Tricky, Tricky

The suggestion from my agent went something like this; “If you could write a story, a literary suspense story using that concept, well, then you might have something.”  It’s hard to believe that conversation with him took place a year ago.  I only remember it so well because it was also the one year “anniversary” of signing on with his agency.     Hmmm, literary suspense.  I’ve got the literary part of the story down, it’s the suspense that’s killing me.  (Bada boom!  Clever work with that sentence, right?)

I’ve had more than one person tell me this genre is hard to write.  Not only is it hard, it’s tricky, very tricky.  Make that double tricky.  I keep re-reading articles on how to write suspense – which in turn makes me rip sections out of my book and adjust the story to stay within the guidelines I’ve just read about.  One of the more intriguing statements I’ve come across is how different suspense is from mystery.  Before I started trying to learn about that genre, I would have thought mystery/suspense were interchangeable, similar enough to be lumped into the same category.  Granted, when you do a book search on Amazon, suspense/mystery/thrillers are all lumped together.  I think even some of the reviews on a mystery book for example, might say, “great suspense!”

So.  How do you differentiate between suspense and mystery?  One of the best examples I found and one that stuck with me, explained the two genres like this:

In a mystery, the beginning involves an inciting incident, whether it’s a murder, kidnapping, or whatever.  The main point is, the reader doesn’t know who committed the crime.  The good guy, (protagonist) doesn’t know who committed the crime.  The reader gets to go along with the protagonist as he/she solves the mystery, with all of its twists and turns, until finally, as a climax towards the end of the book, the answer is revealed.  The best ones keep you guessing until the end.

In suspense, the beginning has an inciting incident – except – the reader knows who did it.  The reader knows what’s at stake.  Think about those horror movies – the really good ones that know how to draw out the suspense by having a character doing something that YOU know they shouldn’t!  It’s the same concept here.  As the reader you know who committed the murder, the kidnapping, or whatever.  You get to go along, knowing who the bad guy is, watch how he strings the good guy along, and all the  while, the protagonist is trying their hardest to figure out who is responsible.

But – it’s even more than that. Because suspense writers have given up the big reveal, their secret right at the beginning –  so, how are they supposed to keep a reader engaged?

They have to develop interesting diversions, usually something the antagonist has cooked up.  These other events should keep the protagonist from figuring out what happened.  By waylaying them with problems, one after the other, every time they think they’re getting closer, something should happen, some other thing that prevents them from reaching a goal.  It could be the bad guy is trying to make it look like the good guy did it, or maybe the bad guy is trying to win over the good guy, make them their buddy, gain their trust.

Whatever it is, there needs to be a cesspool of problems throughout the story.  At this point, I’ve got the cesspool of ideas floating around.  My story is teeming with disgusting, twisted things that can/could happen.  Keeping track of all that murkiness isn’t easy, but, occasionally I’ll stick my hand in, and pull up a real slimeball of a problem and sling it into the story.  I have to make sure it lines up with what’s happened so far, before I dip my hand in again.  Tricky, tricky.

Has your story been tricky to write?


COMMENTS

  • Averil Dean

    March 18, 2014

    Reply

    Terrific post, and yeah, it’s tricky. The pace is important in suspense but it’s hard to know when to accelerate and when to let people get a breath. The book I’m writing now is a mystery, ostensibly, since we know from the beginning that the characters have died. But there are suspenseful elements, too, since the actual events of the crime are revealed at the end. So…yeah. Tricky.

    • donnaeve

      March 18, 2014

      Reply

      I loved the explanation that seemed so concise when I read it -except -I’ve come across books since then that have been categorized as “suspense,” but read more like a mystery. One I can think of is Lori Roy’s BENT ROAD.

      But, I think mystery can certainly have suspense and vice versa.

      All I want to know is…where’s our rabbit when we need it??

  • Hats off to you for trying. I’ve never attempted to write a suspense novel, and I fear it would become a ‘boredom’ novel if I did. It calls for loads of practice and technique. You are to be applauded for tackling it

    • donnaeve

      March 18, 2014

      Reply

      Awwww! Thank you for that, Peter! Tackling it, ripping it apart, shredding it, RUINING it. All in one day!

      I never thought I would try either, until it was “suggested.” 🙂 You might be surprised though. What’s on your upcoming project list now that you’ve got the first one pub’ed?

      • The next one is being edited now by some unlucky lady, and I’m on my third, which is a statement of faith because, once they are published, you suddenly realise hardly anyone knows who you are ! It’s nerve wracking

      • donnaeve

        March 18, 2014

        Reply

        I had a feeling you’d be prolific – and I bet that “unlucky” lady doesn’t feel so unlucky – she gets to read it!

        Here’s a thought to keep in mind – almost every day, I will read/hear about someone who is a bestselling author – but – I’ve never heard of them! So, in the grand scheme of things, your reputation as a writer is as well known as theirs. 🙂 See how that works?

  • Jen Donohue

    March 18, 2014

    Reply

    I’m not sure what I think of (examples or otherwise) when I think about “Literary suspense”, so I can see the trickiness. I’m embarking on a new project, and trying to figure out what people mean when something is called a “thriller”.

    • donnaeve

      March 19, 2014

      Reply

      These three areas really do bleed into each other I think, and to definitively nail each one down is akin to describing “voice,” or like asking various editors what “high concept” means to them. A variation of answers is what you get, with some likenesses and some differences. Something I read about thrillers was to make sure of a clear motive for actions taken by characters – plus something about digging deep into their psyche.

      But that works for suspense/mystery and other genre’s…so, there it is. Clear as mud. 🙂

  • Carolynnwith2Ns

    March 18, 2014

    Reply

    “Has your story been tricky to write?”

    My story is tricky because it is MY story. It took me a year to figure out how to put the damn thing together. I have to very careful because even though I have all the answers and it’s all about me, I don’t want to sound like a preachy know-it-all and self-centered, even though that’s exactly what I am. I mean really, why would anybody want to read about me? They probably won’t and that’s okay because I am writing it for an audience of one.

    I’ll be dead by the time my granddaughter might be interested in the life of her grandmother, and maybe she never will be, but just in case, I’d like her to know the content of the foundation on which her life is built.

    I have acted proper and I’ve been a real asshole, assholes have more fun. Writing about that is tricky.

    • donnaeve

      March 19, 2014

      Reply

      Memoirs. They are perhaps the most difficult area to work in – or tricky. And, you’re right. If you come across as sanctimonious or as an “asshole,” it could be the downside of the story – unless – you make it funny, or you make a reader empathize with a situation. We know that from your blogs and your columns – you can make it funny. I’ve not read anything where you’ve gone for the heart strings – but I’ve no doubt you could do that too.

  • Carolynnwith2Ns

    March 19, 2014

    Reply

    Thanks for your kind words. Until I hit a hundred pages I didn’t realize that what I was doing was a memoir. It’s fun to revisit my younger self. Now if only I could remember…..


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