Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Writing Suspense by Wanda Dyson

Today we welcome author, Wanda Dyson, to Writer’s Journey Wednesday. (Dawn here.) I’ve enjoyed reading her novels and am happy that she’s here today to give tips on writing suspense. She’ll return this Friday to Seriously Write to share her journey to publication. Enjoy!


Writing Suspense

Suspense = Tension

Writing suspense is about more than guns blazing, dead bodies, or extraordinary deduction skills. It’s about building tension in areas besides the crime itself. Tension in relationships, with themselves, with their environment. And as my mentor once said, “make ‘em suffer. Then make ‘em suffer even more.”

In my first novel, (Abduction) my detective got along great with his best friend, but he had nothing but angst with his parents, his boss, his love interest, the FBI, and himself. And all of those areas of angst made his job of finding a serial killer more difficult. All of these areas of tension can be subtle or not-so-subtle subplots, but they add to the overall tension of the book.

Another way to add tension is what I call “scene cutting.” You’ve all experienced it in your reading. And more than likely, it’s made you want to pull your hair out, but it works! You’re moving along in the scene and then right when the gun goes off, the bomb explodes, the car goes over the cliff, etc, you cut the scene and move over to a different scene with different characters. And just when that builds to something—even if it’s just who is at the door, who is calling, why are the police pulling up out front—you cut that scene and go back to the other scene and you keep bouncing from scene to scene until you tie all the loose ends together at the climax.

One of the classic tension builders is the “ticking clock.” Let your reader know right from the start that time is running out and keep reminding them all through the novel. But make sure those reminders are subtle. You don’t want your character to make comments in every scene that there is only 10 hours left, only 9 hours left, only 8 hours left. You’ve seen examples of this in everything from the movie Speed where the clock on the bomb is set to go off if the speed of the bus drops below fifty miles an hour and the gas is running low, to those stories where the good guy has been injected with some poison and he needs to find the anecdote within X number of hours or days or he dies. Immediately, your reader is going to be stretching forward in his/her mind asking the question “Will they get out of this alive?” and that’s going to keep them turning the page.

Make sure you pace the story with lots of tension and build the action with small, well placed areas of rest for the reader. Pacing that tension isn’t something that can be easily taught. It’s something that I think you absorb from reading a ton of suspense novels (good suspense novels) but if you can have some level of tension somewhere in every scene, you’ve done your job right.


Best-selling novelist Wanda Dyson has authored six critically acclaimed suspense novels including Intimidation which was a finalist for the ACFW Book of the Year. She also wrote Why I Jumped which was featured on Oprah and Good Morning America. Her newest suspense title Shepherd's Fall was released last year and the follow up Shepherd's Run, will be released sometime next year. In the meantime, her stand alone thriller, Judgment Day, will be released on September 21 of this year. Wanda lives in Maryland on 125 acre horse farm and when she's not writing or serving on the conference committee for three writers conferences, you can usually find her out riding her quarter horse around the property or four-wheeling with her German Shepherd, Maya.

You can find out more about Wanda and her work at: http://www.wandadyson.com/

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