Paint Your Characters Into A Corner – Guest Blog by Linda Hall

What makes for a page-turner? If you ask award-winning novelist Linda Hall, it’s suspense. We’ve invited her to guest post for us today to give you some tips on how to create suspense in your novel, regardless of the genre.

Since her first book, The Joshia Files, was published by Thomas Nelson in 1992, Linda Hall has written 18 other suspense and mystery novels. Alongside writing novels, she’s been the keynote speaker at conferences such as Write! Canada, part of the faculty of the University of New Brunswick’s Maritime Writers Workshop, and is a regular contributor to Deeds of Darkness, Deeds of Light, a blog that examines the murder mystery/thriller/crime fiction genre from the viewpoint of readers, writers, editors, agents, and librarians.

Take it away Linda . . .

Linda Hall How to Create Suspense in FictionI’m pleased to be invited to guest blog today. Summer means lots of summer reads for me, and I’m currently in the middle of a Dean Koontz thriller, The Good Guy. This book is basically a “chase” book.

I admit it. I’m staying up too late reading it, and, being a writer, I’m constantly asking, “How does he do that? How is he making it so that I can’t put this one down?” The writer in me is doing a bit of analyzing.

Before we go any further I want to define a few terms.  To me, suspense is a technique, not a genre. Suspense needs to be a part of every bit of writing that we ever do from nonfiction to fiction to poetry to comedy. Simply put, suspense is that all important key ingredient that keeps the reader turning pages, no matter what she’s reading. News articles need suspense. This blog needs suspense.

It’s possible to write a thriller that has little or no suspense. I’m sure you’ve read some of these. The plot premise on the back of the book is enticing.

“With an idea like that, I can’t wait to get into it,” you say to yourself.

But then something about the book falls flat. Your interest wanes, and you keep putting the book down. Sure, it was a thriller, but the suspense was missing.

So, back to Koontz who is, in my opinion, a master of the suspenseful thriller. How does he do it?

1.   Right in the middle of the action, he switches points of view.

We are following along with The Good Guy and The Innocent Female as they ditch cars and buy food and attempt to figure out why The Assassin wants them both dead. They are behind the door and hear the bad guy right behind them, and then we switch into the bad guy’s point of view.

He doesn’t see them, doesn’t hear them. Whew! We can wipe our brow once more. But then he figures it out! And now he has them in his sights! There is no getting away this time! And then, Koontz switches into the point of view of the police officer who’s sitting at his desk at home, and it’s night and it’s dark and he’s and trying to sort it all out.

2.   He creates a multiplicity of problems, and the obvious solutions don’t work.

The Good Guy started off with one problem. Someone mistook him for a hit man and gave him a bunch of money. Then the real hit man comes into the bar. The obvious solution would be to dial 911–that’s what you or I would do, right? And The Good Guy is about to call the police, when he sees the guy drive away in a police car. The police are in on this? He closes his cell phone.

So, if you have your heroine wandering down into a dark basement in a storm because she hears noises, she better have a good reason for doing so.  Facing the same situation, you or I would run lickety-split to the neighbors and call the police. You have to make sure the obvious won’t work. If her child was in the basement, or her dog, that would be a compelling reason for her to throw caution into the gutter and go down there.

3.   He adds specks of doubt into his characters.

In this Koontz book, suddenly I am wondering about the Innocent Woman. What is her story? Why isn’t she forthcoming about her personal life? Why is her point of view conspicuously absent from the points of view that the story follows? Maybe she’s not the innocent bystander that I thought she was?

Try doing that. Or, if you’re writing from the first person, a way you could do this is would be to have your heroine  read an email or a letter, but keep the contents from the reader. Keeping small things from your readers will enhances the suspense even in your romance.

4.   And finally, he isn’t ever afraid to paint his characters into a corner.

Don’t fear this. Just do it. Something always turns up. The more corners you can paint your characters into, the better your reader will like it!

Who are some of your favorite authors and why? I bet it has something to do with the technique of suspense.

Linda

Want to connect with Linda in other places? Visit her website or her Facebook page.

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3 comments on “Paint Your Characters Into A Corner – Guest Blog by Linda Hall

  1. Great article, Linda! No wonder you’re on the Maritime Writers Workshop faculty.These are all excellent tips. Some of my favorite writers who build suspense well are Harlan Coban and Robert Crais. And yes, Dean Koontz. And in romantic suspense, Pamela Clare does a fantastic job. Suzanne Brockmann, too. I could go on…

  2. These are great tips. I especially like your reminder that there had better be a good reason for a character doing something that wouldn’t otherwise make sense. Too often the dark basement concept is used as a necessary step in the story’s development, and I think, “How stupid. Why would anyone do that?”

  3. I’m reading a new Sigmund Brouwer book and asking myself these sorts of questions. He also switches POV frequently and of course has lots of impossible corners for characters to back into. 🙂 I like your point that “suspense” is a technique, not a genre.

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