by Jean Henry Mead
I once read an article by mystery novelist Phyllis Whitney concerning pacing and suspense. She said the best advice she received was from the editor of Weird Tales Magazine, a highly respected pulp magazine published before she began writing novels. The editor said she shouldn't try to keep her stories at constant high pitch, that readers grow as bored with continuous excitement as they do with nothing happening at all.
Pacing suspense is important because a reader needs time to relax between action scenes. Another important aspect of writing suspense novels, she said, is that your reader will find endless defeat and discouragement too unpleasant to read. Writers are, first and foremost, entertainers. And main characters’ lives should never be easy although small victories have to be paced strategically along the way to keep the plot interesting.
Much like mystery novelist Marlys Millhiser, Whitney started her novels with a setting. She said she wanted a place that gave her fresh and interesting material, even though it may be in her own backyard. In her first mystery novel, Red is for Murder, she went to Chicago’s loop to get behind-the-scenes background on the window decorating business. Because the book only sold 3,000 copies, she returned to writing for children, but years later, the book was reprinted in a number of paperback editions as The Red Carnelian.
Once she had her setting, Whitney searched for a protagonist driven to solve a life and death situation. The more serious and threatening the problem, the higher the reader’s interest. Whitney stressed that a writer needs to think about this powerful drive during the novel’s planning stages because it’s easier to build the plot around the problem in an action story than something much quieter. However, inner turmoil can be just as suspenseful as the threat of bodily harm if the writer remains aware of the character’s desperate need to reach a certain goal. Action doesn’t necessarily have to be violent.
The protagonist doesn’t know from the beginning of the story how to solve his problem, but sooner or later, he decides something needs to be done. That’s when the story actually begins. The character may make the wrong decision but he needs to do something rather than just drift along through several chapters.
Give your character(s) purpose and a goal to reach by the end of the book. If your protagonist is unable to reach her goal or solve her problem, bring in another character who can help. This new character may have ulterior motives or a different goal, and therein lies suspense.
An eccentric character can also provide suspense by doing the unexpected, thus making the situation worse. Whitney advised against more than one strange character per novel because it suspends belief. But any character doing the unexpected can build suspense. If the reader knows what’s going to happen next, she soon becomes bored and may lay the book aside. So to prevent that from happening, surprise your reader with something unusual although logical. Whitney had one of her characters making her way down a long, dark, narrow passageway when she suddenly touches a human face.
That’s not only unexpected, it's suspenseful.