged me to read Jonathan Franzen’s hugely lauded book, Freedom, which I listened to on audio. It was, at heart, about a love triangle. It was very long, extremely well written in the sense that the prose was admirable and his exploration of character profound, yet it seemed to me to amble through various people’s lives and come to no very interesting conclusion. I enjoyed it, but I didn’t either like or care about any of the characters and at the end of the book I was left thinking, ‘Why?’.

Read a great thriller, action novel, romance, sci-fi or any other genre novel, and your reaction is likely to be very different. The characters will leap off the page and into your heart, and whatever situation the author has set up for them to face, you are likely to will them to find the Holy Grail, escape the hit squad, marry the hero, get to Mars and back, or whatever. And you probably won’t stop reading until they’ve succeeded. It’s called PTQ, or Page Turning Quality. (More people like to be entertained in this way, incidentally, than tackle ‘deeper’ but less highly paced prose – that’s why genre fiction is described as ‘commercial’.)

What underpins the difference?

literary novel structure

My diagram a bit simplistic, but this is a basic representation of the structure of a literary novel. Events more or less flatline until near the end, where the author takes us either to a happy resolution or something either sadder or more ambiguous. In between, hopefully, you will be bewitched by magnificent prose, get deeply acquainted with the main characters, revel in glorious settings and more.

By contrast, here’s what the structure of a ‘commercial’ novel looks like:

commercial plot graph

Again, this is very simplified, but you can at once see the difference. Tension drives the action forward to ‘the darkest moment’. There will be many setbacks along the way, but the narrative thrust will be clear – we will know what the hero or heroine is desperate to get, and will take the journey to their goal with them, along all the ups and downs. The ending doesn’t need to be happy, but it does need to be satisfying.

Most readers won’t analyse books in this way, of course – they just know what they like!

What do you think makes a book special?


Explain yourself!

research books

Some of the many books I’ve read as part of my research for this novel.

A few weeks ago I wrote the magic words THE END to my latest novel, and since then I’ve been tackling my edits. In the central section, I found I’d got the time line really twisted, and that took some untangling. I spotted passages that were most definitely ‘telling’ rather than ‘showing’. Redrafting these passages is a treat, because by using the active tense and lively words, and writing a scene as dialogue and interaction rather than description, you can make your writing spring into life.

I have also pondered the comments of the kind souls who volunteered to read my work for me. These were really helpful – and even if I eventually decided not to make a change, at least I was forced to think about what I had written and justify my treatment to myself.

But I also discovered there was something else I needed to do. This is a historical novel, set in the late 18th century. I’ve done a stack of reading, boned up on the period, the setting, fashion, language, homes, habits, even funerals and sanitation. This particular novel, however, hinges around a bit of a mystery – a real one – and it wasn’t until I got to the end that I realised that readers may not even be aware that there is a mystery!

I needed to give some background and context.


Notes! via ProjectManhattan, Wikimedia Commons

In my contemporary novels, I wrote about a fictional town in East Lothian called Hailesbank, and I decided to give it its own history, which I inserted into the beginning of every book. Not having written a historical before, I hadn’t considered adding Author’s Notes – but they are definitely needed here.

So what should I include? Here’s what I decided.

  1. Background information. What is actually known, what has been widely assumed – and what don’t we know? Many people will think they know the answer, and I definitely need to flag up that there are doubts about the facts of the issue.
  2. What I discovered when doing the research. In this case, many things – but one or two bits of information I came across really helped to shape the story. For example, my heroine is from a comfortably-off family (father a lawyer, mother has brought further wealth to the marriage). She has never had to think about money – until the French declare war on Britain in 1783 and the banks go into meltdown. The financial crisis also hits other characters in the book.
  3. Did I have to make compromises in the telling of my story? Did I have to manipulate dates, have characters meet who would probably never have met, and so on.
  4. Medical facts. My heroine has an unfortunate problem. I might discuss what was known about it at the time, and the effects it would have had on her and others in the same position.
  5. Fact or fiction? My heroine is fictional, but her best friend was real. However, she didn’t go to the school I sent the two of them to – it didn’t exist! But the conditions described are detailed in a contemporary account.
  6. Real people? I’ll definitely tell readers which of my figures come from history and which characters I have invented.

My aim is to add to the reader’s understanding of the period and the issues, and enhance their experience of reading the book.

Do you read Author’s Notes, particularly in historical novels? And if so, do you think they add to your experience, or detract from it?



I couldn’t put it down!

1024px-keyboard_and_penI’m going to start at THE END. It may seem an odd place to start, but I’ll explain.

