Sustaining Suspense in a Whodunit Mystery
“This suspense is terrible. I hope it will last.” – Oscar Wilde
No, no. Alfred Hitchcock, the master of suspense, was quick to point out that sudden explosions, bangs, or “boos” do not create suspense. It’s anticipating a catastrophe and waiting for it to happen that causes us to hang onto every word.
I love reading thrillers and appreciate the suspense created by such skilled specialists of the craft as Ken Follett or Robert Ludlum.
Follett has been quoted as saying, “For success, the author must make the reader care about the destiny of the principals, and sustain this anxiety, or suspense, for about 100,000 words.”
When writing a whodunit mystery, I discovered that I like to build suspense slowly and then let the air out with a bang in a life-threatening incident. I offer hints to the reader along the way that a dangerous event will happen, but do not reveal the exact dangers or culprits. I encourage the reader to eagerly start a new chapter to get to the next adventure.
Since I write mysteries and know my readers like to solve them along with my sleuth, I also provide clues to their solution. And, of course, I develop characters we care about. If it doesn’t matter to us what happens to our sleuth or her friends or family, then we won’t become involved and little that we write will yield suspense.
My mysteries typically feature an amateur sleuth rather than a law-enforcement officer who encounters a crime as part of his livelihood. Therefore to build suspense I first need to create a reason for my protagonist to become involved. The mystery must come to her, and she must have a reason for embroiling herself.
Usually I supply the reason for her concern through her relationship with a victim. Law enforcement comes to her for answers or a villain pursues her for worry that she might know something that will lead to his discovery.
This rationale for her involvement can be used as a method for creating tension. We readers will understand that she has a reason to be drawn in. However, as she also tries to live her normal everyday life, the elements of a crime progressively intrude, peeling away her routine. She encounters small reasons for her need to take action, and we readers feel her—and us—get caught up.
Therefore, I integrate the everyday life of my amateur sleuth with the elements of a mystery. In the case of LANDSCAPE FOR MURDER, Brynn’s work to launch a new wine parallels the murder of her artist friend and the burglaries of wine occurring locally, and also tie in somehow to her teenage ward.
We must know whodunit despite those whispers of a ticking bomb.
Coupled tightly to this connection of a crime to my amateur sleuth is the speed of building the suspense, i.e., pacing. If she starts to solve a crime too quickly, we mystery aficionados, who take pride in adding up the clues and red herrings to compute our own solution, will be disappointed. If it takes her too long, we tend to lose interest. Each chapter should add a block to the building of the crime and its solution, while simultaneously intensifying the reader’s need to get to the next page to learn what will happen next.
Regardless of how it happens, suspense definitely plays a critical role in producing a compelling mystery. Without it, the telling of the story makes it difficult to engage readers. Our story of fiction becomes a newspaper report.
After all, we mystery readers like to feel anxious, and we definitely hope that the suspense lasts.
Morgen: Absolutely. Thank you so much, Joyce. It’s great to have you back. (Folks, I spotlighted Joyce back in November 2014 – you can read that here – and she guest blogged in June 2015, and you can read them here (part 1) and here (part 2)).
Mystery author Joyce T. Strand, much like her fictional character, Jillian Hillcrest, served as head of corporate communications at several biotech and high-tech companies in Silicon Valley for more than 25 years. Unlike Jillian, however, she did not encounter murder. Rather, she focused on publicizing her companies and their products. She is the author of the Jillian Hillcrest mysteries ON MESSAGE, OPEN MEETINGS, and FAIR DISCLOSURE and the Brynn Bancroft mystery HILLTOP SUNSET. Strand received her Ph.D. from The George Washington University, Washington, D.C. and her B.A. from Dickinson College, Carlisle, PA. She currently lives in Southern California with her two cats, a collection of cow statuary and art, and her muse, the roadrunner.
About Landscape for Murder
A friend’s murder. An unconnected cast of suspects, including the victim’s missing adult daughter. As if that wasn’t enough, Brynn Bancroft’s winery has been broken into. Can she deal with her co-owner ex and help the police find her friend’s murder so she can finally overcome her own troubled past and enjoy family life with her teenage ward?
You can find out more about Joyce and her writing from the following links:
- Webpage: http://joycestrand.com
- Blog: Http://strandssimplytips.blogspot.com
- Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/JoyceTStrandAuthor
- Goodreads: http://www.goodreads.com/author/show/5385246.Joyce_T_Strand
- Twitter: @joycetstrand
Where to Purchase:
Landscape for Murder Kindle Editions – November 5, 2015
- 1st Prize: Kindle Fire 7” WiFi 8GB Black plus ebook or paperback copy of Landscape for Murder
- 2nd Prize: $25 Amazon Gift Card and ebook or paperback copy of Landscape for Murder
- 3rd Prize: ebook or paperback copy of Landscape for Murder
More details from: http://www.rafflecopter.com/rafl/display/cfd1de2825/
and from this blog, my guests who have written on the topic of mystery are…
- mystery: Connie Knight, Graham Smith 1, Graham Smith 2, DJ Swykert, Jim Webster, Marietta Miemietz, Marla Madison, Quentin Bates, Warren Bull, and Wayne Zurl;
- historical: Alison Bruce, Connie Knight, Lou Allin, Margaret Muir, Phoebe Matthews, and William S Shepard.
If you would like to write a writing-related guest post for my blog then feel free to email me with an outline of what you would like to write about. Guidelines on guest-blogs. There are other options listed on opportunities-on-this-blog.
*** Breaking news! My online creative writing courses are currently half price! ***
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