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Writing tips and course workings
Writing Suspence{\b}

1. Give the reader a lofty viewpoint. The reader should have foresight. Let the reader see the viewpoints of both the protagonist and the antagonist. By giving the reader a ringside seat to the story’s developments, she gets to see the trouble before the protagonist does. The reader sees the lines of convergence between the protagonist and antagonist and feels the consequences of the perils ahead. Also, this technique allows the writer to place emotional weight on the reader. The tension will build from the reader’s self-imposed fears of knowing that the hero is on a collision course with disaster.

2. Use time constraints. Another key way to build suspense is through the use of time. The protagonist should be working against the clock, and the clock should be working for the bad guys. In Robert Ludlum and Gayle Lynds’ The Altman Code, Covert One agent Jon Smith has only days to prove the Chinese are sending chemical weapon materials to Iraq. In Greg Iles’ 24 Hours, Will and Karen Jennings have one day to escape their captors to rescue their child from a kidnapper. Every minute you shortchange the protagonist is another notch up on the burner under the reader’s seat.

3. Keep the stakes high. This doesn’t necessarily mean the story’s hook has to be about global annihilation. But the story must be about a crisis that’s devastating to the protagonist’s world, and the hero must be willing to do anything to prevent it from occurring. Therefore, the story could be about a father trying to rescue his wife and child from an impending flood, or an innocent man who’s framed for murder going on the run to establish his innocence. The crisis has to be important to ensure readers will empathize with the protagonist.

4. Apply pressure. The protagonist should be working under what seems to be insurmountable odds. All his skills and strengths must be stretched to the breaking point in order to save the day. The hero should bend, but never buckle under the pressure the antagonist applies. There should be only one person left feeling helpless in the story, and that’s the reader.

5. Create dilemmas. Suspense loves a dilemma. The antagonist needs to be throwing things at the protagonist that present awkward challenges or choices that will test her caliber. The choice must seemingly be a lose-lose situation for the protagonist. This may take the form of choosing to save one person while leaving another to die, picking up a gun after swearing an oath never to do so again or taking that offered drink after years of sobriety.

The antagonist, by his nature, will cross lines without a second’s thought, while fully conscious of his actions. But the protagonist is a different breed—as a hero, he can’t let innocent people die without a fight, or stray from his morals or promises. The great thing about dilemmas is that they need time to be solved, and with the pressure of time constraints, the tension can only build. So test, tease and tempt the protagonist.

6. Complicate matters. Pile on the problems. Give the protagonist more things to do than he can handle. The hero has to be stretched wafer-thin. If you’ve ever seen one of those old music-hall acts where spinning plates are perched on top of flimsy bamboo poles, and there’s some poor guy running himself ragged trying to keep all the plates from crashing down, well, that’s how it should be for the protagonist. The hero should be that guy trying to keep all those plates spinning, while the antagonist is forever adding another plate to the line. By the end of the book, the protagonist should be just barely preventing everything from crashing to the ground.

Let’s use The Altman Code and 24 Hours as examples again. In The Altman Code, Jon Smith’s problems are further complicated by having to break the president’s father out of a Chinese prison camp. In 24 Hours, Will and Karen Jennings’ daughter is diabetic, and the kidnappers don’t have her insulin. Both these examples add another layer of complication to their respective stories.

7. Be unpredictable. Nothing in life runs perfectly to plan for anyone. Make nothing straight-
forward for the protagonist. The hero shouldn’t be able to rely on anything going right for her, and any step forward should come at a price. The antagonist shouldn’t go unscathed, either.

In Newtonian physics, for every action there’s an equal and opposite reaction. The sheer presence of the protagonist is going to gum up the antagonist’s plans, which means the antagonist is going to have to improvise. Both players will have to be quick-witted to deal with any and all upsets, especially as the story progresses toward its climax. Remember, the protagonist and antagonist don’t have to be the only monkey wrench in each other’s lives. Let outside forces be that, too. These characters might be locked in a do-or-die battle, but the rest of the world isn’t. Friends, neighbors, deliverymen and even public holidays can all be flies in the ointment. And don’t forget Mother Nature herself. A great illustration of this is the opening of Robert Crais’ Demolition Angel, where two bomb disposal experts are trying to defuse a bomb—and an earthquake occurs. Brilliant! Essentially, keep that storyline fluid. The reader might know what the story’s end game is, but this doesn’t mean they should know how it’s going to get there.

