Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Art of Suspense by A.J. Scudiere

Wait for it . . . wait for it . . .

Every thriller depends on suspense. Without it, it’s just another tale. Like most things, suspense is both an art and a science. The science can be learned, but the art takes talent and practice – and the best suspense writers have both. To be honest, part of the art is learning when to ignore the science, but you have to know both first.

All thrillers have a uniform goal: mess with the readers’ sleep patterns! Up all night, calling in sick to work, nearly exasperated at the inability to put a bookmark in it and get anything else done. Those are the signs of a thriller done well.

So how do you do it?

Step 1 – Begin in the middle. Okay, you can begin at the beginning. But when you hit chapter three, go back and erase chapter one and probably chapter two as well. Open with the strangest line you have (“The bird asked him how his day went”) or the one that would make the least sense if taken out of context (“The boy crawled along the ceiling”). These require explanation . . . and the reader will have to follow along to find out.

Step 2 – Cut out background information. (Why did she shoot her boss?) Don’t give in to the temptation to put it there. You can add it later. (A lover’s spat? Blackmail? Corporate espionage?) The wait makes the reading intriguing and keeps the pages turning. This step is nearly the opposite of the next step, and they need to be used in concert. The art comes in deciding which to use when.

Step 3 – Set up your punches. Think about a sitcom (follow me on this one for a minute . . .) The best sitcom jokes are the ones that build throughout the show, so that by the time the punchline comes around, you have all the pieces you need. Key ideas and occurrences should never be followed by an explanation – just like in a joke. If an explanation is needed beforehand, cut it into tiny pieces and disperse it throughout the prior info.

Step 4 – Don’t explain. Trust your readers to get it. You can only go for a certain audience – and the best thrillers assume the audience is smart enough to catch on. (A man walks into a bar . . . and says ‘ouch’. Because it’s a bar, like a beam, not like where you drink – Yup, I lost you at ‘because’.) A good beta-reader will let you know if you need more info.

Step 4b – Assume the reader isn’t a specialist. This harkens back to steps 4 and 3. You do need to explain anything that’s not in the general knowledge pool. Dice it into tiny pieces and sprinkle them liberally into the text, so that when the student shows up late for his LSAT, the reader already knows that he won’t be let in, and that the next test isn’t until February, thus keeping him out of law school this year.

Step 5 – Tie it up. But please, not too neatly. If I read another thriller where the killer explains himself to a victim while the good guys get into place, I’m going to . . . (sorry. I read yet another one of those at 10am this morning.) Please! I beseech you: Don’t do it! (Step 4 also applies to characters!)

These are just some of the key pieces to great thrillers. Sometimes the suspense is intrinsic to the story, and other times it can be edited in. Of course, there are more things you need, but we could never hit them all in one spot. What are some of the other essential ingredients for building suspense you can think of?

So bring on the edge-of-your-seat, roller-coaster, can’t-put-it-down-even-though-it’s-four-AM stories! I can’t wait . . .

* * *

It’s A.J.’s world. A strange place where patterns jump out and catch the eye, very little is missed, and most of it can be recalled with a deep breath. It’s different from the world the rest of us inhabit. But the rest of us can see it – when we read. In this world, the smell of Florida takes three weeks to fully leave the senses, and the air in Dallas is so thick that the planes “sink” to the runways rather than actually landing.

For A.J., texture reigns supreme. Whether it’s air or blood or virus, it can be felt and smelled. School is a privilege and two science degrees (a BA and MS) are mere pats on the back compared to the prize of knowledge. Teaching is something done for fun (and the illusion of a regular paycheck) and is rewarding at all levels, grade school through college. No stranger to awards and national recognition for outstanding work as a teacher, trainer and curriculum writer, like most true teachers, the real joy for A.J. is in the “oh!” - the moment when the student sees the connection and it all makes sense.

A.J. Scudiere has lived in Florida and Los Angeles among a handful of other places. Recent whims have brought the dark writer to Tennessee, where home is a deceptively normal looking neighborhood just outside Nashville.

Follow A.J. on Twitter: @ajscudiere

or at


Jenny Milchman said...

I loved this post--it triggered ideas for my own new novel--and had me rushing for a pen. Thanks, AJ!

Harmony said...

After reading A.J.'s books, I'm so glad to see this post! This author knows suspense. Thank you so much for sharing!!

A.J. Scudiere said...

Great comments guys! Did you get the opening written, Jenny?

I'll be dropping in all day, so post questions and comments and I'll get back to you!

Unknown said...

Thanks, AJ for sharing these tips. Step 3 really resonated with me. I love the setup punch. I've been trying to do something similar for Book 2 in my series, but I didn't have the words for it.

A.J. Scudiere said...

I stumbled upon step 3 when beta-reading for a friend. His story was amazing, but every punchy idea he had was followed by an explanation of why it was funny or relevant.
Since then, I have used what I call the "1 sentence rule" - I won't put in more than one sentence at a time of background or side info without a seriously compelling reason.
Miranda, where can I find your book?

Adrienne Giordano said...

Hi A.J. #3 made an impact on me as well. And I love your one sentence rule. I'll be printing that out and posting it on my desk!

Thanks for a great post.

Tracy March said...

I enjoyed your post, A.J. You've given some great guidance for creating suspense. Thank you!

Unknown said...

I write for Kensington Books. The first novel in the series, A Good Excuse to Be Bad released July 2011. Here's the link: Someone Bad and Something Blue releases July 2012.

I am going back through my edits for Book 2 now, checking for one sentence. My readers like that I don't do backstory dump. However, I think I could be a tighter writer with, so will definitely practice the 1 sentence rule. I like.

jenny milchman said...

AJ, wrote the opening and am now about 18,000 words in. It's just getting to the point where I feel like, OK, this is really going to happen! you know?

I read a book called HOOKED by Les Edgarton on openings that echoes some of your advice and I found very inspiring.

Thanks again for such a great piece! I also loved your bio. If your writer's voice is similar, I will definitely look for your book!

A.J. Scudiere said...

It looks like #3 is really hitting a chord!

@Miranda - I checked out your link. The book looks great!

@Jenny - did you do all 18,000 words today!?!?! Surely not.

And, yes, my writing voice is really similar . . .

Great talking to you all!

Anne Marie Becker said...

Thanks for being here, AJ! (And sorry I'm late.) Great tips. It took me a while to get #4 in my writing, about not hitting the reader over the head with information. Guess I have trust issues. ;)

A.J. Scudiere said...

Anne Marie - I think we ALL have trouble with #4. Even if you got it right on the first try, how would you know?
Beta-readers are a must!

Crazy Life of a Writing Mom said...

Awesome post! I loved every bit of this. Great tips :)