3 S.R. Johannes: Use more to create suspense than just action

Thursday, November 01, 2012

Use more to create suspense than just action

Our Georgia Peach Tour is in full swing!

Jennifer Jabaley (Lipstick Apology). Vicky Shecter (Cleopatra's Moon) and me teamed up and gave discounts to schools in the state of Georgia to help with budget cuts. We are touring middle schools and high schools promoting reading and writing.

We will visit about 12 schools by Thanksgiving and see almost 10,000 kids. The bonus is meeting all the literacy coordinators and media specialists. :)

One of my lectures is on "Writing Thrillers" so I thought I would summarize it and share it today since I'm doing it tomorrow. Feel free to add in the comments any of your ideas.

Thriller vs mystery

A mystery is about solving a crime that has already happened. The killer's identity is hidden until the end because otherwise, there would be no mystery -- right?

A thriller is about a crime (or another type of disaster) that is about to happen ... unless the hero can stop it. The reader might know who the villain is from the very beginning -- even watches over the villain's shoulder as evil is being committed.

Untraceable is a blend of both. The mystery adds to the pacing because you are not sure when Grace is in danger.

Pull from the what you know
  • Know the thriller genre inside and out
  • Do research and know what is possible for your character
  • Immerse yourself in movies/TV shows/books on thrillers
  • Pull from those moments when you were the most scared 
It's not just about action
  • Thrillers are about creating tension in different Dialogue and sentence structure can change the pace.
  • Bring pace in through setting, character, and structure
  • EX: The Walking Dead – zombies are scary but sometimes it is scarier when nothign is happening because you know what could happen any minute. 
1) Come up with big idea for a thriller
  • Come up with the big hook
  • Is it new? How can you make it new?
  • Create "what if" question
  • Answer the "what if" question
  • Go where no man has gone before
2) Pace through structure
  • Cut strategically. Use an inverted conflict curve - cut your chapters in the middle of conflict instead of at the end of resolution
  • Create short chapters
  • Spread out your actions scenes and break them with slower paced scenes to create a roller coaster feeling
  • Create cliffhangers or a ticking clock to get reader past natural breaks
  • Use short, clippy sentences (even fragments) to speed up pace; longer sentences and narrative to slow it down
  • Add dialogue to slow down pace
3) Pace through action

  • Keep the reader moving is main goal
  • Make the danger feel real and always present in the background
  • Withhold information to keep reader guessing
  • Don’t be predictable – go where reader doesn’t expect
  • Start with a suspenseful scene to set mood

4) Pace through setting

  • Create a visual by using 5 senses
  • Cinematic – visualize a movie when you are writing. Show what your character sees
  • Choose settings wisely depending on mood you need.
  • Use contrasting moods in your setting - ie home is safe and secure unless the power goes out. The woods are peaceful during the day but scary at night.

5) Pace through character

  • Make it tough for your MC
  • Emotions – keep them high and let reader feel fear
  • Create poignant moments – don’t be afraid to do this in a thriller
  • Stakes – keep raising them
  • Internal tension can add to suspense of story
  • Create real motives (for all characters) or it won't be believable


Kelly Polark said...

Lucky kids that get to hear about writing from such wonderful authors!

I have to admit that I did not know the difference between a thriller and a mystery until you put it into words!

Catherine Stine said...

Good luck with the school visits. All good thriller-writing tips.

Amanda Hopper said...

This is a fun topic! I took a class about this very subject from author Steven James at a conference. He had everyone write a short paragraph in each genre with the prompt: girl enters the basement to find a box. It was really fun to see what everyone wrote and how the end product differs based on the genres.