8. Create a really good villain. In a mystery, the villain has to be somewhat transparent because you don’t want the reader to catch on to who she is too quickly. But in a suspense novel, the bad guy is very visible. A great villain isn’t someone who twirls a handlebar moustache and ties damsels to railway tracks. The ultimate antagonists are smart and motivated. They have to be to have created this spectacular hook that’s going to keep readers riveted to their La-Z-Boys for the length of a book. Flesh this person out. Explore the antagonist’s motivations and character. Give the reader reasons why the antagonist is who he is. The reader has to believe in and fear this person. The villain has to be a worthy opponent to our hero. Anything else won’t do.

9. Create a really good hero. If the book has a great bad guy, then it’s going to need a great hero. This may be key to any story, but the suspense hero has to be someone the reader believes in and cares about. When the hero is in peril, the writer needs for the reader to hope that person will pull through.

Suspense writing is all about creating a pressure cooker with no relief valve. You have to keep turning up the heat using multiple burners. Employ these techniques and your reader will never come off the boil.

Show Don't Tell

Here’s how to show don’t tell in writing:

Understand what show don’t tell means
Learn from examples of showing versus telling
Cut the “sensing” words to show don’t tell
Avoid emotional explaining when showing not telling
Describe body language
Use strong verbs to show don’t tell
Focus on describing senses
Practice showing not telling every day

Example #1: He’s nervous about his job interview
In his book Behold the Dreamers, Imbolo Mbue shows Jende is nervous:

Try as he might, he could do nothing but think about the questions he might be asked, the answers he would need to give, the way he would have to walk and talk and sit, the times he would need to speak or listen and nod, the things he would have to say or not say, the response he would need to give if asked about his legal status in the country.
His throat went dry. His palms moistened. Unable to reach for his handkerchief in the packed downtown subway, he wiped both palms on his pants.

Can you hear the internal monologue droning on in Jende’s mind?

After the monologue comes a tactile description of his throat going dry and his palms moistening, and then you can picture Jende wiping his palms on his pants. Vivid?

Example #2: Kate feels lonely, despite sharing a house with four other people
In her book The Lido, Libby Page demonstrates Kate’s loneliness as follows:

Kate lives in a house-share with four other people – two students and two who do something but she’s not quite sure what. They come in at different times and shut their bedroom doors, occasionally passing on the way to the (one) bathroom.
They are people that she has heard grunting in the heat of sex (thin walls) and whose pubic hairs she has untangled from the shower plug, but she doesn’t know where they all came from before arriving here in this house, or what their favourite films are. She doesn’t really know them at all. And they certainly don’t know her. But what is there to know really?

Can you feel Kate’s loneliness, symbolized by the lack of interaction?

Example #4: She was angry
From Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep:

She slammed her glass down so hard that it slopped over on an ivory cushion. She swung her legs to the floor and stood up with her eyes sparking fire and her nostrils wide. Her mouth was open and her bright teeth glared at me. Her knuckles were white.
Have you notice the strong verbs in this example? Verbs like to slam, to slop over, to swing, to spark and to glare inject power into the writing.

Example #4: Cheryl has started the Pacific Crest Trail but she fears she can’t do this
In her book Wild: A Journey from Lost to Found, Cheryl Strayed shows her fear as follows:

Within forty minutes, the voice inside my head was screaming, What have I gotten myself into? I tried to ignore it, to hum as I hiked, though humming proved too difficult to do while also panting and moaning in agony and trying to remain hunched in that remotely upright position while also propelling myself forward when I felt like a building with legs.
So then I tried to simply concentrate on what I heard—my feet thudding against the dry and rocky trail, the brittle leaves and branches of the low-lying bushes I passed clattering in the hot wind—but it could not be done.

The clamor of What have I gotten myself into? was a mighty shout. It could not be drowned out. The only possible distraction was my vigilant search for rattlesnakes. I expected one around every bend, ready to strike. The landscape was made for them, it seemed. And also for mountain lions and wilderness-savvy serial killers.

Note how many sensory words are used in the above paragraph, like screaming, humming, panting, thudding, clattering, clamor, drowning out. As a reader, you can almost hear Cheryl’s fight with her fears.

Emotions like fear, nervousness, and loneliness remain abstract unless we show readers how such emotions manifest themselves in body language, dialogues, or actions.

Instead of telling readers you’re happy, can readers see you’re grinning from ear to ear?

Show Don’t Tell Examples: How to show a person’s passion
You know I’m passionate about writing, don’t you?

But have I ever told you that?

Nope, I show my passion by sharing my best writing tips and tricks so you can tell better stories and share your ideas with gusto.

What are you passionate about? And which actions can prove your passion?

Get inspired by the 3 examples below …

Example #5: Frank, a music shop owner, is passionate about sharing music with people, even strangers
In her book The Music Shop, Rachel Joyce demonstrates Frank’s passion as follows:

‘We had another shoplifter today,’ [Frank] said, apropos of not very much at all. ‘First he flipped because we had no CDs. Then he asked to look at a record and made a run for it.’
‘What was it this time?’

