Today I'm delighted to welcome Niki Valentine to my blog with a guest post about novel writing and the secret to suspense.
Niki Valentine is an award-winning writer who, as Nicola Monaghan, has been published internationally to huge acclaim. When she isn't working on her next psychological horror novel, Niki teaches Creative and Professional Writing at Nottingham University. As Nicola she has published Starfishing,The Okinawa Dragon and The Killing Jarwhich won a Betty Trask Award, the Authors' Club Best First Novel Award and the Waverton Good Read.
Her second Niki Valentine novel, Possessed, will be published on Kindle on 25th July.
Over to Niki...
The art of thrilling isn’t (too) hard to master
Analysing student writing, I sometimes think there’s a mistaken belief that the secret to suspense is to keep the reader waiting and be mysterious. The problem wit h this is that, if the reader has no idea what’s at stake, why would she feel any tension or terror? In fact, the first rule of suspense, I think, is that the reader needs to know what’s the worst that could happen, up front, and why it’s important that it doesn’t. The main character’s life, love, career, reputation, whatever it is on the line, the reader needs to know, and they need to care about it too. So your protagonist is important. He or she needs to be relatable; someone we can care about.
The secret to storytelling, whether we notice it or not, is rising action. It’s certainly something we notice when it isn’t there. If you’ve seen Mulholland Drive, or Synecdoche New York, or Last Days, you will know exactly what I mean. These films have their artistic merits but suspense is not one of them. The rising action model relies on an ‘inciting incident’, which kicks off the action, followed by complications, which grow and develop to a climax and are then resolved. This model is de rigour in screen writing but key to a good thriller too. We need to feel uneasy, then worried, then a bit scared, then scared, then very scared, then terrified, then utterly terrified until we finally have the pay off and the tension releases. The action rises and rises before we are ultimately allowed to relax. The more tense we’ve felt, the more the pleasure in that release. This is why people like these stories.
There are all sorts of aspects that can be thrown into the mix. Time constraints add to the tension… defuse the bomb, for example, is a commonly used thriller device for a reason. A dilemma can be effective; save your wife or save your child, 24 style, and push your protagonist in two directions. As a writer of suspense you want to pull your reader as many ways as you can; you want to make her grit her teeth harder and harder. When writing my first novel, I remember analysing my chapters, one after another, and checking that the end of each left something urgent unanswered. Where it didn’t, I changed chapter breaks to try to make sure that, as each ended, the reader had a reason not to put down the book.
Perhaps the very best advice I can give here is similar to the idea ‘delay your gratification’. Human instinct tries to end suspense, which is why the reader will keep reading, rather than put down the book, if you keep it tense enough. So, as a writer, you have to fight this instinct yourself and not let the reader off too easily. You have to keep the stakes high, and the situation unresolved, for as long as you can bear it. And then a bit longer. In order to ensure that your reader enjoys the full extent of the relief when the story is resolved, you need to take them to a place you don’t particularly want to go to yourself.
By Niki Valentine
Published on 25th July as an ebook (£5.99)
Published 25th October 2012, £6.99 paperback original
Emma's life has always been a struggle, and now she's been accepted at a prestigious music school, she is determined to excel. But when the impossibly chic twins, confident Sophie and quieter Matilde, come crashing into her life - surrounding her with champagne and parties - they demand Emma's full attention.
Then shy Matilde commits suicide and shockingly, her identical twin Sophie flourishes. Now odd things are happening to Emma: blackouts, waking up in strange places, bizarre dreams. Something, or someone, is consuming Emma's mind. Terrified, Emma begins to doubt everything and everyone around her, especially the beautiful Sophie...