Discover more from PRESENT TENSE
A Fraud’s Guide to An Elusive Genre
Does suspense writing have rules? (Other than: take hot baths)
While planning an upcoming class on suspense writing and trying to decide whether I should feel like a fraud (what do I truly know about suspense, after all?) or an earnest apprentice, I stumbled upon this cheerful bit of self-deprecation from the hugely successful author Anthony Doerr: “First, I’m an absolutely terrible writer of suspense. I use up most of my sentences describing trees or snow or light.”
Later in the same essay—just in case you missed his assertion—he says, “It is safe to say, actually, that I am possibly the worst suspense writer in America.”
Google “Doerr suspense review” and you’ll easily find the opposite opinion: that Anthony Doerr writes suspenseful characters and situations with finesse. But still. Does he know how to impart the formula of suspense? Possibly not.
I don’t either. Yet I teach. And I co-write a Substack.
So today, at a low-point in my ability to explain suspense, even to myself, I thought I might invite you into the dark cave of my uncertainty, where you might bump into a few helpful handholds, enjoying the clammy company of writers who don’t precisely know what they are doing, and yet manage to do it well.
The same day I found the Doerr quotes, I happened to read an excellent Substack by Amy Gentry, author of the bestselling Good as Gone, which earned her a two-book, six-figure advance, in which she said, “As implausible as it sounds, I had produced a psychological suspense novel completely by accident, without knowing anything about the genre.”
I wish I could tell you how many times I’ve read and heard similar claims by mystery or thriller authors, especially those with more literary inclinations—that they didn’t even realize they were writing in those genres until an editor slapped on the label. They just thought they were writing good stories. They were simply following a question or a haunting image, listening to the first words of an insistent character’s voice, or letting scenes unreel on the movie screen of their minds. They were writing in order to find out what would happen next.
Here’s Gillian Flynn, arguably one of the most successful suspense authors of all time, and the reason that so many thrillers still have “gone” or “girl” in their titles. “I probably write two novels for every one I end up with—lots of deleted scenes as I try to figure out what it is I’m really interested in, what it is I’m actually writing.”
She also takes long hot baths, in which she reads, “pretty much every night,” by the way. (There’s one tip.)
Good suspense is often written by humble accident, in other words, by people who focus on character and accept the importance of plot (whether or not they plot in advance). But many top suspense authors don’t seem to consciously know how they are doing what they’re doing.
Lisa Jewell will gladly tell you one of her simplest tricks. She ends each chapter on a cliffhanger and starts the next chapter in another place, often with another POV.
She also finds inspiration in the darkest parts of her own autobiography. Married briefly to an abusive man, “I’m constantly drawn back to writing about coercive controllers,” she told Publishers Weekly, following the recent publication of None of This Is True. “My first marriage was probably the most interesting thing that’s happened to me—in the bleakest, most gothic way imaginable. It’s character building for a writer.”
But that seems to be the end of her “how-to” lesson. When it comes to writing, Jewell proceeds organically and often without any sense of where her characters will take her.
“There’s no notes anywhere. There’s no Post-It notes stuck on a whiteboard. There’s nothing for me to hang anything onto, apart from what I’ve already written on the page. It’s absolutely deliberate that I write like that. In terms of twists—the huge twist that you never saw coming—I don’t think of those. I work very hard not to work those into my books, because that’s how you can kind of warp lots of really, really winning narratives, if you’re desperately trying to fit something in to surprise the reader.”
Given how many bestselling suspense authors don’t follow a road map—certainly not one they can articulate—what’s a writer to do?
Lean into our own darkest anxieties, yes.
Strive to create lifelike characters and willingly follow them to unexpected places, yes.
Set our stories within worlds vividly created—trees, snow, light—yes.
But what else?
Before I overstate my case and pretend there are no rules or road maps at all, let me admit that I do believe in a few. For starters:
Many writers withhold too much, especially in early drafts (guilty!). As Hitchcock reminds us, the reader needs to know there is a time-bomb ticking away. Hide the bomb, and you get surprise when it goes off—but surprise is a fleeting and weak force, compared to suspense.
Many writers rush through their most exciting scenes (guilty!), when in fact they should be slowing down, dwelling on the details and dilating time as much as possible.
