Creating a Story, Cont'd: Suspense


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After taking a break for the election and to talk about my cute new UK cover, I’m following up on my recent posts about creating a story.

You may recall that I hadn’t quite finished the synopsis for my next book while in the Outer Banks. Once I got home, I whipped through to the end. . .well almost to the end. My last sentence reads: Brilliant last sentence goes here. LOL.

So I emailed the synopsis and its lame final sentence to my agent, who quickly got back to me with the news that she loved it. Since she loves it and I love it, this is the synopsis we’ll take to my publisher. . . soon. My agent and I both recognized what is missing from the synopsis: suspense. That’s the element I’m building into the story this weekend.

I don’t care what kind of story you’re writing, it needs an element of suspense to keep the pages turning. Those of you who’ve read my books know that, even though my stories may not fit the definition of “suspense novels,” in the usual sense of the term, they are suspenseful. Even the books that are focused on relationships have elements of suspense in them. The reader wants to know what’s going to happen next. This doesn’t occur by magic. It takes planning and the sort of thinking that makes your head ache, but it’s oh so worth it in the end. 

So how does a writer add suspense? One tried and true method is the ticking clock. The reader knows that, if a character doesn’t do X by a certain time, Y will happen, and that will be devastating. Many other conflicts can create suspense. In Before the Storm, will a special needs boy go to prison for something he (probably) didn’t do? And how far will his mother go to protect him? In The Secret Life of CeeCee Wilkes, will a woman tell the truth about what happened even though it will cost her her family and her freedom? 

One of my favorite ways of adding suspense is to give each character a secret. I may not use them all, but in the “thinking stage,” I actually write down what each character’s secret is–we all have them; don’t try to tell me you don’t! Then I see whose secret can tie into the storyline. And then I drop hints to make the reader sit up and take notice. In Before the Storm, for example, I continually allude to the fact that Laurel distrusts her former brother-in-law, Marcus, but the reader doesn’t know why. I reveal this fact from both their points-of-view, over time, increasing the curiosity of the reader to find out what led to the serious rift in their relationship. (Then, of course, there needs to be a pretty powerful reason for the distrust, or the reader will be quite annoyed with me, but that’s for another post.)

So today, I’m adding suspense to my synopsis in several ways: 1) I’m changing the order of how I reveal what happens, so that the reader (editor, in this case) will want to know what’s going to happen next. In other words, I’m taking care not to reveal too much up front; 2) I’m “mystifying” one of the major revelations so that it’s unclear to both the reader and the characters what is really going on; and 3) I’m giving at least one significant character a juicy secret that ties beautifully into the central storyline and that will give me a nice subplot at the same time.

And finally, I hope to come up with that brilliant last sentence!


  1. Denise on November 10, 2008 at 10:52 am

    I am really excited about this new story, Diane! Your secrets are always the best!

  2. Gina on November 10, 2008 at 12:07 pm

    Me too! I’m excited. You ALWAYS manage to surprise us at the end of your books Diane. I never know what to expect. I love that!

  3. Margo on November 11, 2008 at 8:40 am

    Just reading your post today Diane as my mother’s been ill for 5 days but doing much better today.
    Omigosh, when I first read your ‘my last sentence reads’ I thought ‘oh no, she’s telling the ending!’ and I had to laugh out loud at ‘brilliant last sentence’!…
    I love the fact that you have suspense and intrigue in all your books…from the very beginning you start with something that grabs us and from there on out it’s constant page turning…is it any wonder I’m usually up all hours of the nite with your novels!
    I’m sooooooooo glad your agent loves the synopsis of the book created in the Outer Banks…I’m absolutely breathless waiting to hear more about it! (-:

  4. brenda on November 11, 2008 at 4:45 pm

    Cee Cee…One of my students (a junior in high school) came to me with a “new” book by “one of your favorite authors, Mrs. B…” It was the paperback CEE CEE…She bought it the night before and was almost finished…”I’m Hooked,” she told me. “I can’t put it down.” I asked her if she thought the book was too mature for high school kids. “No way!!!” (However, I still think my 9th graders need to wait…)
    Anyway, this student likes only a “few” authors…Great success, Diane…The other students were clamoring to get the title…By the way, this was a book “SHE” chose to read, do an assignment, and receive ex. credit (not a required read). BELIEVE in HIGH SCHOOL, getting kids to read is not easy.
    Margo-hope your mom is better.
    I am at the university helping a student but had to email this…

  5. Diane Chamberlain on November 12, 2008 at 9:29 am

    Margo, I hope your Mom’s feeling better by now. Did she get what you had?
    Brenda, I so appreciate the fact that you share my books with your students. Thank you!
    Still plugging away at the synopsis. It needs about four more rounds of tweaking, I fear.

  6. Margo on November 12, 2008 at 9:44 am

    My mom is doing so much better!…thx Diane & Brenda for asking. Diane, she did not have the flu like Gary & Me, she occasionally gets an ‘attack’ of dyberticulosis (sp??) and colitus…hasn’t had a mishap for several years but last week was bad…too many salads with veggies having ‘seeds’ was the main cause. She is off the salads now and is doing great…in fact Gary is taking her shopping today!
    Diane, I have a feeling everything will fall into place for your synopsis by days end. (-:

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