Building Suspense, Now and in the Apocalypse

Let’s talk about suspense. A lot of memoir writers I consult with, as well as my ghostwriting clients, are interested in building suspense into their memoirs. Who wouldn’t want to? Suspense is the very thing that makes a book a real page-turner. Suspense makes a beach read what it is, makes a mystery novel mysterious, and makes you turn down invitations to parties so you can stay home and finish that incredible science fiction book. A lot of people think writers build suspense by creating a lot of plot complications, but that is not actually how it’s done. The level of suspense in a book depends entirely upon what’s at stake. For instance, post apocalyptic science fiction is going through a supposed “golden age” right now. So let’s ask ourselves–after the apocalypse, what’s at stake? Only the fate of the entire human race. Well, that’s about as high as stakes can get.

A book like that has potential for a lot of suspense, however the suspense won’t hold unless your readers care about the particular humans in question. If the entire world is about to succumb to a take-over by flesh-eating zombies, but all the people in this particular world are kind of boring and stupid anyway, then the reader will just side with the zombies and say to hell with it. I would, anyway. So, at the end of the day, in order to build suspense, the writer has to build character. The more the reader knows about what makes these characters tick, how they got that way, what their aspirations are, what makes them emotional, and so forth, the more the reader cares about what happens to them: thus, suspense.

There is another form of suspense, though, based almost entirely on external conflict, where the book is more like an action movie, the characters are pretty superficial, but so many things happen to them in the space of a single page, that the suspense stays high, supposedly. I don’t have a beef with these type of books, I just don’t feel the suspense. I have actually bought a bunch of these action novels to read and study to see if I can learn anything from them, but I can’t even finish one. I find them boring, but a lot of other folks don’t, obviously, or authors like Clive Cussler wouldn’t be in business. I pride myself on being able to take on a variety of different styles for my ghostwriting clients, but this style is probably the one I’d find the most difficult. But hey, if we’re writing a memoir and your life really has been THAT exciting, then we would have to go for it, wouldn’t we? All told, I still hold that character is the bedrock of suspense. You have to first care about the character before you care what happens to him or her. That’s my story and I’m stickin’ to it.

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