Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Oh, Suspense!

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In some literary circles, "suspense" is a bad word. Some feel that rich language and interesting characters should be enough to engage a reader's attention, and those who need a little pep in their fiction are lowbrow types. While it’s all lovely to enjoy the poetry of the words and observe interesting characters, you are not serving your reader if you don’t offer at lest a nominal amount of suspense.
At its simplest, suspense is built when a character wants something, but a forces or circumstances impede his ability to achieve it. Will he or won't he succeed? This is more sophisticated than what many think of as suspense, e.g., "who is the killer and when will he strike again?"
Perhaps a safer word for those adverse to the term "suspense" is "tension." There is the character and the thing he desires, and between the two, something preventing the two from meeting. That's tension. And then it is the job of the writer to unroll the story in a particular way, withholding details and doling them out in measured amounts. You are creating a kind of hunger, a need. And then you are fulfilling that need in a skillful way. It's like smelling a pie baking in the oven. The foundation of this process is that the reader must want this information, and you must withhold it in a way that doesn't seem manipulative – even though it is. Writing is manipulative. A skilled writer conceals that manipulation – she hides the puppetstrings. But make no mistake – there are strings.
If you've ever stopped reading a book because you found it dull, if you've ever had a hard time finishing a book, that's probably because the book failed to engage you with suspense. That failure can come as a result of a number of factors: you don't care about the character, you don't care about the goal, or the force keeping the two apart is unconvincing. As a writer, you must know what your characters want. Interrogate all your characters with that question throughout the writing process.
Suspense is the engine of story. Know what your characters want, know what's stopping them from getting it, and convey it to your readers in a smart, creative way.
The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Brian Panhuyzen

Brian Panhuyzen is the author of the short-story collection The Death of The Moon (Cormorant, 1999) and a novel, The Sky Manifest (ECW, 2013).

Go to Brian Panhuyzen’s Author Page