Monday, March 1, 2010


Imagine, for a moment, if a mystery novel read like this:

There is a small English village named Piddlington-on-the-Stowe. One dark, stormy night a body is discovered inside one of the quaint thatched cottages. An amateur detective quickly solves the case by picking up clues the police never find. Tea is served.

Every mystery, no matter what its sub-genre, needs suspense. Readers want a few moments of wondering and worrying what's going to happen next. A good mystery will keep readers turning pages deep into the night.

Having survived a certain gold medal hockey game yesterday, I'll offer these observations on how your characters might react to a suspenseful or tension-filled situation.

Heart rates increase. Your character might be able to hear their heart pounding in their ears or feel their heart has moved up to their throat.

Attention sharpens. The outside world disappears as your character focuses all their energy on the crisis at hand.

Time disappears. Time ceases to tick along at its regular rate. Seconds could fly by or drag. The situation might only encompass a few minutes, but to your character it could seem like years.

Silence. People don't talk in a tense situation. There are no screams of horror - that's a reaction to a surprise. Suspense is silent.

It is only after the tension breaks your character might notice their breathing starts to return to normal. If all has ended well, then the celebrating commences. Now there's shouts of joy and back-slapping.

Survival is the ultimate adrenaline-rush.


  1. Elspeth - What a wonderful description of suspense! As you say, it's a crucial part of a mystery, so it's important that it be written into crime fiction. As I read your description, it occurs to me, too, that some of our reactions to suspense aren't what you'd call stereotypical. As you say, suspense is silent. It's nerve-wracking and it does involve sharpened senses and, I might add, stomach-twisting. It doesn't involve the screaming and running that goes on in bad films and TV. Instead, suspense can leave one frozen into immobility. Thanks for making me think of this.

    Congratulations, too, to you and your countryfolk on a wonderful showing at the Olympics. Well-done! *hand extended for a shake*

  2. Karen; Canada rejoiced yesterday. It was wonderful.

    Margot; Thank you for your kind words - and the US did VERY well - most medals ever! Yesterday things across this country got VERY quiet. You could almost feel all of Canada holding its breath.

  3. Great points and ideas. I really like this line-

    "Survival is the ultimate adrenaline-rush."

    That would make a great dialog line/response when a character is asked why he/she gets involved with such high risk situations, hmm?

    Marvin D Wilson

  4. Old Silly; I've thought of that. Now I just have to write a character to go along with the line!

  5. Congrats on the win :)

    I like dragging out those seconds and hearing every tiny sound.

  6. Carol; I'm sure, in fiction, dragging out every second would be enjoyable. In life? Not so much. I was thrilled to be able to breath again.

  7. I’d get more done if mysteries read like your example because they’d be really easy to put down, but then I probably wouldn’t buy them to begin with. Your last line reads like the perfect first line of a novel.

  8. I too love that last line as a first one and maybe as a last one too! Your descriptions of suspense felt are right on - especially the time distortions. Makes you wonder if time is really what it pretends to be...

  9. What Hockey game? Okay, okay, Congratulations (mumbled). Can't say I'm not a sore sport! Ha.

    Best Wishes, Galen
    Imagineering Fiction Blog

  10. Great points about suspense! And congrats to Canada on the hockey win! I'm missing the Olympics already.


  11. Jane; It would be much easier, wouldn't it? Ah, well.

    Jan; Time can play strange tricks on us - not to mention how fast this year seems to be disappearing!

    Galen; (mumbled) Thanks.

    Michele; I miss them too! This place will never be the same.

  12. I experienced all of those symptoms during the hockey game yesterday! :)

  13. Who knew a simple game could be so nerve-racking and include so much suspense. Congrats on Canada's win. Good comparison.

  14. Jemi; I think the whole country did. If you wrote that ending, the manuscript would be rejected as too far-fetched.

    Mason; Indeed, indeed. Honestly, I didn't need a lesson in suspense, but I'll take it since I now know the ending.

  15. Great points! And congratulations on the happy ending for the Canadian team!

    Great minds think alike...I'm doing a suspense post tomorrow. :)

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  16. Elizabeth; Thanks for the congratulations - it was indeed the absolute best 'happily ever after' for all Canadians. I look forward to your post!

  17. First of all, I love the name- Piddlington-On-The-Stowe. I'd check into a cottage there, but preferably the one without the body.

    Yay for Team Canada! (Since I'm from Alaska and people often believe it's part of Canada I think I'm entitled to cheer.)

  18. Stephanie; I've always wanted to visit Alaska. And, yeah for Canada! These past 17 days have been magnificent. However, the US has had a marvelous games. But this country has exploded with pride. It's not a bad thing.

  19. Much as I like tea, if someone gave me the first story to read, my only regret would be that I cannot inflict any physical harm by hitting them on the head with it.

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