Tension

A while ago, I wrote about starting a new mystery with more suspense than my cozies. I’ve been reading the Louis Kincaid series and wanted to have the kind of tension I enjoy so much in those books. One of the ways to build that is by using multiple POV. But that, in itself, isn’t enough.

Years and years ago, I went to a Bouchercon mystery conference where Mary Higgins Clark was the featured speaker. And she differentiated the different types of suspense novels and explained techniques that made each one work. For women in jeopardy, which is what she writes, she recommended introducing a female protagonist who’s recovering from something bad that’s happened to her and making her sympathetic enough that readers want her to be happy again. And then, introduce the antagonist, who’ll cross paths with her and then focus on her as his next target. Immediately, the reader knows the killer will go after her, and the woman will have to try to survive until he’s caught. Immediate tension.

For thrillers, she recommended using a ticking clock plot to build tension. We meet the antagonist–maybe an assassin preparing to kill an important target–and then we meet the protagonist–who’ll try to keep a step ahead of the assassin and figure out when and where so that he can stop the assassination from happening. We know when the target will give his speech or attend the meeting, etc., when the assassin plans to make his move. And the protagonist has to figure everything out before that happens. Of course, the more important the target, and the more danger to the protagonist, the higher the stakes.

But I’m interested in writing a traditional mystery with lots of tension, like I enjoy reading in the Louis Kincaid series. And what I realized is this, Louis is always investigating murders that are DISTURBING. They don’t necessarily have to be shocking. Or gory. I’m not much of a fan of shock value in fiction. But they need to grab your attention. There has to be something unusual about them, something that bothers you at gut level and makes you uneasy.

The other thing to focus on, I think, is the antagonist himself. No black and white. He has to be complicated enough to make a reader wonder about him, to be afraid of him. Sometimes, to be afraid for him. How messed-up is he? Can he control his evil impulses or not? What drives him? Once I realized that, my killer fell into place for me. And the sad truth is, now that I know him, I feel sorry for him. But whatever you choose, he has to be interesting.

I don’t know if you read favorite authors and study what they do…or, if like C.S. Boyack in his Story Empire posts…you watch favorite TV shows or movies and study them. But there’s stuff to be learned by a craftsman who does something really well. I’m not expecting to write a Louis Kincaid type novel. I don’t even want to. I mean, P.J. Parrish has already done it and done it really well. But I can learn things from that sister writing team that might make my writing better. Every time I read someone who does something really well, I pay attention. What makes it work? What makes it stand out? And for now, I want to know how to add more tension to my stories.

Hope your stories are coming together. And happy writing!