How to Keep Suspense and Tension Alive in Rising Action

Caskett
Photo courtesy of American Broadcasting Companies, Inc.
Editor’s Note: As I go through the process of moving, a couple of my expert (re: smarty pants) friends — experts in writing, marketing, publishing, and social media — are pitching in until I get back. Enjoy their wisdom and visit their sites, which are listed at the bottom of their posts.

Okay, writers, we want to write detective fiction. Whether we readily admit to it or not, most of our ideas of detective fiction have been shaped by TV. I mean, who doesn’t like Veronica Mars, a strong and sassy, 16-year old (wise beyond her years) using her dad’s private eye resources to solve her best friend’s murder? Or (more likely if you’re a writer) Castle, a mystery novelist who shadows the NYPD as his muse?

But here’s the problem: when our ideas of detective fiction aren’t shaped by books, we have a problem writing pacing. After all, we’ve just imagined a 300-ish page novel as a 51 minute television show minus commercial breaks, so when we don’t have background music enticing people to watch slow revelation, we realize that describing every gritty detail of the crime scene is, well, boring.

But aren’t these gritty details crucial?

Review: Monk running toward the finish line
Photo courtesy of USA Networks/NBC Universal

So how do you keep suspense and tension alive in your rising action, conveying enough detail to drive the story forward without boring your readers? (HINT: You don’t always need car chases and explosions, Michael Bay.)

Let’s talk for a second about what mystery and suspense are. Wait –aren’t they the same? Nope: mystery is “who dun it” and suspense is “will it happen again?” Mystery is about figuring something out, about solving a puzzle, and what the lead character will find next. Suspense is about making sure your protagonist is always safe, it makes you wonder what will happen next to the lead character, and could be a nightmare.

Sometimes bookstores will classify these novels into two sections: there’s “Mystery” where the environment is a closed circle where no one leaves until the detective finds out who did it, and there is “Suspense” where the detective is solving the crime but his/her life is also on the line.

Does this mean that mystery and suspense need to be exclusive? Absolutely not.

In every single detective fiction story (and you might even argue in every story), you need to have suspense, because this is what keeps the reader going: to find out what is going to happen. The main character needs to fear death. Now, Aristotle argued that a character always needed to die in drama to get a cathartic reaction in the reader. That’s no longer a requirement in modern fiction, but the main character needs to at least fear death.  (By the way, death isn’t always physical, but could also be professional or psychological.) So your main character needs to fear, and when there is a murderer running around free of justice, it seems somewhat logical that your detective is trying to stay one step ahead of the murderer so that he/she isn’t the next victim.

But what does this have to do with your rising action?

The rising action is always the hardest to write. You have a motivated character, you want to solve the murderer, and everything in between needs to connect point A with point Z. Oh, and it needs to be interesting. Oh, and it needs to escalate in tension. Oh, and it needs to have a balance of detail and action. Oh, and it needs to balance dialogue and setting. Easy peasy, right?

Here are a few tips to make sure your scenes have the right pacing and keep the right suspense.

MYSTERY

1. Never let characters share everything they know.

Real people don’t speak in monologues, real people lie, and real people have situations where they get interrupted. Also, if your key witnesses give away all of their information too fast, it kills the tension. Interrupt them. Make them lie. Keep them crafty.

2. Know what your detective wants when he/she enters a scene.

And then make the scene go differently than expected. Your characters can’t just passively show up on stage because you think you need to follow them. Start every scene knowing what he/she wants, and then make the scene go differently. Push their limits. See who they really are.

3. Location, location, location.

If you’re writing a detective drama, you’re going to go places. Make sure you never have two characters just sitting in a room talking (it flat-lines the suspense), and when your characters are “on location,” make sure those places bring something out in those characters. Also, can you change up the reader’s expectations? What if it was sunny at a funeral? What if the meeting with a mob boss was in a preschool playground? Make things happen in unexpected locations with unexpected weather, and you’ll get more interest out of those scenes.

 

Kristen Kauffman teaches creative writing at Yavapai College in Prescott, Arizona. She has works published as novels, essays, and poems, and for Nanowrimo last November, she started writing a detective novel. You can follow her at herwebsite, on Facebook, and on Twitter.

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