Taking the P (plot) out of Suspense

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suspenseRecently I read a suspense novel that left me wondering what the story was about. I couldn’t follow the storyline or figure out character motivation. Although many aspects of the novel were outstanding, I couldn’t find the plot (storyline) and that meant I had no stake in the protagonist’s life. In short, I lost interest.

After careful analyzation of story structure and my method of writing suspense, and I don’t always get it right/write, I made a checklist of what was essential to a SSS—Strong Suspense Story instead of a STOP—Suspense Totally Omitting Plot.

The writer gets ambushed along the way because she forgot her tools of the trade.

How can a writer ensure story has meaning? By taking the time to understand story is about a character with a problem.

The following guidelines will help weave story happenings from ground zero to the climax and resolution. Each scene pitches the story forward by revealing new information, twisting subplots, and unraveling character flaws and strengths. Have you established the following?

  1. A sympathetic protagonist who is unique and interesting, one in whom the reader is vested.
  2. Selecting only enough POVs to create a suspenseful read. Usually a protagonist and an antagonist.
  3. An initial disturbance that shows the protagonist handling a tough situation well. This confirms we have a hero and worth a 400 page investment.
  4. A villain who is clever, manipulative, and has a strong chance of overcoming the protagonist.
  5. An urgency for the protagonist to jump into the game and give his/her all to achieving the goal.
  6. An antagonistic setting that needs a SWAT team to maneuver. This forces the protagonist to stretch and grow.
  7. Twists and turns in each scene that have the likelihood to harm the protagonist physically, psychologically, and spiritually.
  8. Every line contains tension and conflict.
  9. A midway revelation or unexpected event that changes the outcome of the story.
  10. Dilemmas and critical choices which have a moral outcome.
  11. Holding back on providing answers. Make the protagonist work for them.
  12. Show the story through spine-tingling action and realistic dialogue.
  13. Allow the reader to experience the story vicariously by being the protagonist.
  14. The dialogue sounds like a battlefield.
  15. Vivid emotion and striking symbolism.
  16. A resolution that is satisfying and realistic. Suspense novels are not happily-ever-after.

Firewall copyThere are many other techniques to weave intrigue and keep the reader turning pages, but these sixteen will initially elevate the reader’s interest. Once the writer confirms the above details, the following questions will help chronologically outline the story and build a suspenseful plot.

  1. What is the POV character’s goal or problem to solve?
  2. What will the POV character learn or discover on the way to attaining the scene goal?
  3. What backstory is revealed?
  4. How are the stakes raised for the POV character?

Get started on the prep work for your novel. Thrill your readers with a plot that never lets them go!

DiAnn MillsDiAnn Mills is a bestselling author who believes her readers should expect an adventure. She currently has more than fifty-five books published. Her titles have appeared on the CBA and ECPA bestseller lists; won two Christy Awards; and been finalists for the RITA, Daphne Du Maurier, Inspirational Readers’ Choice, and Carol award contests. Visit her website and connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Goodreads.


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  1. Great post, DiAnn. Thanks for sharing.

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