Friday, June 8, 2012

Creating Suspense, and Sol Stein is Still a Genius

Even the most casual follower of my blog will have heard my crazy fangirl ravings at one time or another. I may be a grown adult woman, but when I find a book I love, I can't help forcefully shoving my opinion on others. I'm super mature. 

For me, reading an amazing book is not only hugely enjoyable, but it's also an inspiration to go ahead and (try) to write my own book that will make readers want to order in for dinner and go a day (or two or three) without showering so they can spend more precious minutes inside my world. I’m sure it’s every writer’s aspiration, in some sense. (To enthrall the reader, not to make them smelly).

So, how to do that…

I really didn’t put too much thought into this when writing The Witch Hunter’s Bible, beyond ‘Hey, you know what would be wicked? A knife fight!’ and ‘Dragons are cool. My book’s gonna have a dragon.’

Then I read Stein on Writing by Sol Stein (I know, I’m still on this topic. Bear with me, people). Dude has some great tips on how to achieve suspense. I won’t get into them all because I think that’s probably against some rule, but I’ll throw those of you who don’t have Sol’s book (you silly, silly people, you), this one quick tip:

‘You are not to behave like a compassionate human being. You are not a rescuer. Your job is to avoid rescuing the hero as long as possible.’-Stein on Writing by Sol Stein.

This is so true. Too many times I’ll read a novel and, just when my interest is piqued by say a confrontation with a villain, or a fear becoming a reality, or the emergence of a romantic rival to the main character’s current love interest, or really any life crisis whatsoever, the character quickly and/or easily overcomes the danger (worst of all is when it happens via a deus ex machine device, also known as the sudden and unexpected appearance of a contrived solution to a seemingly insoluble problem). The suspense dies, and I fight the urge to skim the book, or worse, stop reading.

To quote Sol again:

The writer’s duty is to set up something that cries for a resolution and then to act irresponsibly, to dance away from the reader’s problem, dealing with other things, prolonging and exacerbating the reader’s desperate need for resolution.’  -Stein on Writing by Sol Stein.

So don’t make it easy on your characters, people! If it sucks in life and you’d hate to have it happen to you, it’s probably great fiction material (Okay, so maybe off the top of my head there are a few things that suck in life that wouldn’t be great ideas for books, mostly involving medical procedures, but you get the idea).

There’s so much to be said on this topic, and really you should just read the book yourself, but I loved that tip. Hope it helps! 


  1. Great tip and something to think about Michelle, thanks.

    PS loved the animations!

  2. I couldn't agree more. I have read a couple of books this year where nothing too bad happens to the characters, and I was very tempted to throw them across the room.

    'Cause, you know, why should I care if the characters get resurrected everytime they get killed or if everyone comes out of the big battle unscratched? I'd rather be mad at an author for torturing their characters too much than too little.

    Great post!

  3. *hangs head*

    *rewrites ending of book*

    : D

  4. Mm! Great post! Definitely agree^^
    Will encorporate more of this in my works

  5. Masochists must make great writers. :-)

    Great points, Michelle and Stein.

    1. HAHA! I have absolutely no idea what you're alluding to, Amaleen. No idea. :P

  6. I love that first animation:D Great post! I just ordered his other book, How To Grow A Novel. Am watching the mailbox like a hawk.

  7. Stein should really start paying you - I also now got the book :P & I agree, nothing bad happens = a boring book!