‘Genesis. Invisible Touch.’

‘What did you do, Frank?’

(…) Frank had done the sort of thing he always did. He’d grabbed his old suede jacket and loped after the young man until he caught him at the bus stop. (What kind of thief waited for the number 11?)

He’d said, between deep breaths, that he would call the police unless the lad came back and tried something new in the listening booth. He could keep the Genesis record if he wanted the thing so much, though it broke Frank’s heart that he was nicking the wrong one – their early stuff was tons better.

He could have the album for nothing, and even the sleeve; ‘so long as you try “Fingal’s Cave”. If you like Genesis, trust me. You’ll love Mendelssohn.’

Isn’t it amazing how such a short story can characterize one person? It feels like you know Frank a little already.

Example #6: Young Araki loves dictionaries
In her book The Great Passage, Shion Miura describes Araki’s love for dictionaries as follows:

Araki began saving up his allowance for trips to the used bookstore. When a new edition of a dictionary came out, a copy of the earlier edition could usually be purchased on the cheap.
Little by little he collected a variety of dictionaries from different publishers and compared them. Some were tattered and worn. Others had annotations and underlining in red. Old dictionaries bore signs of the linguistic struggles of compiler and user alike.

Can you picture the dictionaries in Araki’s room?

Example #7: Sportcoat is a nature-lover
In his book Deacon King Kong, James McBride describes the protagonist as a nature-lover:

He was friends with anything that grew: tomatoes, herbs, butter beans, dandelions, beggar’s-lice, wild spur, bracken, wild geranium. There was not a plant that he could not coax out of its hiding place, nor a seed he could not force to the sun, nor an animal he could not summon or sic into action with an easy smile and affable strong hands.

I like how this paragraph expresses that enjoyment of nature is not a passive state but an active act—of summoning an animal into action and of coaxing plants grow and seeds to sprout.

Example #8: Lars is passionate about good food
In his book Kitchens of the Great Midwest, J. Ryan Stradal demonstrates a passion for food as follows:

In the same fashion that a musical parent may curate their child’s exposure to certain songs, Lars had spent weeks plotting a menu for his baby daughter’s first months:
Week One NO TEETH, SO:

1. Homemade guacamole.
2. Puréed prunes (do infants like prunes?)
3. Puréed carrots (Sugarsnax 54, ideally, but more likely Autumn King).
4. Puréed beets (Lutz green leaf).
5. Homemade Honeycrisp applesauce (get apples from Dennis Wu).
6. Hummus (from canned chickpeas? Maybe wait for week 2.)
7. Olive tapenade (maybe with puréed Cerignola olives? Ask Sherry Dubcek about the best kind of olives for a newborn.)
8. What for protein and iron?

Can you picture Lars writing down the menu, while licking his lips?

And, thinking about your own passions, which actions describe them best?

Show Don’t Tell Examples: Turn weak action into a movie-like description
Don’t be fooled into thinking that action is always telling rather than showing.

Some action is so vague a reader can’t really imagine what’s happening.

As a writer it’s your task to help readers experience your story. So, give them enough vivid details to let a movie play in their mind.

Here’s how …

Example #9: Moody shows Pearl the town
In her book Little Fires Everywhere, by Celeste Ng paints a vivid image of the town tour:

They went to Fernway, his old elementary school, where they clambered up the slide and shimmied up the pole and tumbled from the catwalk to the wood chips below. He took Pearl to Draeger’s for hot fudge sundaes.
At Horseshoe Lake, they climbed trees like children, throwing stale chunks of bread to the ducks bobbing below.

In Yours Truly, the local diner, they sat in a high-backed wooden booth and ate fries smothered in cheese and bacon and fed quarters into the jukebox to play “Great Balls of Fire” and “Hey Jude.”

Much more vivid than an abstract tour of the town, right?

Example #10: Jack Reacher fires his Barrett
In the thriller Die Trying, Lee Child slows down the action to heighten the drama:

First thing out of the barrel of Reacher’s Barrett was a blast of hot gas. The powder in the cartridge exploded in a fraction of a millionth of a second and expanded to a superheated bubble.
That bubble of gas hurled the bullet down the barrel and forced ahead of it and around it to explode out into the atmosphere. Most of it was smashed sideways by the muzzle brake in a perfectly balanced radial pattern, like a donut, so that the recoil moved the barrel straight back against Reacher’s shoulder without deflecting it either sideways or up or down.

Meanwhile, behind it, the bullet was starting to spin inside the barrel as the rifling grooves grabbed at it.

