Ramping-up Your Suspense (part 1)

Now that FutureWord has published a few illustrated children’s books, we are graduating to novels. Two more children’s storybooks may be going out this year, but our goal is set for five novels to be released by September. A lot of final touch editing is being done by the authors before the editors get the books.

I attended a monthly online writing class years ago that was taught by Ann C. Crispin. The class covered a wide range of writing and editing tips that included some of Stephen King’s editing know-hows as well as some other science fiction/fantasy authors. Ann remarked that her publisher sent back her manuscript to ramp-up one chapter. This comment snapped me to attention. What did she mean by, ramp-up? That was not covered in a previous class!

I re-checked my logs. Nothing was in there that really told me specifically what that meant. It was second nature for me to guess that the term was another way of saying, “Put your back into it.”

I never found anything in those logs to answer that question for certain. How would I know if I had ramp-up my chapter or not?

I Googled it and got many various definitions but all of them saying the same thing: Make more effort to speed up the suspense and pace of your story.

How to know if your back went into it or not is another story. That is when we need experienced editors. Later, I can share my own way to put my work to the test.

I am receiving submissions of manuscripts weekly that need a lot of editing before I can actually read the manuscripts. I returned those back to the writers. I thought if I posted something on FutureWord’s web site that gave examples of some of the problems I see, then perhaps some might look back over their work before they send it out to any publisher. I bought Kindle versions of different books on editing. Books like The Idiot’s Guide to Writing a Novel and How Not to Write a Novel . Then I ordered print books. Everything from Randy Ingermanson’s Writing Novels for Dummies to Sol Stein’s How To Grow a Novel.

Since some of the writers who have submitted manuscripts for publishing will ask what ramping-up suspense is all about, I am creating this blog using mostly excerpts from some good Indie authors to show and tell what a ramp-up action suspense chapter looks like.

The best suspense scenes have been withheld to avoid spoilers and the resolution is not revealed in these excerpts. I will use a few blogs to complete the demonstration of Ramping-up Your Suspense.

Excerpt One

The first excerpt I will use is an excerpt from Best-Selling author, Michelle Izmaylov’s science fiction /fantasy called “Galaxy Watch.”

The age group is the same for the Harry Potter series. Michelle’s series is “The Galacteran Legacy.”

In this following excerpt, young protagonist Nicole Sky has found a peculiar looking watch and through investigating finds that it beams her to planets in far away galaxies. Conflict: The Earth is slowly heating up and global warming appears to be the problem. Nicole thought the day could not get worse. She goes out to try to make the day better when she finds a peculiar looking watch that beams her t a far away planet.

Here is the passage in which Nicole is asking her alien friends about another world they are about to transport to and the conflict starts out like this:

“Nicole . . .”

Someone was calling to her, close by. Nicole stirred faintly. Her vision was soaked in darkness. The air smelled of the cold. Her memory was fuzzy, but there was something . . .

And then she remembered. Her fingers flashed instinctively to her side. She touched unbroken skin.

Nicole tried to sit up, but it was a few groggy moments before she could fully lift herself to that position. The high walls of the familiar cave reared around her. Before she could speak, two creatures barreled into her head-on.

“You’re okay!” Lily exclaimed. Arli licked Nicole’s face in excitement.
“No clue how, though,” she groaned. “That creature nearly tore me to bits.”

“You are lucky we found you in time.”

Nicole was shocked to find Diu’s voice gentle, worried, and, above all, entirely friendly. He squatted next to her with no apparent signs of rage.

She burst out, “Look, I’m sorry, okay? The first time was bad enough, but this time was insane! I don’t know why I didn’t wait for you two. I went out by myself, into the cold, nearly got myself killed, and—”

“It’s okay,” he said softly. “Just be glad the Korrak king is an old acquaintance of mine. I managed to cut his hunt short.”

Nicole stared as if he’d started break-dancing. “You’re not . . . mad?” she gasped.
“You’re safe. That is all that matters.”

“But . . . but . . .” she trailed off, utterly confounded. Talk about major mood swings.

He didn’t let the subject linger. “I want to know what happened last night. Everything right up until we found you.”

Lily and Diu listened with rapt attention as Nicole relayed her adventure. Only once did Lily look away, casting a pitying glance at Arli, who lay curled up at Nicole’s feet. But Nicole herself could barely keep her focus on Arli’s story. Her mind was locked on a single instant.

“I owe you my life, Diu,” she finished in awe.