Suspense is a genre of emotions. It’s not enough to make the reader think. She must feel anxiety or longing. In order to feel, she must care. That’s why well-drawn characters, the kind that stir our empathy, matter as much as plotty twists and turns.
I also believe in patterns, and the role of self-study, especially when it comes to becoming more aware of one’s own taste.
A few years ago, I spent a fun afternoon discussing a dozen or so favorite recent thrillers with my daughter, who is also a writer. Analyzing them with pen and paper in hand, we found some patterns. I’ll share just two:
In the most satisfying books, the villain hid “in plain sight,” often appearing at first as either a hero or the victim of the crime.
In the least satisfying books, the villain was a minor character who appeared in the story too late.
The observations about villains were so simple I was hesitant to trust them. But in my reading ever since, I’ve paid attention and found the same pattern. But that’s my taste, again. Not necessarily yours. One thing I do know: I wouldn’t have spotted the pattern if I hadn’t spent just an hour or two with a notebook in hand, looking. Best of all, it was fun.
In search of a conclusion, I can only say that I continue to stumble uncertainly into this genre—a genre that is, itself, all about uncertainty. The balancing act for the writer is managing what is known with what is unknown—asking questions and then answering them, but only in the service of creating yet larger and more anxiety-provoking questions.
I’ve written in other genres—historical fiction, for example—that felt much clearer to me from the start. My first attempt at historical fiction, The Spanish Bow, sold to a large publisher easily and profitably; I barely had to revise it. Beginner’s luck? Yes. But maybe the type of book had something to do with it, too. I’ve published four more books in that genre while shelving only one manuscript as unsalvageable.
When it comes to thrillers, on the other hand, I’ve started many more than I’ve finished. In most cases, I arrived at the midway point well aware that something wasn’t working. The setting I’d chosen was too diffuse to create sufficient tension. A character wasn’t sufficiently engaging. I’d let my villains wander too far “off-screen.”
The fact that I could tell, without a doubt, that something wasn’t working suggests that the genre indeed has its rules, as hidden or flexible as those rules may be.
But I also felt, each time, oddly undeterred, and willing to begin again. Keep the dramatic question, scrap the plot. Keep the plot, scrap the main character. On and on, even while feeling like yet another stumbler in the dark, and yet willing to embrace that darkness, hoping to belong someday in the company of writers like Patricia Highsmith, if not for her brilliance (or her odd habits), at least for her enduring stubbornness:
“You should have the feeling, as every experienced writer has, that there are more ideas where that one came from, more strength where the first strength came from, and that you are inexhaustible as long as you are alive.”
Is that really the only secret—not in terms of how to write suspense, but how to live a happy life, learning by trial and error how to write suspense?
(Caveat: The Talented Mister Ripley author really was brilliant. But she also kept pet snails, which she smuggled between England and France in her bra. So let’s not forget that.)
If you’re a writer and agree or disagree with any of the patterns or observations I’ve included here, and especially if you have ones to add, let us know in the comments.
*Note in the poll above that I don’t think any of us believe in a single “formula” for any kind of writing! But there isn’t room in the poll header to type, “adheres to a set of expectations that allows for and encourages deviations but nonetheless has some pretty firm internal scaffolding that is recognized intuitively by many readers and demanded by many publishers.”
Share your wisdom or your doubts—please!
Andromeda Romano-Lax is the author of six novels, including The Deepest Lake (Soho Crime, May 2024), about a grieving mother’s pursuit of the truth about her daughter’s suspicious death in Guatemala.
You can judge for yourself by reading his essay, “On Suspense, Shower Murders, the Sword of Damocles, and Shooting People on the Beach,” published in several places, including A Kite in the Wind: Fiction Writers on Their Craft.
Perhaps not knowing and not caring—excessively—about how to write a thriller is the key to doing it well! (Alas, I love every kind of “how-to.”)
From Bookriot—and note not only the snails, but the bath!
July 28, 1946
I am so happy right now that life itself is a church, a religion. I ride the bike into Kennebunkport and come back to take a bath and write, and when Ginnie wakes up, I drink a cup of coffee with her. We collect snails and rocks at the beach and compare them to our geological books from the library. In short, we are living like kings.
Patricia Highsmith: Her Diaries and Notebooks 1941–1995 p. 369, translated from German