Monday, June 20, 2011


Welcome to the launch of INSIDE TOP SUSPENSE, an ongoing discussion on the craft of fiction writing. Between us, the members of the Top Suspense group (you can see who we are on the right) have published literally hundreds of novels and stories, many of them best-sellers and award-winners. In the coming months we hope to share our knowledge with you.

Each week (or maybe two, depending on our schedule) several of us will discuss a topic related to the craft of writing and publishing crime, thrillers, and horror. We’ll let you know what’s worked for us and what hasn’t. But that's only part of the conversation. We'd also like you to join in. Ask questions, share reactions, tell us what works for you.

One caveat – this is not a place to BSP. While we might mention how a technique worked (or didn’t) in one of our novels, this isn't the place to advertise your work. We want this to be a forum that helps us all become better writers.


Our first topic is -- not surprisingly – suspense. What technique of suspense is most effective for you… and why? Thriller author Joel Goldman, whose first Lou Mason novel, MOTION TO KILL, has just been republished as an e-book, leads off, followed by Libby Fischer Hellmann. On Tuesday, Vicki Hendricks reports in, and Wednesday, the one and only Max Allan Collins. Finally, on Thursday, UK author and screenwriter Stephen Gallagher weighs in. During the week you’ll hear from the rest of us in the comments section as well. So, grab your favorite beverage, pull up to the screen, and join in. We hope INSIDE TOP SUSPENSE will become your favorite place to hang out!

Joel Goldman here and thanks to Libby for kicking things off. Suspense depends on several things. First, the reader has to care what happens to the characters. If they don't, the payoff is nothing more than a curiosity. Second, suspense has to build slowly at first and then accelerate with a combination of inevitability and unpredictability. The payoff can be something the reader knows is coming but dreads or something the reader doesn't see coming that leaves her gasping and shouting Holy Crap! Finally, the mix of plot and character has to make sense, even if it involves characters making bad choices or events that strain (but don't break) credibility. Don't confuse suspense with suspension of disbelief. And it never hurts to make your prose sing and zing.

Libby, here. I agree suspense has to accelerate, but one of my favorite techniques -- which you can only use during moments of high suspense and/or action -- is something I call "Literary Slow Motion." It's what William Goldman did in HEAT where he spent something like 6 pages describing 18 seconds. I love to s-l-o-w down the action using as many sensory details as possible... ie the hero has been knocked to the ground, and he sees a boot coming at him, feels the snow and ice on his cheek, hears a laugh from the enemy, tastes blood in his mouth... etc. The more details you can add, the more the reader is invested, and hopefully is compelled to keep reading.

I have a question for you, Joel... or anyone. How far can you strain credibility? How much is too much?

From Vicki
I'll let someone else answer that question and go on with my tip for the day.
The most well-known and easiest to explain suspense technique, the only one that I know of with a name, is called “The Ticking Clock.” The writer sets a figurative clock ticking or, in the case of the TV series 24, a literal clock. Other examples: the cop is given 24 hours to find evidence on the murderer to avoid being accused, the woman has 2 hours to get an antidote for her snake bite, or the scuba diver has half an hour of air left, it’s getting dark, and murderers are on a boat above her, looking for her bubbles. The last one is from my novel Iguana Love, and it was a challenge to think of a way out for the character with that set up, but knowledge of equipment always offers possibilities, while underwater vulnerability and lurking creatures keep the reader turning pages. Once the time is set in any story, the reader’s subconscious will keep the clock ticking to heighten the tension in every scene.

From Stephen Gallagher
My take on suspense is a pretty straightforward one, I think. You have a character with whom the reader empathises, who needs to achieve something. Bad things are going to happen if he or she doesn't achieve it.

As they set out, everything seems set for success. But then obstacles arise - immediate, unplanned-for problems that have to be solved before your protagonist can move forward toward the greater goal. Meanwhile, the bigger situation deteriorates and the bad consequences loom larger.

Solving the lesser problem may get your protagonist closer, but gives rise to further problems that will impede progress even more. This is where the art comes in. Those problems have to be entertaining, and the effect of the delays and diversions has to be a pleasurable one. Suspense isn't about making the reader uncomfortable. It's about deferring closure in a way that heightens the anticipation of it.

