Saturday, April 6, 2013

Building Suspense


Dorothy H. Hayes (Guest Blogger)

Although a murder may be committed at the beginning of a mystery, the reader most likely won’t know who the murderer is until the end of the book.

How do we keep a reader interested until that moment?

In a character driven mystery, one with an interesting amateur sleuth, or a savvy kind of hard-boiled Sam Spade character, the protagonist and his backstory will entice the reader. He’s not only solving a crime, but he has a family; a father he doesn’t get along with, or he’s just recently divorced, or has health problems. All the above describe Inspector Kurt Wallander, Henning Mankell’s very popular police detective. While Wallander is working on the case, he’ struggling with his own personal problems.

With regards to the unsolved crime, the secret of holding the interest of the reader is to continue to build suspense.

Lee Child said in an article in The New York Times (December 9, 2012): “As novelists, we should ask or imply a question at the beginning of the story, and then we should delay the answer. Readers are humans and humans seemed programed to wait for the answers to questions they witnessed being asked.”

He goes on, “In my latest Jack Reacher novel, A Wanted Man, it’s clear on the first page that a mysterious person has been murdered. Who was he? Why was he killed? He has appeared so early that the reader has no emotional investment in him. He doesn’t even have a name. Even so, the questions nag, and they aren’t completely answered until the last page.”

In Murder at the P&Z, I attempted to make the reader care by introducing the protagonist in the first chapter along with the murder victim. Although, as Child stated, “humans” want the answers to the original questions even if they don’t know the victim, a different curiosity takes hold when the reader learns the name of the victim, meets her family, knows about her job.

Carol Rossi is on the job, as a local reporter covering the Wilton, Connecticut Planning and Zoning Department, in the first chapter. Then she’s sent out, on a dangerously cold December night, because a dead body was found on School Road, in the second chapter. When she realizes that it’s a murder scene, and the body is that of the secretary to the town planner, she’s horrified and promises to find the killer.

With a sense of helplessness I watched Maddy’s body disappear into the hearse. She’d be taken to Farmington to the medical examiner’s office for a mandatory autopsy.... The coroner promised a full report the next morning. Her body would be delivered to Johnson’s Funeral Home in twenty-four hours. As the coroner offered his observations to the detectives, I stood off to the side. With an awkward grip on my pen from frozen fingers, I took down every word.

With each shaky letter I inscribed on my yellow legal pad, I found myself promising Maddy that the truth would prevail. I vowed that we would find the person who had stolen her life.


The trauma to Rossi is made believable by the preceding chapter that showed the relationship between her and the victim. This made all the difference. In my original manuscript, the two chapters were switched. The book began with the discovery of the body. The reader hadn’t meet the victim. The story failed to flow as well. Rossi was left trying to explain her relationship with the victim to the reader for almost the rest of the book.

Now, the reader believes that Rossi will find the killer. But she’s not a detective, so how will she do it? Will she be endangered?

Another technique to captivate the reader is the raising of the ante. For instance, in Mankell’s One Step Behind, three teens are shot. Yet, we learn that another teenage girl may be in danger. Will Kurt Wallander apprehend the murderer before he strikes again? Mankell has raised the ante. For the curious, Wallander fails. But it wasn’t for the lack of trying, so we feel only sympathy for him as he condemns himself for not saving the girl’s life. Again, the attachment to the protagonist keeps us reading.

Getting back to raising the ante, usually the amateur sleuth is forced into attempting to solve the crime. In Murder at the P&Z, when the detectives on the case refuse to consider Rossi’s theory of the crime, she turns amateur sleuth and starts her own investigation. With every bit of information she uncovers, the threat to her life heightens. Soon she’s being stalked, and she realizes that she’s in over her head.

At this point, the ante is raised because another life, the life of the protagonist, is in danger. The reader is fully invested and must read to the end.

So as the readers turn the pages of a mystery book, they are waiting for the answers to the original questions, as Lee Child explained, but they must wait until the end. Yet each sentence, is a step closer to the answer.

Child summed it up this way: “The basic narrative fuel is the slow unveiling of the final answer.”

Dorothy H. Hayes taught Language Arts in Connecticut schools, was a staff writer for the Wilton Bulletin and The Hour, and received an award for her in-depth series on Vietnam veterans from the Society of Professional Journalists. She also worked as a staff writer for a national animal protection corporation. Her mystery, Murder at the P&Z, appears this spring from Mainly Murder Press. She blogs for womenofmystery.net and criminalelement.com.

4 comments:

Dorothy Hayes said...

Thanks, so much, for your hospitality. It's a pleasure to be a guest blogger for Poe's Deadly Daughters. I'm enjoying my online blog tour, the brand new facet of the publishing life, which offers a worthy platform for writers to display their work. So thank you once again!

JJM said...

Nice essay -- I always enjoy reading the more technical aspects of writing. Thank you! --Mario R.

Dorothy Hayes said...

I should have added that having readers read to find out what's coming next is my ultimate goal. Not just having the reader held in suspense regarding the original murder or murders. Readers should expect the unexpected and continue to read to find out what will happen next. Thank you for your comment!

Jaly Can said...

We've long been inspired by urban art and have finally created a collection that pays homage to this secret addiction of ours!