“There was nothing special involved. Just a Glider and a lucky guess.”

Then he changed the subject entirely.

“Any idea who took Arli’s mother?”

Nicole flinched. The one thing she hadn’t revealed was the identity of the kidnappers. “Yes, I know,” she said slowly. “The . . .” she stopped, frightened to speak.

“Who was it, Nicole?” Lily chipped in.

Silence. Then:

“The . . . the Omenra.”

This revelation was followed by a dark stillness that stifled all conversation. It was Nicole who finally broke the silence.

“What do you think they want with her?”

“I can’t begin to imagine,” Diu said solemnly. Nicole was sure he knew more than he was letting on, but before she could probe further, he said, “I think our best bet would be to start our search for the crystals. Nicole, I know you want to help Arli, so before you start arguing, I think our only hope for finding her mother is getting the crystals. Why? Because we need to find the Omenra. If they know about the crystals, they’ll be after them, too. And I have a feeling they know.”

“Just remember I made her a promise to find her mother. I won’t break that.”

“I understand. You will keep your promise. Just not immediately.”

“Fine!” Nicole barked. She knew Diu was right, that they were running out of time, that Earth was the critical problem, that her home, life, and people were in danger. Yet even after everything he had done for her, there was still something strange about him. Nicole almost felt as if she was begin pulled into a trap. What kind of trap, and why, she wasn’t sure. But she wasn’t about to blindly trust or openly follow Diu, and she wanted to make sure he knew it.

“Me, I think that sounds like a plan!” Lily exclaimed. “Just as soon as we solve the next stanza—”

“Already done,” Diu said. “We are given a reference, and then it’s just trivia. ‘Espian’ refers to Espia.”

“What’s it like there? On Espia?” Nicole asked curiously.

“Espia is a water-based world, completely submerged. But you will see soon enough for yourself.”

“Me, I guess we’re ready for the Galactera, then!” Lily said.

Nicole nodded. “We’ll leave right away.” And looking meaningfully at Arli curled miserably in a trembling ball, she added, “All of us.” The dracling squeaked half-heartedly.

Nicole pulled out the pocket watch. And stopped.

It was stupid, being afraid of the device. Twice it had teleported her safely. And Diu had used it even before then. So what was she so scared of?

There was something even stranger about the watch, if that was possible. Nicole felt it. She couldn’t name it, this strange thing, but it was there, and strong, and growing. Maybe she was just crazy. Paranoid. But sometimes, she wasn’t sure.
And what Nicole did know was that, just now, she had felt that something again.

She realized that everyone was staring at her. Lily at the watch, Arli at her hands, and Diu . . . at her face. She wondered why. He answered before she could ask.

“Your eyes, Nicole. I can read you flat without you saying a word. Fear, excitement, doubt—it’s all there. You need to learn to control yourself. You must control what you show, what you feel—”

“Hey, I’m not a robot. Not a soldier, either, in some crazy boot camp.”

“No, you’re right. You are not those things. But you are in a war.”

She chuckled. “I’d hate to see what your commanders are like.”

“My . . . what?”

Nicole rolled her eyes. “Since you’re just some guy in the lowest ranks and totally strict and serious and whatever, I’d hate to see what the Airioth leaders must be like.”

The corners of Diu’s mouth twitched. “They are strange, all right.”

Suddenly Lily broke in. “Me, I want to know if we’re leaving anytime soon. We can chat later. When we’re on Espia.”

“Fine, fine,” Nicole laughed. She found the button labeled Espia. “All right everyone, grab hold,” she instructed, stretching out her arm so the watch would teleport them all. And then, trying to control her fear, Nicole tapped the button. Regret, she hoped, would come later, if at all.

Later was immediately defined as a few seconds.

The blue vortex swelled with water. A massive torrent blasted against Nicole’s head, pounding against her body, coiling around her legs. She barely had time to swallow air before she was submerged and struggling. Judging by the darkness of the water, they were deep below the surface—wherever they were.

A furry paw brushed Nicole’s arm. Lily floated into view, hovering limply in the water. Nicole grabbed the little alien’s paw and clutched her close. Arli churned the water several feet away, choking for air. Nicole’s own lungs felt like they were about to burst. She begged for some miracle that might save them.

Then something pulled at her, and the water churned violently. She thrashed around to see what was going on. Her mouth dropped open in a silent scream. Not again, she thought.

