The thrill that mystery fans crave derives from a writer’s ability to create tension, on the page and in a reader’s mind. Knowing how to apply tension in any genre can be useful. With a mystery, it’s an essential ingredient in keeping readers hooked from the first page to the last.
Tension can arise from characters’ relationships, physical danger, fear of the unknown, burning curiosity, jealousy or any other human frailty. As tension builds, momentum steers a plot to The End.
Here are suggestions to add or increase tension and momentum to your writing:
Set the hook. In storytelling (as in physics) momentum is a product of mass and velocity: the more mass to start with, the harder it is to get the ball rolling. In a mystery, introducing important characters and settings often competes with the imperative to hook the reader early and get the action moving. Think about starting simply. You can pick up mass and velocity along the way.
Check subplots. A subplot can further define a character, ratchet up tension, and increase a reader’s interest. It can also stop the main action cold, so make sure your subplot adds depth and isn’t a momentum-killer.
Create memorable characters. Plot may do the heavy lifting in a suspense novel, but plot alone does not guarantee success. Readers will follow an interesting character through the most preposterous plot if they can relate. Nice or nasty, frightening or humorous, characters that elicit emotional responses keep readers involved. No matter how action-filled the plot, a reader who loses interest in the main characters will not care what happens to them, and will likely set the book aside.
Before you let go of that final draft, here’s a clean-up list to help tighten tension:
Avoid TMI. Too much information at a time (the dreaded information dump) stops momentum. Keep backstory to a minimum. Character and setting descriptions can be used to create tension, but look for ways to feather in the necessary details. Readers like to try to solve a mystery as they read. Reveal new clues like a slow, seductive striptease, one tidbit at a time. The thrill of discovery will keep the pages turning.
Ditch chitchat. Dialogue should reveal character motivations and relationships, and move the story forward. Too much yakking wastes time, kills tension and stops momentum. Read dialogue aloud and listen as if you were eavesdropping on the conversation. Is it interesting and vital to the story? Is every line and each word necessary? If not, delete the chaff and get on with the action. Banish info dumps here, too.
Cut purple prose. If readers have to wade through interminably precious or showy writing to get to the meat of a mystery, you’re making them work too hard. Do not overwrite just to impress. Focus on moving the action, and the reader, forward.
Untie the bow. A reader tends to set a book down at the end of a scene or chapter, particularly if a plot question has been resolved. Check your action breaks. If one does not compel the reader to read on, try moving it to a better spot. Remove any tension-killers lurking in the last paragraph, or try adding a new wrinkle before the scene changes. Tying things up in a pretty bow is deadly to momentum. Save it for The End, if you must.
Cliffhangers and page-turners: Writing them takes more than simply stringing scenes together. It’s tough enough to write a novel that entertains, and dialing up suspense adds another level of difficulty. “I couldn’t put your book down!” is music to a mystery writer’s ears. To thrill your readers, use every device available, and keep those pages turning.
About the Author
Gay Yellen has been sneezed on by an elephant, held at gunpoint and survived a killer California earthquake, which may explain her penchant for writing cliffhangers. After a brief Hollywood acting career, she happily moved behind the camera to become Assistant to the Director of Production at The American Film Institute (AFI).
A former magazine editor and national journalism award winner, she was the contributing editor for the international thriller, Five Minutes to Midnight (Delacorte). Her Samantha Newman Mystery Series includes THE BODY BUSINESS and THE BODY NEXT DOOR (Chanticleer Mystery & Mayhem Award and Readers’ Choice Mystery Award Winner). She is currently writing Book #3 in the series.
About The Body Next Door
In this entertaining and fast-paced page-turner, Samantha Newman desperately needs a new job, a place of her own, and a fix for her rocky romance with cyber-security expert Carter Chapman. But with a dead man next door, and the missing wife holed up in Samantha’s apartment, Sam gets dragged into the case. To make matters worse, there’s a stalker haunting her balcony.
When the investigation ruins her chance for a great career and a happy future with the man she loves, Samantha risks everything to try to solve the mystery herself. She’s fierce and determined, and has the ability to put away an incredible amount of ice cream if the situation warrants.
Yellen’s plot is finely woven, and her characters are vividly portrayed, from strange elevator companions to the folks on her boyfriend’s ranch. Yellen also admirably addresses the difficulties those coping with loss may experience in forging new relationships. Armchair sleuths will appreciate the clues and red herrings judiciously scattered throughout this breezy and romance-laced mystery.
Category: On Writing