A couple of weeks ago, I was able at last to write these words on my work in progress – I had, after almost a year, reached the conclusion of my novel. However, THE END only takes a writer straight back to the beginning, because with a first draft complete, the hard work of editing begins. Fellow blogger Janet Gover has talked before about the way she edits her manuscripts. It’s an essential part of the whole process and has many facets. I’d like to talk in particular about addressing the issue of pace.

Reading through my manuscript (the first time I’d seen all 110,000 words printed out), I could see all too clearly where the story moved forward at a cracking pace, where it slowed down, where I’d written too quickly in order to keep my imagination firing, and where I’d obviously become enamoured with my own rich descriptions and gone into too much detail.

Standing back from your own work isn’t always easy, but it has to be done. From the very first page, the characters and the situation should be interesting, perhaps intriguing. You might set up something horrifying (a kidnap, a murder, an act of mass terrorism), you might hint at some deep secret, or you might simply have an argument between two people, or your heroine arriving in a new city, not sure what she’s going to find there. Your heroine will face a challenge – saving the passengers on an aircraft, catching a killer, resolving a situation that has made her unhappy, realising that despite everything, she really does love the prickly man she met on page one. Not until she has saved the passengers, admitted she’s in love or whatever, can you offer a resolution to your story. (And once you do, the tension will be released as well!)

To ensure your readers want to keep reading, your characters must be believable and consistent, the set-up intriguing, the goal just out of reach until the end. But there are tricks of the trade you can employ to make sure your novel is a page-turner all the way through.

2%e8%89%b2%e8%9b%8d%e5%85%89%e3%83%98%e3%82%9a%e3%83%b3_6846770059In the last week I discovered that:

  1. I have been so keen, when writing, to move my story forward that I have skipped essential information that will explain why my character acted as she did
  2. I have moved the story forward in places by ‘telling’ my readers what happened rather than letting the actions of my characters ‘show’ them. It’s much simpler and quicker to say, for example, ‘they went together across town to choose a new puppy’ – but it’s dull, dull, dull! In my redraft, I have my heroine interacting with one of the puppies, falling in love with his antics and, hopefully, making the reader fall in love with the scallywag too – as well as ‘seeing’ why having a dog is good for her!
  3. I have skimmed over scenes without giving the right balance of narrative, dialogue and action. In general, dialogue speeds up pace, narrative slows it down. It shouldn’t all be dialogue, however – sometimes taking a breather is good! The reader needs space to reflect and understand, as well as to immerse themselves in setting and place.
  4. I had several chapters in the middle where I’d managed to get in a real muddle over the timeline. It’s important to explain things as they happen, not after they happen, or you will really reduce the tension. This has taken some disentangling, but I think I have achieved it at last.

1024px-highlighter_pen_-photocopied_text-9mar2009It is truly gratifying when a reader tells you, ‘I couldn’t put it down’. It means you’ve done something right! Here’s a brief checklist about what to look for when editing your own writing:

  1. Make us understand early on what your heroine wants. The story is over when she gets it!
  2. Make us see things as they happen – don’t explain them after they have happened.
  3. Thicken the plot, don’t thin it! Adding one or more subplots can enrich your tale, but make sure the subplots really add to the main story in a meaningful way.
  4. Show, don’t tell. Make us ‘see’ the scene, not just read about it.
  5. Use the active voice, not the passive. Root out passive verbs as much as possible – for example, not, ‘Peter felt appalled at her suggestion’, but ‘Peter’s mouth dropped open. “You can’t possibly want me to do that!” he whimpered.
  6. Ensure you have the right balance of narrative, dialogue and action.

It may take me another week or two to find myself back at THE END. Then I’ll print the whole thing out for a third time and read it all over again. At that stage, I might ask the views of a couple of beta readers. Getting an honest opinion from someone who has not read a word of your book can be really helpful (and sometimes salutary!).Only when I’m quite satisfied that I’ve done the very best I can will I send it away.

I really, really want my readers to tell me ‘I couldn’t put it down!’.

Facing the future – with resolution

Facing the future – with resolution

books-and-writingA new year, a new start? At Take Five Authors, we all have our own aims and goals for 2017 – we’d love to share them with you!

Janet Gover writes: So – 2017. What have you got in store for me?

We never know what’s ahead – but that should not stop us making plans – or New Year’s resolutions. I’m not a fan of the ‘lose weight’ or ‘exercise more’ resolutions. I know I’ll break those. But here are some resolutions I am determined to keep….

  • Read more books
  • Take my readers and supporters back to Coorah Creek – and this time for a wedding.
  • Expand my reading – trying new authors and new genres because there are so many good books out there just waiting to be read.
  • Expand my writing – try writing something new and exciting because I love a challenge.

