The Tools of Writing Suspense
There are many ways to plot a book. For some authors, the process is like gardening: Plant the seeds of an idea, tend them, and see what grows. For others, it’s architecture: Create a structure and assemble the plot by following that plan. I’m probably a little of both, but when it came to writing my mystery / thriller The Dark Divide (Stonehouse, 2018), I found I needed far more of a plan than I’d expected.
Looking back, these are some key elements which kept my plot rolling.
- Start with the End in Mind: The Dark Divide is a small town mystery about an outsider, Rich Evans, who finds himself trapped there by circumstances. Accused of burning down the hotel he once managed, Rich’s very freedom is at stake. Add to that a deranged character who seems bent on destroying my main character, Louise, throw in a mystery that goes back three decades, and you have the plot of a whodunit! I knew where I wanted to end, so at the beginning of the writing process, I let my inner ‘gardener’ write what she wanted while I kept the ending in mind. That final scene of The Dark Divide, in fact, was one of the first scenes I wrote! A few unexpected events appeared as I wrote, but having this general idea kept them on topic.
- Lay Out a Plot Plan: In my den, I have a wall dedicated to whatever novel I’m currently working on. I write a one-sentence summary of each scene on a sticky note, color-coding by which character it focuses on. I then lay these scenes out in columns by chapter. These scenes can (and do!) move around while I’m writing, but being able to see them in motion – color by color – lets me get the bigger picture of whose story is being told.
With mysteries, it’s important to keep your readers guessing. Moving character-scenes lets you do that.
- Get an Outside Point-Of-View (or MANY): When the first draft of The Dark Divide was finished, I sent it off to beta-readers. Their insights allowed me to do my first round of edits (and they were massive!) With this done, my agent took a look, offering his ideas for polishing. (Round 2 was slightly easier.) Then the book headed off to a professional editor.
In my case, this was Dinah Forbes, one-time executive editor from McClelland & Stewart, who I had worked with on book 1: Edge of Wild. She took The Dark Divide plot to the next level. Her complex, scene-by-scene analysis broke the manuscript down like a mathematical formula, pointing out issues with pace and plotting, and suggesting ways of tightening the mystery. Her notes were both terrifying and satisfying to read. If someone with a background as strong as Ms. Forbes says your book is ready to sell, it is!
- Rewrite, Rewrite, and Rewrite Again: Every book benefits from revisions, but if you’re writing a mystery / thriller, edits are the difference between success and failure. (ie: See everything I said in the last paragraph.)
- Let Your Characters Have One Out-Of-Character Moment: The last hint came to me as I was deep in the throes of revisions, and that is the question of how you throw enough shade on everyone in your story to leave them open to being the potential villain. It’s incredibly easy, and works beautifully in the realm of building believable, flawed personas for all the characters in your book.
You let them have flaws.
And every once in a while, you (sparingly) allow them to do something ever-so-slightly ‘off’. Why? Because your readers are smart, and they’ll be watching for it. You want them to wonder, and there’s no better way to do that then leave everyone as a possible suspect.
In the end, the only way to know if your mystery actually worked is to let your readers have a go at it. When I sent it off to Dinah, my editor, for the last time, I wondered if she’d ‘catch’ the ending. She didn’t! And that, more than anything else, told me it really was done.
Written by D.K. Stone
Danika Stone is an author, artist, and educator who discovered a passion for writing fiction while in the throes of her Masters thesis. A self-declared bibliophile, Danika now writes novels for both teens (All the Feels and Internet Famous) adults (Edge of Wild and The Dark Divide).
When not writing, Danika can be found hiking in the Rockies, planning grand adventures, and spending far too much time online.
She lives with her husband, three sons, and a houseful of imaginary characters in a windy corner of Alberta, Canada.