Today’s letter and post is courtesy of Susanne Matthews, author of ALL FOR LOVE.
Heart pounding, your fingertips tremble as you turn another page. It’s well past midnight, but you have to know what’s going to happen next. If you’ve ever felt like this reading a book, then you’ve been caught in the grip of suspense.
Welcome to the letter S for suspense. To write a romantic suspense novel, it’s important to understand the difference between mystery and suspense. In a mystery, the worst case scenario has happened and the story revolves around finding the culprit—essentially, a “who-done-it?” In a suspense, while something terrible may have happened, the worst is yet to come, and the focus is on preventing that from happening. If done properly, a suspense novel will be a fantastic, thrilling adventure ride for the reader.
In All For Love, someone is out to destroy everything the hero loves. They’ve killed the mother of his child, set fire to his ancestral home, and have set their sights on his teenage daughter. There you have it—the terrible thing that’s happened and the worst thing yet to come.
Rarely can the hero solve the problem all by himself, and in this novel, that doesn’t change. Greg asks his cousin for help. Enter Olivia, a trained bodyguard and former professional skier, who will keep both the hero and his daughter safe. The stage is set. Now, the task is to build the romance and find out who’s behind the threats. Here’s a look at how I do it.
- Keep the reader on top of things. The reader has to know what’s going on. He or she should be able to see imminent problems between the hero and heroine before they happen as well as how and when the danger will impact the characters. This often implies weaving backstory into the plot so that a character’s motivation is clear. Similarly, foreshadowing is a suspense writer’s friend, and the reader needs to be able to see what’s going to happen before the character realizes it has. Not only will this build an emotional bond, it will create tension as the reader puts himself or herself in the protagonist’s shoes.
- Make the stakes great enough to matter. Not every suspense novel has to deal with global annihilation, but it must showcase a devastating crisis that would rock and possibly destroy the protagonist’s world. In this story, we have a man going well out of his comfort zone to protect his daughter and a woman facing her greatest fear to do her job. Whatever the crisis may be, it has to be something the reader can identify with and empathize with the protagonist’s plight.
- Make them struggle. Throughout the novel, there have to be black moments when it seems everything that can go wrong does. Time is often a factor here, and as it runs out, the protagonist faces incredible, perhaps even insurmountable odds. The antagonist might bring him to his knees, but in the end, he will fail in his desire to destroy him and meet his dastardly objective. The hero will bend, almost break, but he will prevail—but at what cost?
- Give the protagonist problems and dilemmas to resolve. The antagonist doesn’t need to be the only one throwing curve balls. There are a number of things that makeup who we are as individuals and the same should be true of our characters. Qualities, faults, past experiences, beliefs all impact our reactions to situations. At times, we feel like we’re facing a lose-lose scenario, and so should our characters, but protagonists will make the right choice, regardless of personal cost. While the antagonist can cross the line, the protagonist can’t. He or she has to stay true to their basic moral values and beliefs.
- Throw a monkey wrench in the machinery. Essentially, the more complicated you can make the personal situation, the better. In All For Love, Greg wants to save his daughter, but she doesn’t want to have anything to do with the man she barely knows. Determined to stay by her side, Greg changes his appearance and marries Olivia, a stranger, so he can pose as her husband while the bodyguard poses as the young girl’s ski instructor, not knowing the man is actually her father. When teenage angst meets the reality of the situation, things begin to crumble. This adds another dimension to the suspense.
- Villains have to be just that. While I prefer to keep the identity of the villain secret as long as possible, when he is revealed, he has to be believable. The readers have to understand why this person is the way he is and what makes him so dangerous. Don’t pluck some minor character out of the air and make him the villain at the last second. You have to lead up to the revelation of the monster. He should appear throughout the story, either in person or conversation, so that the reader knows who he is, but he has to be smart enough to cast suspicion off himself as long as possible. While some writers insist everyone should know who the bad guy is from the get-g0, I’ve found most readers like a touch of mystery with their suspense. When they discover the truth, it comes with a satisfying “I should’ve guessed” moment.
- Finally, create strong, three dimensional protagonists. If the reader can’t identify with the hero or the heroine, it doesn’t matter how good your suspense is, the book will fail. The reader must identify with the hero. We all make mistakes that impact our lives and that has to be true of the protagonists. Readers have to believe the hero will succeed in defeating the protagonist, and making things right in his world.
Suspense writing is like baking bread. You have to mix the ingredients, knead the bread as long as necessary, and then you’ll be rewarded with that golden loaf, baked to perfection.
I hope you enjoyed my take on suspense.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Susanne Matthews lives in Cornwall, Ontario, a small Canadian city on the Canada/U.S. border. This French-Canadian author and her husband met at Carleton University. They have three children and five grandchildren.
Susanne spent more than thirty years as an educator, primarily as an English teacher with Special Education responsibilities, although she did teach French as well. After retirement, she decided to make her dream of being an author a reality. Her first novel, Fire Angel, was published in 2013.
Today, Susanne continues to let her imagination soar. She is constantly on the hunt for new characters and ideas. Refusing to be categorized, Susanne writes in a number of genres including, suspense, contemporary, historical, paranormal, fantasy, YA, and sci-fi, always with a touch of romance and a happy ending. Her characters come to life for the readers in her rich descriptive voice.
When she isn’t writing, Susanne enjoys reading novels and writing reviews for those she truly enjoys, traveling, summer camping, and quiet winter evenings in front of the fire.