Propelled by giant fins, a massive fish swam towards her. It was completely black except for a few yellow stripes that ran horizontally around its body. Bristling spines struck out along its back, and when the fish opened its mouth, Nicole saw jagged teeth jutting from its gums. But far worse than anything about the fish itself was what the monster did next.

Arli was whipping about madly in the water. Her eyes were bulging in fear, and when she tried to snarl at the fish, she only produced a few wispy bubbles that floated away like a last hope. The creature, which was many times larger than the little dragon, swung its great bulk up next to her.

Its jaws snapped open and swallowed the baby whole.

Nicole felt her stomach turn over. Arli, a newborn in the world. Gone. Just like that.

But the fish didn’t stop there. It turned on the only creature that seemed to be completely calm, even considering their dire situation—Diu. He seemed to hover in a surreal state for the longest moment before the fish’s teeth clamped down on him, too.

When it turned for her, Nicole didn’t even try to swim away. She’d escaped from the Klith and the tornado, from the Omenra and the spider, from the Shazgor and the Korrak . . . only to find her grave below the ocean.

She hugged Lily one last time and felt purple fur tickle against her arms. The fish beat its gigantic tail one last time, closing the few remaining feet between them. Lily’s fur brushed her arm again as the fish’s gaping jaws swallowed up the sea.

And the world was gone.

There is no resolution here. No spoilers on this page because this is the end of this chapter. Now the situation as the Randy Ingermanson would say, has gone from bad to worse. While trying to figure out what turned a normal day into an intergalactic space adventure she meets and becomes allies with space aliens who have offered to help her get back to earth through the use of the watch. The problem with that is the watch is also wanted by another alien species and so is the mineral (crystals) that make the watch tick. But there are others who want the watch because it is possibly the countdown to the Earth’s doom. Maybe global warming is not caused by greenhouse gases after all? The dialogue between the characters in Michelle’s excerpt tell of an previous conflict that is now being followed up by another.

Excerpt Two

The following passage of suspense comes from the 2004 mountain science fiction/adventure novel “The Sun Singer.”
Malcolm Campbell is going by the older school of writing.

To his work, I will quote Sol Stein:

“The writer’s duty is to set up something that cries for resolution and then to act irresponsibly, to dance away from the reader’s problem…prolonging and exacerbating the reader’s desperate need for resolution.”

In the following passage, the 15-year-old Robert Adams was hiking in a mountain valley near the hotel where he and his folks were staying during a vacation. He has just stepped through the doorway of a strange mountain cabin and found himself disoriented. Now he’s forgotten his mission and doesn’t really remember the fact he’s now in a look-alike, alternative universe. He’s also forgotten his name and thinks it’s Sonny Trout…from a confused memory of having seen an osprey catch a trout in the mountain lake earlier that day. As he is moving along through the woods his memory is falshing back.

The author opens the scene in this way:

Still thirsty. As he leaned over to drink, he heard the deep call of an owl, hoooo hoo-oooo, hoo hoo, lonely sounding in the silence. He stood slowly and looked across the pearl-white lake surface to Argyle Point. Horned owl, probably, over near the trail junction.

Hoooo hoo-oooo, hoo hoo. Closer now. He got out the map—easy to read in the moonlight. To the southwest, the steep trail behind him followed a creek past the Angel Wing to Morning Eagle Falls—Apinákui-Pita, Grandfather’s Blackfeet name. The proximity of the falls seemed significant. Hoooo hoo-oooo, hoo hoo. Very near, in the meadow at the head of the lake where the map showed a horse trail crossing the creek.

Grandfather told him to listen to Owl at night.
“Hello Owl,” he said, softly, and, yes, he had his voice again. Then he whistled across the water, using his grandfather’s technique—hooo, hoo-oooo, hoo hoo—and to his ear, his call was identical to the call of the owl.

No response but the rapid fluttering of dark wings overhead.

If Alice were here, she would say there would be hell to pay for getting back to the hotel after dark. Tomorrow he would show her the lake, the great trees, and the wildflowers on the slope of Argyle Point. According to the map, there was an abandoned copper mine near the talus slopes above the wildflowers. He would say nothing about the mine. Otherwise, Alice would imagine lurking bears and forget all about the flowers and butterflies.

Sonny tore open the sack of potato chips and ate them quickly. Good salty, crunchy stuff. Loud, too. He glanced up at the dark avalanche chute. Was the sound from a crunched chip loud enough to bring down an unstable snowfield? He laughed at his foolishness and his laugh shattered the quiet forest.

