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An Easy Way to Build Suspense

Here's something that took me forever to learn.  I'm sure it's like Lesson #2 in all the "How To Write Fiction" books that I've avoided reading.  In retrospect, it's one of those crazily obvious things.

Say you're writing a novel.  You want it to be completely gripping and engrossing.  You want people to be unable to put it down.  But you also want it to make sense.

So you start with a detailed plot outline.  You create your characters and give them believable motivations and you structure their conflict perfectly.  And like any good narrative, you can break that conflict down into a cause-and-effect sequence.  (Step 1: Retired thief gets over his head on a bad bet and loses. Step 2: Villainous mob boss demands payment, threatens pain.  Step 3: Thief plots new heist. Step 4: Corrupt cop hears about plot, blackmails thief.  Etc.)

If you want to make your story easier to write, you should start by turning each of those plot beats into its own little story arc, whenever possible, with a beginning-middle-end.  Those arcs then become your chapters.  So, Chapter 1 opens with John the Thief placing a bet, it turns when he loses the bet, and it resolves when the mob boss comes to collect.

When you structure your story that way, you're basically creating serialized fiction.  That's not a bad thing - that's arguably the foundation of all modern storytelling.  It's a good approach because it works.  You approach your novel the same way you would try to structure a season of a TV show.

But here's where the lesson of they day comes into effect.  Once you have your outline figured out, go back and bump the end of each chapter back a little bit.  Don't end it at the end - end it at the second act turn.

Let's stick with this blackmailed thief plot line I'm making up, since I'm starting to get into it.  The first draft of your story structure might go like this:

Chapter 6: Eric the Cop calls John and tells him, "I know what you're up to, and I have a video tape to prove it."  John freaks out and calls up his old partner.  They hack into some phone records to find out who exactly called him, and they learn it's Eric.  They find his address and go to his house to steal the video tape.

Chapter 7: John and his partner go inside Eric's house.  They creep around for a bit and have some trouble finding the tape.  Then it turns when John's partner bumps into Eric's wife, Mary - who he didn't realize was at home - and she kills him out of panic / self-defense.  John ties Mary up until he can figure out what to do next.

Chapter 8: John struggles to deal with Mary, who keeps screaming at him about how her husband is a cop, and it puts him even further on edge.  Then he remembers there's an old safe house he can use.  So he locks Mary in his car and drives her there so he can hold her hostage.

The plot so far is fine.  You've got a couple of back-to-back twists and you've already racked up a body count - not bad at all.  Chapter 8 is a little dull compared to what happened before it, but you're setting something up, so that's fine.

Now, if you really want to keep your reader on edge, you can wring a lot more suspense out of it just by staggering those plot beats a little bit.  It should go like this:

Chapter 6: John reels from the anonymous phone call he just got and he freaks out.  After he sweats it out for awhile, he finds his old partner and get him to help dig for information.  His partner hacks into some phone records, then says, "I found out who called you - and where he lives."

Chapter 7: John and his partner show up at Eric's house and break in.  They creep around for awhile, but can't seem to find the tape.  They split up - John will check the basement, and his partner goes upstairs.  John finds the tape, but then he hears a gunshot and runs upstairs to see his partner laying on the floor, dead.

Chapter 8: Mary freaks out and tries to shoot John, too.  John wrestles with her, knocks the gun away, and ties up Mary's hands.  She reminds him that her husband is a cop, and then he drags her to his car.  He says something ominous like, "Let's see how good a cop your husband really is," and then he slams the trunk closed.

You'll notice that the actual plot itself hasn't changed.  It's just that now each chapter is ending with an ominous cliffhanger instead of "this is what happens next."  It's a great trick, and it barely involves any effort. Literally all you're doing is changing where each chapter ends.

The effect is so pronounced that it even ends Chapter 8 on a tense note, and that was previously just a workmanlike way of getting the character from Point A to Point B.  Before, there wasn't really much going on - but now that it ends with John locking Mary in the trunk, there's implied danger and the tension is much more clear.

"End your chapters in the middle."  It sounds obvious.  Like, smack-you-in-the-face obvious - I mean, sure, ending a chapter on a cliffhanger is a good idea, but how do you do that consistently?  It took me like 20 years to figure out that all you have to do is shift your outline over a tad.  It's like moving a decimal.  You've just multiplied your story by a magnitude and it took you all of ten seconds.

I've tried to put this lesson into practice as much as possible in "Born Loser," and I'm planning on taking this approach with everything I write from now on (to the extent possible).  I only wish I knew it before I published Bitter People.  There are definitely a few things I would have done differently with that one.