Then the gas ahead of the bullet was heating the oxygen in the air to the point where the air caught fire. There was a brief flash of flame and the bullet burst out through the exact center of it, spearing through the burned air at nineteen hundred miles an hour.

A thousandth of a second later, it was a yard away, followed by a cone of gunpowder particles and a puff of soot. Another thousandth of a second later, it was six feet away, and its sound was bravely chasing after it, three times slower.

That’s 225 words to describe less than one-hundredth of a second.

Lee Child is a master in pacing his stories. He keeps us reading for pages and pages before he at last reveals whether the bullet hits someone or not.

Remember, slow down the action to heighten the drama.

Example #11: Harold and his brother Raymond didn’t know what to say to Maggie
Even when nothing seems to happen, you can still paint a vivid picture as Kent Haruf does in Plainsong:

They were dumbfounded. They looked at her, regarding her as if she might be dangerous. Then they peered into the palms of their thick callused hands spread out before them on the kitchen table and lastly they looked out the window toward the leafless and stunted elm trees.
Can you imagine how you’d film this scene?

Imagine your favorite reader …
She’s sitting at her desk, sipping a cup of coffee.

She switches on her laptop, wipes the sleep from her right eye, and briefly massages her temples. Then she opens your email and clicks to read your blog post.

A lightbulb goes off in her mind and she whizzes off a quick email to thank you. She’s excited to implement your advice.

Sound good?

When to show and when to tell
Telling is brief and factual.

Showing, in contrast, uses more words to direct a mental movie in your readers’ minds.

To show:

Add sensory details to make the story more vivid—this is how you allow readers to experience your story.
Slow down to describe action in more detail—this is how you increase the drama in your writing.
When you show rather than tell, your reader becomes an active participant in your story.

So, race through the less important parts of your story.

And dramatize the key parts, with detailed and vivid descriptions.

Happy storytelling.


Description of Santiria Claus - Her long blonde hair flowed gracefully down her slender form. It wasn't glistening or particularly prettier than any other nor were her eyes piercing blue gem stones. In fact they were an unimpressive silver that could be found in the gaze of most residents. Her mouth was small and her nose even smaller. "She has a cute face." Is what most people would say when asked about Santiria Claus. She was average. He knew this, but yet, he also knew that she was the most beautiful thing he'd ever see.

Conveying Character Notes

1) How does Graham Greene convey the character of Spicer? All are ways you can convey a character.

He describes his personality.

He gives his thoughts.

He uses dialogue.

He uses physical description.


My fur's wet. Wait... did I always have fur? Where... am I? Why's it so bright?

"How's the resonance? Is it holding?" Said a Stoic voice.

He was close but all I could see were the bright lights around me.

"squeak, squea..", I tried to speak, to call for help.

What's wrong with my voice? I could feel the fear, the panic beating in my chest. I could feel my... heart? I placed my hand... my paw to my chest. And what I felt only made the heart beat that wasn't there beat even harder.

"No... its not only holding, its still climbing," said a feminine voice. "It's pass the 95 percent threshold."

"What?! Its still rising?" Said the stoic voice.

"We're did it sir," said the woman. "Ninety-six... ninety-eight... one hundred percent!"

"A perfect harmonization, not even the fools at North Pole Industries were able to achieve this!" said the deep stoic voice.

What? A perfect harmonization? I could hear them all around me, cheering.

"Wait... one hundred and one... one hundred and two... Sir, its still rising! one hundred and three... one hundred and fifteen percent!" Said a new voice.

It hurts... it hurts now...

"Sir! The energy waves are going out of control! We need to evacuate!"


"Am I going to die?"

Dr. Faeornik looked at the young boy lying in the snow. He was an elf, no older than ten.

Faeornik Knelt down next to him, wiping the blood away from his eyes. "No my elven brethren. You will not die today."

The boy's father felt to his knees before them, dust "Please save him, save my son. I'll give anything, just save him." His brown


After you have written a first draft, interrogate your writing using this editing checklist. Remember that the aim in editing is in many ways the aim in writing: clarity of expression.

Is it what you meant to say, really?
Have you found the best way to convey it?
Would a particular event really have happened that way?
Would a particular character definitely use that expression or turn of phrase?
Does an idea or scene really belong where you’ve put it, or would the piece be better if that element was cut? Could it be used elsewhere, or on another occasion?
What’s missing from your story? Details or background information?
Is there enough to engage your reader?
Do events occur in the best order and are significant events given enough weight, or are they lost beneath less important things? If so, is that what you intended?
Does it read too slow, or too fast?
Overall, does the writing convey the right tone – does it create the mood you hoped for?

© Copyright 2020 Derrol Edwards- Fantasy Writer (tekkadan at Writing.Com). All rights reserved.
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