How do you write tense, suspenseful stories that will keep readers racing to the end? It’s a question I’m asked at writers’ festivals, via fan mail, during workshops and book signings. The answer is simple: you make the reader wait.
That’s right, my business model is all based on information deficit. As a storyteller, I’m careful and deliberate in how I release information to the reader – what information, and where, will dictate how suspenseful my story will be. Sure, there are character moments essential to propel the story and compel the reader – personal jeopardy, conflict, surprises – but the controlling design of all my novels is to pose a question at the start, then delay the answer.
I’ve been a full-time novelist since 2006. I write what are broadly categorized as “thrillers”. My audience is adult, young adult (YA), and middle grade (MG). They’re publishing labels to give booksellers – and readers – an easy idea of what to expect. Via Hachette and Scholastic, we’ve produced 26 novels. The adult thrillers run at 100,000 words, YA 65,000, MG 45,000. And the common thread to all my stories? They’re suspenseful reads.
To me there are two kinds of books: those that make you miss your bus stop – or sleep – and those that don’t.
Put another way, there are books you read to inhabit time, and books you read to pass the time. But how to make the reader keep turning those pages? Well, let’s look at another example: TV.
Consider some of the most popular genres on broadcast television: reality television. Those programs the industry call “shiny floor shows”, e.g. Masterchef, MKR, The Block, The Voice. They should be as interesting as waiting for water to boil. Watching amateurs compete should be boring, right? But they pull in huge audiences. Why?
These shows are compelling for good reason – and it’s just not because we like to see people succeed and triumph, although that is a part of the design. It’s all about making the audience wait – and then rewarding them with an answer.
They are asking a question: “what happens next?” and making you wait until after the next ad break for the answer. These programs are edited to make the audience hang around for the result to a critique or potential catastrophe. Come the next ad break – the same thing. And over each episode and the whole series, the same thing, at a macro level. Humans are hardwired to seek answers, and it’s in the anticipation of what might happen that is where we find drama.
Writing a novel is not as simple as putting 500 pages of filler between opening question and big reveal where the protagonist gets answers. The story must be engaging to hold and involve the reader, with questions and answers throughout. Tension and stakes rise and fall and rise higher again, a symphony in several acts, until the final crescendo – and there may be a coda afterwards, letting us down gently.
Provide the audience with a certain amount of information and leave the rest to their own imagination; it’s much more impactful to have the reader imagine the worst that can happen to a character, rather than spell it all out. If you manage to write in such a way as to have your reader participate, they will be involved in your story in ways beyond the literal. There are books that say more by what’s not on the page, and there are those that have everything explained and spoon-fed to the reader. Just make sure you answer the question that’s at the heart of your story. Do that, and you’ve got something worthwhile in your hands.
Avoid cliché – that might mean that when the reader thinks they know what will happen next, do something else. Until you develop a good skill set as a writer to spot the obvious (Hemmingway’s built-in, shock-proof bullshit detector), think through and write a few versions of what may happen until you hit upon an unexpected gem. You’ll know it when you see it. And the readers will appreciate the reward.
Understanding the writer/reader relationship is paramount to success. It’s a symbiotic relationship between the reader and the writer.
Reading is an act where one’s imagination is always at work, constructing the book, as Umberto Eco said.
It’s collaborative. They’re invested. They’ve stuck with you for 500 pages, spent money and time on your story. So you can’t cheat them. You must give them that answer. Does your answer have to be a satisfying one? No. But it needs to make narrative sense, even if your protagonist is unfulfilled – do they get what they want, what they needed, or something else entirely? All up to you, the creator.
My novels start with an idea, and a feel. That in hand, I have my driving force to go from page one to when I type THE END. I make some notes and think and ruminate until I feel I have the end, aka my main question and answer. Once I know what will happen, and the emotional charge of what that means for my characters, I can shape my suspense, unveiling the plot towards the inevitable answer. For each narrative, my stories are driven as much by what the reader wants as what the characters desire.
It’s a sublime moment, writing those last pages, the final movement were everything is moving fast towards resolution. Something I’ve figured out through practice is to do the slow stuff fast, and the fast stuff slow. Using minimal descriptions and exposition – the reader is creating that too – means that you can slow down during moments of great tension and conflict so as to fully be present in that time and place.
Make them wait. Make that wait worth while. And make the journey a helluva ride.
James Phelan is the bestselling author of twenty-five novels and one work of non-fiction. His publications include five thrillers in the Lachlan Fox series, and the Alone trilogy of young adult post-apocalyptic novels.
This article first appeared in QWC’s Writing Queensland (WQ), a quarterly magazine and online site for QWC members featuring articles on writing and publishing. To have access to all WQ articles, join QWC today for as little as $50 per year: qldwriters.org.au/membership.