- Blog Stop: Penny Dreadful Books & Reviews
- Post Date: 6.25.2014
- Topic/Title: What Builds Suspense?
Hi, Andrea. Thanks for letting me join your blog today to talk about Crossing into the Mystic.
Many people ask me what I think makes a good suspense novel, so I thought I’d talk about that today.
Building suspense involves many features, but four that I try to keep in the forefront of my mind are: (1) instilling character desire, (2) building anticipation, (3) leaving your reader wanting more, and (4) making it plausible, believable.
I once learned that as soon as possible in your book, have your character want something, even if it’s a glass of water.
So, to use that example, it would work this way: Your main character – we’ll call her Ann – comes in the house from working in the garden for three hours. She’s hot, tired and thirsty. All she wants is to get a glass of water. But, let’s ramp it up for interest: If she doesn’t take her magic pill with that water real soon, she’ll pass out/go into shock/die from mystery disease.
(As reader, I’ve learned what Ann wants. She seems like a likeable character so I’m in for the short-term, at minimum. I want her to get that glass of water. I’ll journey with her till she gets the water, then I’ll decide from there if I want to continue reading.)
Ann pulls off her garden boots, heads to the kitchen cupboard and pulls out the only clean glass she owns. (The rest are dirty, in the dish washer.) In her haste (remember, she’s very thirsty), she drops it and it shatters into dozens of pieces She yells something befitting the character sketch in your mind, and in so doing, realizes again how dry her throat is.
She looks at the glass on the floor and panics. That glass was a gift from her husband David’s dead mother, and David is on his way home! She must come up with a story to delay him. Yes, she’ll have him swing by the grocery store for something. She backs up to reach for the phone and steps on a broken piece of glass.
She shrieks from the pain, again getting a reminder of how dry her throat is, and oh yeah, of that blasted pill she needs to take. She needs to get a band-aid before she can call David.
She heads into the bathroom for the band-aid and, as she goes, she drips blood onto the new dining room carpet! Why in the world did she buy white carpet?
Now, despite a headache brought on by dehydration, and parched lips, and that shaking that comes from not taking her pill for mystery disease, and her panic to call David, she’s got to spray carpet cleaner on that blood ASAP, before it sets in…
Before I know it, as reader, I’m in the middle of the book, still waiting for her to drink that water and take that pill! I can’t put the book down because I need to know if she ever gets that glass of water. And now, because she’s encountered so many other obstacles, I want to know how she resolves them all.
Recap: Your character’s desire is to get a glass of water and take a pill. However, your job as writer, is to keep Ann from accomplishing that task. You do that by placing as many obstacles in her path as possible. This keeps your reader wanting more.
The glass of water analogy is a tough one to carry off because any reasonably intelligent person – upon finding no glass – would grab a measuring cup or a bowl, or just bend over and drink directly from the faucet. However, I wanted to use the simple glass of water to follow through on the analogy.
To make the water idea more plausible, you might have her and David be a couple of newlyweds, with very few items in their house. Perhaps they are on the run from the mob, or camping in a rustic cabin (in which case, you’d need to change her gardening task to, say, picking berries).
Regardless, you get the point – make the story as believable as possible.
In my book, Crossing into the Mystic, my insufferably independent character Grace tackles the unfinished business of the ghosts she finds in her new home, but begins to wonder if she’s dealing with angels and demons in disguise. As if the thrills and chills of ghosts and demons aren’t enough, she finds herself embroiled in a love quadrangle – with two living guys and one dead.
Now here’s the kicker: she’s only 16 and doing all this. Believable? Perhaps, not at first. But I added believability by explaining that she lost her family in a horrific accident at age 13 (she grew up fast), and the aunt that she lived with in the interim was nasty and volatile (ramps up the desire for a solo escape and willingness to deal with a ghost rather than a wacko aunt).
So there you have it: character desire, anticipation, wanting more, and believability. What other techniques do you particularly like in a suspense novel? What makes you “stick” with a book to the end?
- Title: Crossing Into The Mystic
- Author: D.L. Koontz
- ISBN: 1941103030 (ISBN13: 9781941103036)
- Series: The Crossings Trilogy #1
- Published: March 21st 2014 by Lighthouse Publishing of the Carolinas
- Format: eARC
- Genre: Inspirational Fantasy/Paranormal
- Page Count: 258
- Source: Blog Tour
- Rating: B+
Three years after losing her family in a car crash, Grace MacKenna is set to inherit her stepfather’s ancestral estate among the mountains of West Virginia. Seeking solace and healing, Grace discovers the ghost of William Kavanaugh, a dashing Civil War captain in Virginia s 17th Infantry, haunts the property. When William charms Grace into investigating the mystery that led to his death a hundred and fifty years ago, she finds herself drawn into a world of chivalry and honor, but also deception with secrets too dark to speak aloud.
Meanwhile, Clay Baxter, home from service in Afghanistan, fights his own demons and ghosts. When Clay senses Grace falling deeper into the realm of the dead, he seeks to pull her back. But is he too late?
Torn between her love for two mysterious young men – one living and one dead – Grace stands in the shadows of the Antietam Battlefield with a choice: one that could leave Grace lost forever, “crossing into the Mystic.”