He picked up the rose. He could not leave it here. He thought of Heather with a rose in her hair or in a blue vase on her nightstand while they slept untroubled by old dreams. For now, it fit nicely into the old cookie tin where he had originally stored his matches, compass, bandages, aspirin, and extra flashlight batteries. He would tell her he picked the rose at the glacier’s edge and she would believe him for as long as it mattered.

He devised a comprehensive plan. He would stumble back to the hotel and along the way work out a reasonable explanation for his tardiness.

On the ground at his feet lay a blue band of light. When he touched it, the light went out. A lost alpenstock gleaming in the moonlight like Robert Adams’ magic staff in the dream. It would make a good walking stick.

When he hiked through here earlier, the route was free of debris. Now it was narrow and unkempt. Low-hanging limbs scraped his head from above; vines and shrubby undergrowth pulled at him from both sides. Deadfalls—ancient pines and firs busy reclaiming the trail in their own way-were the most time-consuming barriers.

There was nothing for it but to carefully climb over or shinny under each fallen tree while shadows danced and everything else dripped, trickled, oozed or seeped night’s perfumes.

Hoooo hoo-oooo, hoo hoo

Sonny jumped five feet. Now he really felt spooked and began wildly shining his flashlight behind every tree and into every thicket. His poor attempts to remain calm only made him more ill at ease.

He tried to distract himself by replaying the dream, assuming it was a dream. There were annoying discrepancies: the staff, the lousy trail, the lateness of the hour, and the disconnected memories of Robert Adams.

Where the trail wandered aimlessly, progress was slower. The underbrush concealed rocks—ankle wounders, grandfather called them. A stinging nettle crawled up his pant leg; he cringed at the pain where it pricked his skin just above the sock. The neck-high tangle of vines fought him like an octopus, the hands of nature spirits, or the arms of a Nunnumbi.

In a heavily tangled spot, he snapped the flashlight onto his belt and let loose a string of profanity as he shoved and twisted the unwieldy staff through the mess. Some damn thorn scraped his face. He was out of breath. As he reached for the flashlight, he expected to the owl to speak again, but he heard something else.

Nothing he could identify. He kept the light off and waited. A light breeze rustled the thicket—probably words of wisdom he was missing.

He couldn’t see the shining lake. He couldn’t see anything, and his pulse raced as he remembered the smothering darkness of his dream. The darkness hadn’t stolen his voice again—the high-quality swear words were proof of that—or his memory. Trout. Yes, he still knew his name, and hopefully the sound he heard, or thought he heard, was not that of a search party. If his mother had talked rangers into looking for him, how would he live down the embarrassment?

After five more minutes of soundless nothing, he pulled the flashlight off his belt. The clip snapped back into place, pinching his thumb. Then he heard the sounds again.

Voices. Voices ahead of him on the trail, as yet indistinct. He crouched down and waited. If it were a search party, he’d just have to hang his head, like Arnold’s puppy when it was caught on the couch, and admit that he was wrong to hike alone and stay out so late. Yet, if he did step through a door into another world, what then? He hid his pack in the underbrush and crawled forward.

He found every dry twig in the forest and every one of them cracked in two as though he were chopping firewood in front of a microphone. Where was brother owl’s hoooo hoo-oooo, hoo hoo and the wind and the rain when he needed some covering noise? The earth was cold to the touch.

An arm wrapped around his neck, choked him, and pulled him over onto his back. That dream! He knew what was next. The boot slammed into his stomach and the dirty rag shoved in his mouth blocked his weak protest. His hands and feet were bound with a heavy rope.

“Over here. Gem.” A woman’s voice—the word in his dream notebook was a name?—and obviously no one from the hotel out to rescue him. “Gem, I’ve caught us a lousy spy.”

Sonny saw nothing. His captor had the eyes of a cat. Or, with the ability to operate so efficiently in the darkness, was a cat.

The night moved in front of him and four hands pulled him up on his feet, then hoisted him into a mid-air prone position. They carried him down the trail in the direction he had been heading. After taking a few steps, they were breathing heavily.
A spy? Spies were always stabbed at night or shot at dawn. Robert Adams said he heard a Blue Dove calling through a doorway. Yeah, for the hapless Sonny Trout.

In ten minutes, the night gave way to a small campfire. They set him down roughly, several feet away from it and the heat felt good. The light transformed his captors from gasping apparitions into flesh and blood women. One wore a brown, leather dress. Her hair was black and twisted into long braids. The other was shorter, younger, and wore dark green trousers and a flannel shirt. She perspired heavily. Her shoulder-length hair was fiery red, tangled and matted to the sides of her face. She paced in front of the fire catching her breath. Finally, she stooped down in front of Sonny, turning up her nose in disgust as though she were looking at a helpless bug lying on its back. Then she laughed.

