Last week an indie author asked an interesting question: “what one ingredient do bestselling novels have in common?”
After a quick mental check of the books I’ve been reading recently, and thinking about novels in general, I decided: suspense.
Suspense is essential, no matter the genre, because you want readers to keep turning the pages. When readers want to know what happens next, they keep reading.
Indie author: “how can I sell more?”
Two words: write more. That’s essential. Competition is getting tougher and tougher. You also need to be willing to advertise more, and pay more for that advertising.
That said, no matter how much you write and advertise, if your novels lack suspense, there’s little to keep readers reading.
So, how do you add suspense to your novel?
1. The ticking clock device: instant suspense
I love the ticking clock device because it’s so simple. You set it up, and away you go. You’ll find ticking clocks in many novels, because a countdown keeps readers reading. Your clock doesn’t need to be a countdown. You can time the aftermath of an event.
For example, let’s say you’re writing a thriller, and a child goes missing. Every minute counts — the longer a child remains missing the less chance there is that the child will be found alive.
Your main character is a detective. You could start your chapters: Missing Three Hours… Missing Five Hours, etc.
2. Be stingy with information: tell readers what they need to know when they need to know it
Most new authors give readers more information than they need. That’s the danger of those “character questionnaires…” An author comes up with a wonderful character and falls in love with the character.
He loves his character so much that he can’t stop himself telling the reader all about him. His readers aren’t enraptured, because all this “telling” annoys them. They want to see things happening.
Be stingy with information. Give readers only what they need to know, when they need to know it, and you’ll build suspense. The late great Elmore Leonard was a master of this. He famously said that in his novels, he left out the parts that readers skip. Be like Elmore Leonard.
3. Surprise yourself — and readers
To surprise readers, you need to surprise yourself. Trust your creativity, and look for ways to build in a twist or three while you’re writing. Open yourself to surprises, and they’ll come.
For example, here’s what happened to me recently. Whenever I begin a new novel, I write the blurb; at least a few paragraphs. But I was a third of the way through writing my current historical mystery — and no blurb. It was starting to annoy me.
Then a few mornings ago I introduced a new character, and just like that — I wrote the blurb. The creative combination of the new character, plus some research reading, gave me the key to the midpoint of the novel, and the ending. I wrote the blurb in ten minutes.
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