The reader is trusting you to deliver an ultimate reward. But there's only a slim chance of success for your protagonist. And it gets ever slimmer, the closer you get to it. Will that slim chance disappear altogether just as you get there, or will your protagonist make it in time? For me that's the essence of suspense.

From Max Allan Collins
I don't really think in terms of suspense techniques. I am an instinctive writer and fairly linear, and just set up suspenseful situations and let them play out, as dictated by character. The most conscious craft decision I make along those lines is where to start and end chapters. Like many, if not most writers of msytery/crime fiction, I try to start at an exciting point. I was raised on Mickey Spillane, and his beginnings -- and for that matter his endings -- are always the gold standard for me. In KISS ME DEADLY, a beautiful woman, (naked but for a trenchcoat) jumps in front of Mike Hammer's car, to force him to pick her up, in the first paragraph. So I am very careful to start at an interesting, compelling point. That strategy works for the first chapter, but really every chapter. And the end of the chapter -- yes the cliff-hanger -- is equally important. The idea is to make the reader start reading, and keep reading.

Another technique -- really a strategy -- is to play against the reader's expectations. In a thriller there are certain conventional situations that can't be avoided, so giving them a fresh spin can keep the reader guessing and ratchet up the suspense. In the Nate Heller novel I'm working on, a very cliched moment arrives -- two thugs show up to take Heller for a ride to see a mob boss. But Heller knows these guys are killers and just goes Nancy Reagan on 'em ... just says no. He says he will follow them to the mob boss and will take the meeting, but will not get in the car with them. No violence breaks out, but the threat of it hangs over a very tense scene.


  1. Joel used the word "curiosity," and I must admit that I'm often curious to know how things will turn out or how a mystery will be solved. The puzzle aspect is one thing I like about the traditional mystery. Is wondering about those things a form of suspense?

  2. Great post. I like to break it up into separate actions/reactions so it's more punchy...

    A cold hand of fear clutched at my insides as I saw the gun in his hand.
    He raised it with cool determination, pointing straight between my eyes.
    My heartbeat chopped through me.
    'Where's the money?' he said.
    I swallowed hard. 'I don't know.'

    You get the picture! :)

  3. There's no bright line that tells you when you've strained credibility too far. I think it's a more visceral reaction when the reader smacks his head and mutters "bullshit!". Another way to look at it is that you have to play fair with the reader. If you have to rely on the deus ex machina, or hand of God, to explain how the hero lived, died, won or lost, you've crossed the line.

  4. I think a key aspect of building suspense is making sure the reader cares about the characters. From a personal standpoint, if I'm not emotionally invested in a book's protagonist, then I'm less likely to be on the edge of my seat when the climax arrives. So placing those character-building blocks early pays off during those big suspense scenes later in the book.

  5. Thanks for sharing. I like to leave little cliffhangers at the end of each chapter.

  6. How do you balance the reader's identification with the protagonist with her starting out as a failed human being who grows along the way? I want the reader invested, but I can't paint her as perfect... Kat

  7. Bill, that's a good point about the mystery of the story helping to drive the suspense. I was recently reading Richard Stark's The Mourner, and when Parker is there waiting for Menlo after you think he's left for dead, that ratcheted up the suspense for me as I wanted to know how he got there.

    Kathleen, characters can be deeply flawed, and still get the readers fully invested in them. Look at Stark's Parker, or an even better examples, Jim Thompson's severely broken psychos, like Frank Dillon and Lou Ford and Carl Bigelow. Even though these character are utterly nonredeemable, Thompson kept us caring what happened to them.

  8. Libby, to answer your question, a lot of books lose me because they strain credibility too much. Once the fictional dream is broken, it's hard to care about the book. So even if the events that are occurring are incredible, the author has to make it seem very real.

  9. Traci, I love the cliff-hanger or sting too... but I think it has to be used judiciously. There was a thriller, a mega best-seller in fact, that used the sting so much it became trite and I threw the book across the room. It shall remain nameless, but they made an equally silly movie about it.