That all sounds good and achievable – wish me luck. And I hope 2017 is a wonderful year for you and yours.


Ellie Campbell says: Resolutions – seriously, why do we bother! We know that by the time February rolls around we’ll be back to our same old habits. Still New Year is a great time to kid ourselves we can change for the better, so here goes.

  1. Finish what we started. We’ve always got at least two or three projects in the pipeline and often find ourselves bouncing from one to the other depending on our mood. But this year we intend to be more focused and linear in our approach – until the next inspiration hits, at least!
  2. Set specific times for work and play and let friends and family know about it It’s far too easy to drop everything when friends come round, or get distracted by a phone call, but all that’s going to change once we have our super-duper new working schedule in place. (Note to selves: Come up with super-duper working schedule.) It might also stop us getting lost in Facebook or so absorbed in whatever we’re writing that we forget dinner is cremating in the oven.
  3. Start off New Year with desks cleared and bills paid And while we’re at it, get our tax returns sorted early this year. (Yeah, right, that’s going to happen.)
  4. Drop the Guilt  Ok, we’re not perfect. However lofty our intentions it always seems there’s something being neglected, be it health, housework, fitness, family, friends, animals. But this year we hope to live entirely in the present and not stress over that extra glass of wine or other worthier ways we could be spending our time.
  5. Have fun  Enjoy writing, but also travel lots (Pam), spend more time with horses (Lorraine) and (both) have loads of fun this year. Now this one we might really keep!


Mary Smith resolves: I will be glad to see the back of 2016 – and not only because I failed to keep some of my resolutions. I suspect many of us are fearful about the future of the world as we enter uncharted political waters.

I guess we could make resolutions at any time of the year; on the first day of spring, say, or mid-summer – but there is something magical about the minute hand slipping past midnight, ushering in the blank pages of the New Year ahead. For each of us, at least on a personal level, there’s the hope the days ahead will be creative, productive and fulfilling.

This year I completed the manuscript for Castle Douglas Through Time (Amberley Publishing, March 2017). However, instead of sticking steadfastly to my New Year resolutions I found myself saying yes to other projects along the way. This meant, although I managed to continue my Goldfish blog about caring for dad through his dementia, I failed to re-write it as a book.

This year I have made only two resolutions:

  1. to focus on turning my Goldfish blog into a memoir. I have most of the raw material already written but it all requires a lot of restructuring.
  2. to say NO to all other projects which would keep me from my goal of publication of My Dad’s a Goldfish before the end of 2017.

Actually, I might sneak in one more – to make sure I get my nails done regularly, especially when I garden in the summer. Oh, and no more mince pies after December 31.

I wish readers, blog followers, fellow bloggers all the very best for 2017 – and good luck with keeping your own resolutions.

And wouldn’t it be wonderful if politicians and world leaders are right now making their resolutions to bring about peace in the world – though I’m not holding my breath on this.


Jenny Harper says: I do find Hogmanay/New Year an unsettling time. I found it particularly difficult when I was a single parent – there was always too much to look back at, too many unknowns ahead. I suppose that’s why people do make resolutions at this time – it is truly a time for reflection. It’s difficult not to be clichéd, though. There’s always the food one (less and healthier), the alcohol one (less, and less often) and the fitness one (exercise more). Actually, I’ve done quite well on those in recent years. So what shall I focus on in 2017?

  1. Carpe diem. I’ve lost friends this year. This brings a sharp reminder that our time on this earth is short and that we should enjoy it as best we can.
  2. Be easier on myself. I’ve grown rather self critical, which is all very well but undermining your own self confidence isn’t a great idea. I’m not perfect, but I’m not bad either!
  3. Smell the roses. It’s important to take time out and just sitting in my garden under the dappled shade from the plum tree is a great way of rebalancing. That assumes there’s some sunshine, of course!

Have a great Hogmanay celebration, my friends, and remember to take time to smell the roses too!


Sue Moorcroft writes: I’m a boring person for resolutions – I don’t make them. At least, I don’t make New Year’s resolutions.  Why wait for a certain date? Needing to lose weight happens every few months! Every holiday or conference has to be countered by a following increase in exercise and a reduction in calorie intake.

If I can see ways to improve my writing then I adopt them immediately. If I feel my interaction with others needs attention then I go for it straight away. I’m impatient by nature.

So, as every other year, my resolution is to make none. Instead I wish you health and happiness … all year round.


Take Five Authors will be back next week with a post from Ellie Campbell. Meanwhile – enjoy those first few days of 2017, and here’s wishing all of you the very best from all of us.