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Building Suspense with Libby Fischer Hellmann

By Laura Brennan


Thriller author Libby Fischer Hellmann gave a terrific presentation on the art of building suspense at the May meeting of Sisters in Crime/LA.

The first step is realizing what suspense is. Libby pointed out that suspense isn’t about what *is* happening, but what *may* happen. It’s about creating an uncertain situation, posing a threat that is not immediately resolved, delaying and stretching out answers.

Techniques include starting in the middle of the action — not only to keep the pace up, but to throw your reader into a situation where they don’t yet have all the information. Make them catch up to you. Avoid the use of prologue; they are best used when there’s a time difference and (ideally) a secret. Be sure to reveal only that there is a secret and withhold what, exactly, that secret may be.

In addition to hooking the reader with your opening, you want to keep them turning the pages at the end of a chapter. Create a cliffhanger that makes it impossible to put the book down. Introduce a new character or reveal a new clue. You don’t want to do this with every chapter — everyone needs at least a little sleep! — but do use this technique to keep readers engaged.

As you develop the plot, raise the stakes. Build the possibility of disaster. Tension and stakes (and the odds against the protagonist) should increase as you go. You can also create dilemmas for your hero, no-win situations. Does your hero get what she wants? The answer is not Yes or No. Instead, it is “Yes, but…” or “No, and furthermore…” There aren’t just obstacles between her and her goals, there are also strings attached to getting what she wants, or even more dire consequences than expected for not reaching her goal.

Isolate them, make your protagonist question everything, even themselves. In suspense, they may face questions of both mortality and morality. Their world is atilt; they are working outside of their comfort zone, both physically and emotionally. And remember that time is never your hero’s friend: in suspense, the protagonist is always working against the clock.

One final nugget of wisdom: remember that your villain is always the hero in their own mind. They are always justified, and part of the hero’s dilemma may be that he sympathizes with the rationale, but not with the actions the villain is taking. Killer pacing, moral quandaries, and shifting sand under both the hero’s and the reader’s feet will keep those suspenseful pages turning.