  10. Libby Hellmann's literary slow motion is an excellent technique for creating suspense. I try to use it whenever I can.

    Deep down we are all terrified of something and sometimes we can hide our terror by writing about it. Five pages of literary slow motion sometimes helps us relieve our terror while it
    adds 'must read' pages to our work in progress.

  11. There doesn't seem to be any specific way to avoid pushing the line too far--guess it comes down to the characters themselves, if we believe them, we should believe the mess they've gotten themselves into as well. I love flawed characters, because we're all messy and confusing deep down. That's where all the fun is!

  12. I'll add that a perfect character doesn't draw much sympathy. She'd get only envy from me. A flawed character is someone a real human being can identify with.

    Can't add any more on suspense than you guys have. Thanks for the terrific post and the new blog.

  13. I, too, like a scene that almost goes in slow motion. I read that one from HEAT, and also read one recently in HOLD TIGHT by Harlan Coben. The central character was jumped in an alley by several guys, and it appears he is going to be beaten to death. The reader is literally on the pavement with the guy tasting the oil on the cement, when suddenly the guys run.

    The opposite is also effective. I remember a writing instructor telling the class "less is more." He was referencing suspense in film, specifically the master, Alfred Hitchcock, but it can work for novels, too. Bring the reader to the moment with short, staccato sentences, then zap them with the zinger and let them use their imagination to fill in the blanks.

  14. What an interesting discussion. I like the question about straining credibility--where does the suspension of disbelief...break?

    My favorite suspense tactic is the unanswered question. I will keep reading till I know that answer, anything else be damned.

  15. Interesting how different people are in that respect, both my wife and my daughter get frustrated immediately with an unanswered question--they will start asking questions during a movie, "Why did she do that? Huh?" Makes me nuts! I love the intellectual puzzle, particularly well it's layered inside an action-packed story. For me, that's the best of both worlds.

  16. There's a technique I call the wasp in the water bottle. You take a character with formidable powers (the wasp), put them in a seemingly impossible situation (inside a water bottle with the top screwed on), and then have them try to figure a way to get out of it. Without, as Joel said, having the hand of God come along and screw the top off the bottle.

  17. Vick: I love the ticking clock. Use it frequently. Both as an inherent element of the story, but also in "count-down" scenes...

    Writers can adapt the clock to distance, too: ie He was 100 yards away... I pulled out my pistol. He was 50 yards away... I aimed at his head... He was 25 yards away... I fired...

    or even setting:

    In Paris, Jacques was doing A. In New york, Bill was doing B. And in the Cayman Islands, we were all getting rich. (:) Just making sure you're still reading...)

  18. No one has mentioned the level of danger involved for gut-wrenching suspense. The danger has to be fierce and real. Not merely the danger of death, but the danger of a horrible death, a ghastly death the hero must go to great lengths to avoid.

  19. To me, believability is very important to creating constant suspense. Many times, I find myself reading a supposedly suspenseful section and thinking, "this could never happen in real life."

    To overcome that, I try to build skeptical characters, get the reader behind them, and then turn those characters into believers. In other words, focus on scaring the character first and the reader second.

  20. To Bill Crider's question, Hitchcock didn't think so.

  21. Vicki, I like the ticking clock also--and have used it many times, including Small Crimes where my antihero Joe is given a deadline to kill one of two people. And of course, High Noon is probably the most famous for using this.

  22. The chapter-end cliffhanger can be quite tricky to pull off. Instinct may steer us toward making chapters rounded and complete, like self-contained episodes. But often I'll go back over a finished manuscript and move chapter breaks to some crucial turning point in the middle of the action, to make them more effective.

  23. As a further classification of the cliffhanger, what I love is when the character keeps making choices that you know are going to eventually lead to disaster. You are invested in this person for whatever reason, gumption or humor, etc., but he or she is just off kilter enough to make obvious errors in judgement that build and build into more trouble. You keep hoping they'll somehow manage to succeed, but even if it's a noir story and a train wreck is the only possible ending, you hang on, wondering how the disaster will shape up.

  24. Vicki, I do this, too. I don't think of it as cliffhanging, but just another way to get the reader interested. I think it is, though!