Thursday, October 09, 2014

Building Suspense

We've already talked about this a little bit and you can call it by different names. Building suspense is a good title, but it could just as easily be called pacing. It's what happens in the novel. It would be an awfully short book if you just had a bomber try to kill a professor who somehow turns the table on him. Maybe eight pages.  That's why it's important to consider all the other things we've discussed.

We need to set the circumstances of the story. Is it set in a big city where there is a modern police force ready to respond? Or in a small town in Alabama where no one would suspect a package sitting on a porch contained a bomb ready to shred anyone who touches it? Let's say it's the Alabama town. It's a beautiful two-story house with the wraparound porch and oak trees shading the front yard. It's a beautiful sunny day that casts dancing shadows across the front lawn through the thick limbs of the sprawling trees. We know what's in the package. That's really what's important. It doesn't matter if the character suspects something is wrong. The reader has to suspect it. That's where the suspense comes in.

Next we might develop the characters. And see that a man sitting at a desk inside the house is a political science professor at local private university. His views have sparked a madman to put a bomb in the package. The professor also has a beautiful wife who is a doctor at the local hospital and three young children all playing in different areas of the neighborhood. The package sits unopened on the front porch. Who will get to it first? Lily, his nine-year-old daughter who's coming home from a friend’s house? His wife, Andrea, taking a break from a frantic day at the hospital? Or will the professor walk out onto the porch and noticed the package. Now we’re talking about a story.

We haven't even got into the motivation of the bomber yet, who’s sitting several blocks away and stewing over some article the professor has written. He's got other information about the professor sitting on the front seat of his Chevy Silverado. How the professor had moved from one university to another as he became more prominent. And how, three years before, an article he had written about religion had pushed the bomber's mother to suicide. Or at least that's what he believes.

I learned this lesson after I became published. My editor at Putnam, Neil Nyren, would often take the time to teach me and others valuable lessons in writing. In this case, he used the example of Alfred Hitchcock and his ability to build suspense. I can remember the conversation clearly. Neil talked about a bomb planted in a desk and how quickly the excitement is over if all that happens is an explosion. Whereas, if the reader knew the bomb was in the desk, you could get pages and pages of excitement out of it. This was all in response to my first draft of the novel EscapeClause. As with most of my novels, I try to mix up who the good guys and bad guys are. About halfway through the book I had the reader suddenly discover someone they thought was a good guy was actually a bad guy. Neil told me that was great for one or two pages but what the book really needed was someone who was bad from the beginning so everyone could root against him. What a good lesson. I would say I owe Neil lunch for it, but his tastes are too extravagant for me so I just leech off him whenever I get a chance to see him.

Once again there is no rhyme or reason in the sequence of these blog posts. It's pretty much what comes to me while I'm thinking about writing. I'm open to suggestions if you guys want me to change it up just shoot me a quick e-mail at

Until then, write on!


  1. Good topic and well said.


  2. Great example, James O.

    Next time you see him, will you ask Neil if he'll be my editor, too :)

  3. from Jacqueline: Really enjoyed this post, Jim. I'm going to have to print all your writing posts and put them in a binder for reference - and although she'd never leave a comment, my mother says she really enjoys the posts too!

  4. James O. Born10/09/2014 3:29 PM

    Thanks, guys. I'm going to start printing some of Paul's advice over the years. Some of it very graphic.


  5. Helpful, thank you.

    - Dawna