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How to be a Master of Suspense by Sandra Ireland

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Sandra Ireland

Sandra Ireland

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The key to the success of any story is suspense, that delicious ratcheting of tension which keeps the reader glued to the page. This is true of any narrative, whether short fiction, a novella or a full-length novel. In this article, I’m going to concentrate on the latter, and share with you some tips and strategies I’ve learned since becoming a professional author.

Writing effective suspense is tricky. It can be difficult to distance yourself from your work, and to view it objectively, as a reader might. If some scenes aren’t working, or you become ‘stuck’ creatively, the temptation is to ‘write your way out of trouble’ by going off at a tangent or introducing a new character. I have done both of those things, before realising that I simply needed to ramp up the tension, to raise the stakes, to make the scene crackle with intrigue and undercurrents- the very essence of suspense!

So where do we start? Not with the writing, but with the writer. An editor once complimented me on my ability to ‘manipulate the fear of the reader.’ Never having considered myself to be a manipulative person, I was slightly taken aback! However, I’ve come to realise that manipulation, intuition and self-awareness are all key elements in the writer’s toolbox and vital to the crafting of a gripping, suspenseful narrative.

Let’s consider self-awareness. If I ask you to list your greatest fears, they will no doubt trip off your tongue. It’s a very easy question to answer; our fears are ever-present. The best bit of advice I was ever given is this: Write about the things that scare you the most. When I consider my own work, some of my fears will be obvious – my fear of water, for example – but the apprehension we all feel around certain social interactions and relationships are more subtle but can still be considered as ‘fears’. Being aware of your own anxieties will help you to understand what evokes fear in your readers, while drawing from one’s own experience helps add depth and authenticity to your writing.

A degree of intuition is vital in determining how your reader will react to your work. Our drive to ‘tell the story’ often results in a mad scramble to rush out a complete but raw manuscript. By reading intuitively at the editing stage, it’s possible to second-guess how readers will react to certain developments and revelations. Are you telling them too much? Never underestimate the power of omission. A suspenseful narrative is a guessing game. Leave as much as possibly to your reader’s imagination.

Which brings us to manipulation. Consider yourself a puppet-master. Not only are you directing your cast of characters, you also have the power to direct, or misdirect, your readers. This is not the same as confusing them, or frustrating them, but imagination can take us to some dark and unexpected places. To manipulate the imagination by sowing seeds of doubt or by creating unsettling imagery creates irresistible, page-turning suspense.

These are all instincts which will become honed by experience on your writing journey, but here are my top technical tips for creating suspense.

Who will tell the story you intend to write? Sometimes the main contender is not the obvious choice. The unreliable narrator has become something of a trend recently, but obfuscation of the truth was a key element in the Gothic novels of the past. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, for example, relies on a reported narrative which may or may not be true. This embraces the very essence of effective storytelling. We, the readers, are eager to get to the truth, to the conclusion. Suspense happens when we’re kept in the dark. The Hunting Party (HarperCollins, 2019) by Lucy Foley, has echoes of Agatha Christie, a claustrophobic setting and multiple characters, all with their own back stories, which keep the reader guessing. If your narrator/s are not the obvious choice, it can certainly add to a sense of intrigue.

Choose your tense with care. I always feel the present tense conveys a sense of urgency and realism, but don’t be afraid to experiment with narrative voice and tense to find the best fit.

Setting is crucial. My second novel Bone Deep (Polygon, 2018) is partially set in a creepy old watermill, and the key dramatic scenes are played out in the dank, chilly shadows as a way of increasing the suspense. The Unmaking of Ellie Rook (Polygon) is set in a scrapyard, because as a child I had a deep-seated fear of abandoned cars and what might be concealing… and now I’ve created suspense by omission!

Be aware of the rhythm of your narrative. Too much suspense can be wearing, so don’t be afraid to give the reader breathing space. Weave in flashbacks and interior thoughts; let your characters pause to make sense of their situation. A rollercoaster ride, with reflective troughs and suspenseful peaks, is just as effective as a breakneck gallop through the plot.

Consider what’s at stake for your main protagonist. Suspense and jeopardy go hand-in-hand. American playwright David Mamet advises asking yourself the question, ‘What does the protagonist want?’ The drama, he suggests, all boils down to that. Your character must want something so badly (love, life, the Holy Grail) that no obstacle can thwart them. The suspense comes from seeing how they tackle the obstacles and how their struggle will affect the outcome.

These are all critical choices which the writer must make when embarking on a longer work. I hope I’ve given you a few ideas about honing your creative instincts and how to tackle tension in your novel. I’m sure you are well on your way to becoming a Master of Suspense!

(c) Sandra Ireland

About The Unmaking of Ellie Rook:

A single phone call from halfway across the world is all it takes to bring her home . . . ‘Ellie, something bad has happened.’

Desperate to escape her ‘kid from the scrapyard’ reputation, Ellie Rook has forged a new life for herself abroad, but tragedy strikes when her mother, Imelda, falls from a notorious waterfall. Here, according to local legend, the warrior queen Finella jumped to her death after killing a king. In the wake of her mother’s disappearance, Ellie is forced to confront some disturbing truths about the family she left behind and the woman she has become. Can a long-dead queen hold the key to Ellie’s survival? And how far will she go to right a wrong?

Order your copy online here.

About the author

Sandra Ireland was born in England but lived for many years in Éire before returning home to Scotland in the 1990s. She is the author of Beneath the Skin, a psychological thriller, which was shortlisted for a Saltire Society First Novel Award in 2017. Her second novel, Bone Deep, a modern Gothic tale of sibling rivalry, inspired by an old border ballad, was published in the UK by Polygon last July, and will hit the shelves in the US, Germany and India this year. Her third novel The Unmaking of Ellie Rook will be out Summer, 2019. She also writes poetry, often inspired by the seascapes of Scotland’s rugged east coast. Her poems have been widely published in anthologies, including New Writing Scotland, and Seagate III (Dundee). She won the Dorothy Dunbar Rose Bowl for Poetry, awarded by the Scottish Association of Writers, in 2017 and 2018. Sandra is Secretary of Angus Writers’ Circle and one third of the Chasing Time Team, which runs writing retreats in a gloriously gothic rural setting.


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