An inheritance of an estate near the location of the most infamous of the battles of the Civil War pretty much guarantees that it would come complete with a spectre. While Grace was uncommonly mature for her 16 years and somehow convinced her lackadaisical guardian to grant her permission to stay unchaperoned at Crossings for the summer. I found it required some suspension of disbelief on my part to think that a sixteen year old, with only a cat and dog for company, would have any desire to stay at an abandoned isolated estate yet I found that I came to accept this as the story unfolded. Regardless of the plausibility of Grace’s stay in a small town alone all summer long, D.L. Koontz’s descriptions are downright eerie as Grace becomes aware that she is not alone at Crossings.
Crossing into the Mystic was a unique read, an inspirational paranormal novel throughout which the concept of a person’s personal spiritual fortitude as a guarantee (of sorts) of passage to a higher state of being was woven throughout but not overtly. References to religion were subtle and Grace’s interactions with the ghost of William Kavanaugh and his history were quite intriguing though her relationship with Clay lacked enough convincing exchanges for me to believe that there would be any real connection between the two so very quickly. Despite this the primary and secondary characters were well rounded and the story itself was compelling, building a solid foundation for future growth and I look forward to what the next book in the series has in store for Grace.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
D. L. Koontz was born in Pennsylvania, but with her husband, now splits her time between their home in mountainous West Virginia and their cattle ranch in coastal plains Georgia. She has a son and a stepdaughter. A member of ACFW (American Christian Fiction Writers) and ASJA (American Society of Journalists and Authors), she is a former journalist, business consultant, spokesperson, and college instructor. After several non-fiction books, Crossing into the Mystic is her first novel.
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All of it became mine that day: the hefty trust fund, my mother’s red SUV, and my stepfather’s ancestral estate isolated amidst the caverns of the Blue Ridge Mountains. I was embarking on a 500-mile journey to make solo use of all three.
As long as I remained in Boston, I would continue to live my life backward— dwelling on the past and longing for the parents and sister who were dead. Buried. Gone. There was no way I could have known that by turning away from death I would be running into it.
That day seemed like the perfect time to launch my escape. The rising sun shot beguiling streaks of crimson through the divisions of the massive brown-stones on Boston’s Beacon Hill, teasing away any threat of “Red sky at morning, sailor take warning.”
In the stillness of the morning, I heard a house door latch, then a husky voice grumble. “Ouch … ouch … dang!”
My cousin, Michael, barefoot and clad only in gym trunks and a T-shirt, pranced between stones as he hurried up the steep three-block incline toward me. He was carrying travel snacks, but what I hoped he was bringing me was reassurance of our individual escapes.
“Grace, go! Go! Go! Click your heels and get the Sam Hill out of Oz before she changes her mind!”
Though Michael’s words echoed my resolve, I laughed. He was four inches taller and eight years older, but a million times more sociable and often reminded me of an oversized little boy.
“Auck, Dorothy.” He reached my car, glanced back toward our house, and handed me a zip-locked bag stuffed with trail mix. “You’re too late. You’ll never get to Kansas now.”
I turned to see the subject of his wicked witch allusion exit through the over-sized front door of our ivy-covered brownstone and begin her march up the side-walk with Uncle Phil dawdling behind. Aunt Tish wasn’t toting a flying broom, but she was storming along, face scowling, hands fisted.
Michael grinned. “I guess she’s saving the flying monkeys for me.”
“Maybe. She wasn’t very happy about you leaving tonight for Chile. You sure you’re tough enough to stand up to her?” I elbowed him, knowing he wouldn’t feel the jab. Despite his baby face and wire-rimmed glasses, he had the abs of a body-builder.
“No problem. She can’t control me anymore. It’s you who better leave quickly.”
“I’m going. Don’t worry about that.” I tossed the trail mix on the back seat. From the front, my dog, Tramp, watched it land and turned back to the front window, more excited about going somewhere than the goodies. He barked twice. Let’s go.
“Good. It will be two years before you’ll get another chance,” Michael warned in a whisper. “I won’t be here this summer to save you like I have before.”
“Which is exactly why I’m leaving today. Thanks for coming home to see me off. She’s not that bad you know.” Maybe voicing such hope would make it so.
Eyes wide, he said, “What? She’s an unstable, soul-sucking—”
“Shush.” I stifled laughter. “She’ll hear you.”
He sobered and leaned against my car, crossing his arms. “You’re sure about this?” “The trip? Of course.”
He shook his head. “The house. It sounds … weird. Like Norman Bates lives there.”
I looked at him, startled. Michael was generally carefree and titillated by the unknown. He loved the notion that people held secrets within themselves.
“That’s crazy,” I affirmed, lest his uncharacteristic concern unnerve me.
“Is it? Jack was so close-mouthed about the place.”
“Michael, stop it! It’s only a house. Jack was there three years ago. How bad could it be?”
“Remember. I’m only a phone call away. You have to live there what— three months?”
“That’s what the will says. Then it’s mine to do what I want. Including selling it. And, of course, that’s exactly what Aunt Tish expects me to do.”
“We’ll work that out later. Stick with this charade that you’re fixing it for your senior project, then selling it and moving back to Boston. By the end of summer, my new company will transfer me back to the states, and you can live with me.
Just don’t come back here.”
“I know, I know.”
“And keep Tramp close by.”
I shook my head to indicate his concern was unnecessary. But inside, I couldn’t help but wonder if Tramp would be able to stop all threats that I might encounter.