What makes a story suspenseful?

Reality makes fiction writing suspenseful. That may sound like an oxymoron, but fiction also includes science fiction and fantasy, both of which skirt reality, and in so doing also skirt suspense.

For example, ever met Superman? Me neither. His character is suspenseful though, and great fun to read or watch.  But I know it is fantasy, it can’t really happen and I don’t feel any compassion for sidekicks Lois and Jimmy because, well, he’s Superman! I am strictly a tourist on a bus. But take a character clayed from mortal man and make him the hero instead. Now successful rescue becomes only one of several outcomes. Suddenly the bad outcomes take on new tension and you can feel this time it really will not end well. Like your favorite uncle, the hero is a little flawed. When everything is at stake, it’s their blemishes that must be cleansed first before they can save Lois and Jimmy, or their house from falling into foreclosure.

At the end of each story, the characters walk off arm-in-arm into the sunset, but which hero stands taller now? It is much more gratifying to take ordinary people, thrown them into extraordinary circumstances and then watch them try to wiggle out of it.

From Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin to Garth Stein’s The Art of Racing in the Rain, it is the common man facing unsurmountable odds that holds our interest and keeps us turning the page. If Stowe’s Uncle Tom had been treated like a white man, would we still choke up when he dies? If Stein’s Danny wasn’t a suffering, single-parent would we still root for him to get custody of his daughter over his rich ex-in-laws?

Ian Flemming’s James Bond Series is nothing short of suspenseful, but it is suspense hung 15 minutes into the future. Fun stuff. We’re blown away by all his gadgets, but are we really sitting on the edge of our seat when the sharks smell blood? No, we’re waiting for him to pull the Shark-B-Gone out of his perfectly pressed suit. At no time do we feel for 007 because we know he’s always got something up his sleeve. Fifty years on, he’s still good fun to read and watch — and very collectable I might add — but it’s the author’s techno-candy that keeps us coming back, not the car chases, sharks and men with razor teeth.

A word about why.

I want to write this blog for two reasons. I hope to be able to pass along some of the wisdom I’ve learned over the past twenty-odd years to those just coming into this sport. In the beginning, I had three wonderful mentors who took hours-at-a-time out of their busy schedules to help me, without ever asking for compensation. It’s time for me to start to pay that forward.

I also hope to advance my own publishing success by finding enough folks who think my writing is entertaining and want to buy it and recommend it to others. I am on the lookout for a good agent and publisher, too, someone who can help me turn modest sales into moderate or more.

Next Month.

Can you envision a future where reading — and by that extension writing — is strictly digital? A time when all printed books are antiquarian? A day when everything ever written by every man will live long and prosper in cyberspace? We’re facing that future. Next month, we’ll take a look at what this means to the suspenseful writer.


    • Book Lover on August 17, 2014 at 5:22 pm
    • Reply

    I prefer the printed page. But if the future goes “strictly digital,” I’ll have to embrace it. But I’ll never give up reading. Good luck with publishing your writing.

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