“In the Guardian’s name. Gem, we’ve robbed the cradle with this one. He’s a mere child. Justine must be desperate.”

“Quiet, Cinnabar,” rasped Gem, “the forest can hear. There may be others.”

“If there are others,” said Cinnabar, “they’ll meet the same fate as this one.” She leered at Sonny. “There are numerous ways to die, little boy.”

These names: Gem, Cinnabar, and Justine. Clearly, his dreams had been warnings he had glimpsed too carelessly to heed. He felt a mean-spirited anger, mostly at himself, for while he was once again trying to remember his dreams, he was holding back out of self-preservation. To keep from seeing things he did not want to see, he had blinded himself, and now he was a captive.

Gem stood, arms crossed, feet set wide apart, and appraised him calmly. A quiet, confident power flowed through her veins.

Cinnabar was a fidgeting bundle of motion. The hatred in her eyes burned sharp and wild. Sonny wondered which of the women was the most dangerous. His future was as cold as the fish that hung between the osprey’s talons.

In this excerpt, Malcolm danced away from some serious concerns for me as the reader. He was actually thinking of his wife. His grandfather. Eating. Yet, he was bringing me back each time to the conflict at hand to make me think he would take the action to resolve the issue. But then, it would all be over for me!

So, after Malcolm’s protagonist started regaining his memory of his family, the reader believes an issue is about to be resolved. but Malcolm has planted seeds for another issue to develop, just like Michelle did in the previous excerpt. He waltzed me right into the hands of his protagonist’s captors. Thus, Stein’s method was followed here in this excerpt with a touch of The Snowflake Man. He also had the resolution just hanging around and going from bad to worse.

For a very fine example of delaying pain and prolonging pleasure, watch Days of Our Lives and General Hospital.

You will also see good examples watching those programs on how dynamite turns into a firecracker and the timer on the bomb counted down to zero without an event. Every now and then it happens on TV soaps.

This ends part one of Ramping up your suspense because I have to make room for four more excerpts and there are a lot of things to cover!

An open discussion and volunteer excerpts are welcome. I am looking for a resolution to a problem of ramping-up suspense.


About Bonnie Toews and John Christiansen

Bonnie's Blog Posts invite our readers and free spirits everywhere to share life's adventures with us. I talk about writing my novels, reading books, chatting with other writers and John's and my journeys around the world. We welcome your anecdotes to our experiences and discussions.
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5 Responses to Ramping-up Your Suspense (part 1)

  1. Sun Singer says:

    There are so many ways to ramp up suspense, from Dan Brown's fast-paced, short chapters to he more-impressionistic and atmospheric approach find in Carlos Ruiz Zafón's "Shadow in the Wind." Thanks so much for using a passage from "The Sun Singer" as an example!Malcolm

  2. Thanks for giving all the aspiring writers out there advice on how to help ramp up suspense! 🙂

  3. I would like to hear your input on the impressionistic and atmospheric approach to ramping-up suspense. All of the books I have ordered from Amazon say the same thing but a different way. Perhaps this is because it can be understood by so many types of people and interpreted by writers using different styles.Maybe Pat will set up a discussion link for that.I have been to links that asked people to describe different things like pace. I would like to see more of Indie authors explaining such problems in writing on blogspots and using excerpts from Indie books to do it.I would also like to see some type of Indie awards for books that have great styles and surpass other Indie books in editing, etc.

  4. You have really expressed so many valuable tips for writers! Thank you also for using a passage from /The Galacteran Legacy/ as an example, and I hope writers find both this and /The Sun Singer/ example to be useful in working on their own writing. :)Warm wishes,~Michelle

  5. ptbertram says:

    Great examples of ramping up suspense! So many ways of increasing suspense seem cheap to me. Often writers will end a chapter in the middle of a conversation and continue it in the next chapter. It seems contrived, a short-cut to good writing. Other artificial means such as the short chapters that Malcolm mentioned don't seem quite as contrived, but still, the best way of adding suspense is to get readers so involved in the story they are constantly wondering what will happen next. That is what suspense is all about.Lauri, I like your suggestion about a discussion on suspense. I'll do one next week in the suspense/thriller writer's group on facebook. Should be fun!

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