by Alison Gaylin
I love a good suspense story—the type of dark, twisting tale that keeps me on the edge of my seat, turning pages, barely able to wait for what happens next.
That’s the effect you strive for in writing suspense; that emotional investment in the plot. But achieving it is easier said than done. A book can have the most intricate, fascinating plot, but if the reader doesn’t connect to the characters—the main character in particular—she’s not going to follow those twists and turns, no matter how brilliant and surprising they are. Think of the plot as a car, and the protagonist as its engine. That car can be a shiny new Ferrari, but no one is going to want to drive it anywhere unless that engine is in tip-top shape.
So how do you get readers to connect with your main character? Making them human helps a lot—giving them flaws and failings that readers (presumably also human) can relate to. Also, voice is key. Whether you’re telling your story in the first person or the third, a unique, compelling narrative voice is what ropes readers in and gets them interested in the action. One way to achieve both of those things is to get as deeply under your main character’s skin as possible.
Most of us are accustomed to telling stories in a purely visual way—we get a good sense of what something looks like, how a situation appeared. That’s all good, but you’ll go a long way in terms of creating a compelling, believable voice if you don’t stop there. When you’re describing a scene from a character’s point of view, let us know what they are hearing, smelling, feeling… even tasting if that applies. The more senses you use to describe a scene, the more visceral and rich it will feel to readers. Rather than something flat and “observed,” the action will feel three-dimensional and “lived.”
Of course, not every scene can be described using all five senses. Some experiences are purely visual, after all. But in some situations, sight is actually the least important sense. An exercise I like to give my students is this: Write a 1-2 page scene from the point of view of someone who has been buried alive. Don’t give background as to why they are there. Just put them in the scene and let us know everything they are hearing, smelling, thinking, tasting… and feeling, both physically and emotionally.
Got it? Or should I say… feel it? Happy writing!
USA Today and international bestselling author Alison Gaylin received an Edgar nomination for Hide Your Eyes, and Stay With Me, and won the Shamus for And She Was—the first book in the Brenna Spector suspense series. The author of eight published crime fiction novels, Alison's latest novel, What Remains of Me, was published in February 2016 by HarperCollins.