I sold my first book in 1999 and have been fortunate to write in several genres including historical romance, short romantic suspense, suspense and women’s fiction.
Along the way, I discovered that all stories, regardless of the genre, benefit from a little mystery or suspense. I’ve picked up several techniques that I think could help any story.
Begin with a bit of mystery. Can you foreshadow impending trouble in the first line of your novel? You don’t have to spill the beans about what’s coming, but you can offer a hint. I began my women’s fiction AT THE CORNER OF KING STREET with the line, “The universe sucker punched me twice. The first time nearly cost me my life. The second changed it forever.” Right away, my hope was to raise a question that pulled my reader right into the novel.
Say it out loud. If your characters are thinking too much throughout the story, it can drain the energy and momentum. I often make this mistake in the first draft of a novel and have learned that when it comes time to rewrite, I make my characters speak their thoughts. Sometimes it works for a scene and sometimes it doesn’t, but you’d be amazed at how a character speaking their musings out loud will kick up the tension.
Shorten the sentence and paragraphs. If I am at a point when I want my story to move a little faster, I shortened the sentences and the paragraphs, especially in the first and last chapters of the book Of course there are times when you want to take your time and write a longer sentence or scene, but if you want to notch up the suspense try writing shorter sentences.
Don’t ever end a chapter at a happy, comfortable place. You never want to give the reader a chance to smile, close the book and take a break from your story unless it’s the last page of the novel. The sad fact is that people lead busy lives and they might not return to the novel. If you find you are ending the chapter at a time when all seems right with the world, look back in the chapter to where the tension was higher and consider ending there. Remember, coaxing our readers to keep the pages turning is the goal.
Date and time stamp each chapter. Even if these date and time stamps don’t end up in the final draft, marking each chapter with a time will give you an idea of how much time is progressing in the story. It’s so easy to loose track of time, especially in the story’s middle so mark your times. I started this technique when I was writing suspense novel, but found it works really well in my women’s fiction. In my women’s fiction novel SWEET EXPECTATIONS, my heroine has closed her business for renovations. Each chapter begins with the number of days the business has been closed as well as how much money she’s lost since the closing. 14 hours and four days until the grand reopening. Income lost: $0.
Deep point of view. When you are describing a scene, don’t look at the setting through your own eyes. Look at through your characters eyes. A police detective is going to notice different things than a bakery shop owner. Amazing how a scene can change if you also change the point of view of the primary character.
Limit Flashbacks. It’s easy to insert a flashback and think that you are showing backstory verses telling it. But I’m not a huge fan of long flashbacks. I know they have a place, but I keep them as short as possible. In THE SEVENTH VICITM I needed to show my hero’s defining moment, which happened in the past. But as I was editing, I felt the book dragged a little at the flashback. I cut the flashback out and pasted it in its own document. It was fifteen hundred words. I spent about an hour cutting it down and in the end I still had my flashback, but it was only 350 words. In BEFORE SHE DIES I wrote a flashback at about the 400-page mark of the first draft. It was okay. Not really exciting. Then I cut and pasted it at the beginning of the novel and played it out in ‘real time.’ And it worked.
End each sentence with a strong word. When you end a sentence, scene or chapter with a strong word, it has a tendency to pull the reader to the next line. I’m not sure why, but I’ve found it works. When I first heard this tip I was finishing up my twenty-first or second novel. I decided to search out each period punctuation mark (.) in the book and see what my last words were looking like. I was sure this exercise would be a quick. It took me two eight-hour days and quite a few rewrites. In the end it was really worth it and to this day I still run this exercise.
If you find your story is dragging or the pacing is off, try a few of these techniques and see if it sharpens your prose. Happy writing!