Ratcheting Down the Suspense by Peter Swanson

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Peter Swanson

Peter Swanson

Thriller writer Peter Swanson on how, sometimes, holding something back can help build the suspense for your reader . . .

I was going to write a piece about ratcheting up the suspense in mystery novels, but I’ve decided instead to write about the opposite, ratcheting that suspense down. I’m a firm believer that some books fail because they have too many big moments, too many twists, too many scenes designed to shock the reader. Sometimes it’s just as important to know when to pull back and let your readers wait a little bit longer. Dread can be just as effective as shock.

Before I get into all of this, I do want to say that as a genre writer, and as a genre writer in the thriller field, my job, at least as I see it, is to deliver a suspenseful novel. It’s not the only thing I want to do. I also want my prose to be decent, my characters interesting, my situations unique, my descriptions original. And I want some subtext in my books; it’s important that below the surface action there are thematic ideas about morality or violence or families, or anything really. I try and put all these elements into my book, but they don’t matter if the story doesn’t generate suspense, because that is what I’ve promised through the genre I’ve chosen to write. I write thrillers. And if there are no thrills, then all I’ve written is an “er,” whatever that is.

So why is it that, for me, anyway, too much suspense in a novel is just as off-putting as a thriller without thrills. I think it comes down to human nature. If we are over stimulated by something, we start to lose interest. Sure, caviar is good (at least some people think it is) but would you want to eat it every meal? Horror movies are another great example. The first jump-scare can send the audience leaping out of their seats, but the tenth, not so much. The key, of course, is getting the balance right.

A Talent for Murder Peter SwansonJaws is a good example of this. I’m talking about the Steven Spielberg movie and not the Peter Benchley novel. I like the Benchley novel just fine, although it has some distracting sub-plots that the film wisely does away with. In fact, the film manages to produce a pretty perfect piece of art out of its source material. The balance is just right. Most of the film is dread—the shark is out there, waiting to kill someone else—and then there are set pieces where the action picks up. But what I want to talk about are the jump scares.

Recently, I introduced Jaws to my friend’s kids, four of them ranging in age from 12 to 15. The room was dark, the phones were off, and we started the film. There’s a big jump scare about thirty minutes into the film, and when it happened, all four of these kids levitated off the couch. There’s really only one other major jump scare in the film, and that one worked, as well. Two seems like a good number. Any more and they would become collectively less effective.

I feel as though this lesson has been lost a little bit in the movie-making world. Too many horror films, suspense films as well, seem to think that more is more. It’s hard to stay interested in a film if it’s pitched at a ten all the way through. And I think it’s become a little bit that way in books, as well. I read a lot of thrillers that have a big twist at the end of every chapter. It usually works well in the first chapter but by mid-book it’s a case of diminishing returns. Why should we care that the narrator is actually a ghost when it was only a chapter ago that we discovered that the whole thing was a dream, or some other over-the-top nonsense.

So what are some books that do it well? There are quite a few. For the classics, we have The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie, a book that plods along quite pleasantly before picking up the reader and shaking them like a ragdoll in the last couple of chapters. There’s pretty much anything by Patricia Highsmith, who had a knack for building dread into her novels without going over the top. In fact, she has a book, called The Tremor of Forgery, that is like a horror movie with no jump scares, or a crime novel without any real crime. It’s pretty much all dread, and is probably not everyone’s cup of tea, but I think it’s one of Highsmith’s most unnerving novels.

More recently, Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl was a novel that delivered one big twist, and just one gruesome murder, but held its readers in its grip all the way through. And I’m a big fan of Anthony Horowitz’s clever Sherlock Holmes novel called Moriarty. As a reader you sink into the comforting, familiar world of Holmes and Watson only to be blindsided by one clever twist that upends the whole story.

The advice I would give to an aspiring writer is to trust your readers to stick with your story even if something sensational doesn’t happen right away. The key is to create atmosphere and interesting characters and to develop a premise that promises to stay riveting. And then hold back for as long as possible. Because the longer you wait to deliver the big moment—be it a crazy twist or a spectacularly gnarly murder or the reveal that the clean-cut detective is actually a werewolf—the more that moment will land. And, really, if you land just a couple big moments in the course of a book then you are far ahead of the curve.

(c) Peter Swanson

About A Talent for Murder by Peter Swanson:

A Talent for Murder Peter SwansonTwo years ago, Martha didn’t know that Alan existed. Now, they’re married – it was easy to say yes to someone so sweet.

But when Martha thinks she sees Alan’s mask slip, she starts to fear that the conferences he travels the country to attend might be a cover for something far more sinister.

As her research unearths a string of dead women, she enlists the help of Lily Kintner, an old friend from grad school. What Martha doesn’t know is that Lily has a dark side of her own . . .

‘A killer read with twist after twist.’ JANICE HALLETT
‘So many great twists and a truly chilling villain . Swanson’s best one yet.’ MARK EDWARDS
‘A clever, ingenious, edge-of-your-seat thriller.’ LIV CONSTANTINE
‘The stakes are high, the body count is higher, and yet I would still follow Lily anywhere.’ STACY WILLINGHAM

Order your copy online here.

About the author

Peter Swanson is the author of nine novels, including The Kind Worth Killing, winner of the New England Society Book Award, and finalist for the CWA Ian Fleming Steel Dagger, and Her Every Fear, an NPR book of the year. His books have been translated into 30 languages, and his stories, poetry, and features have appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction, The Atlantic Monthly, Measure, The Guardian, The Strand Magazine, and Yankee Magazine.

A graduate of Trinity College, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and Emerson College, he lives on the North Shore of Massachusetts with his wife and cat.

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