Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Craft Book of the Month: June 2011--How to Write a Damn Good Novel, II

Here's the title of Frey's Chapter Two. (I love his chapter headings; they give you a sense of his wit.)

All About Suspense--Or Pass the Mustard, I'm Biting My Nails.

Frey's steps to creating suspense:

1. Create sympathetic characters.
2. Provide a story question, to make the reader "worry and wonder."
3. "Light the fuse": "Something terrible is going to happen, usually at an appointed time, and the characters must stop it from happening and that ain't easy.

Here are some of his examples:

Effective: "It was well after midnight when the rector heard a loud banging on the door. (The question: Who might be knocking so late at night, and why?)

"When her husband called at four o'clock and said he was bringing the boss to dinner, Lydia was in the middle of doing a valve job on their '56 Buick." (Question: How will she bring the dinner off?)

"His Ma told Jeb not to strap the old Colt on his hip when he went into Tombstone, but Jeb never did listen to nobody." (Question: What dire thing will happen when he brings this gun to town?)


"Ginger's bedroom had striped wallpaper on the walls and a desk under the window." (Questions raised: none.)

"Ocean City was no place to have fun at night, so Oswald decided to go to bed early and read how to make a paper airplane." (This is sort of a negative story question; the reader doesn't want to read on because he doesn't want to be bored.)

"Her teacher had been a witch, and Maggie was glad when summer vacation came." (The problem that arises out of having a teacher who's a witch is about to resolve itself. There's no question raised in the reader's mind about what's going to happen next.)

Once again, Frey uses examples from the masters, from Jaws to Gone With the Wind to Pride and Prejudice. Since I'm a big Austen fan, I'll use P & P to demonstrate how Austen creates suspense. (You didn't think old Jane was a thriller writer, did you? Well, think again!)

Story Question: "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife." (Question: Who's the single man? And who's going to be the lucky girl?)

"Worry and Wonder": Elizabeth and Darcy not falling in love and marrying. (Even though they don't seem to get along, the reader knows they're meant for each other.)

Lighting the Fuse: Lydia runs off to Gretna Green with Wickham and everyone's in a panic to catch up with them before she is completely ruined by the scoundrel.

Good stuff! (And now I'm off to make sure my WIP has an immediate story question, some "worry and wonder," and a great big fuse to light. Join me next week when I consider Frey's "P" word--Premise!


  1. All great advice.
    Knowing this, however, is no guarantee that your work will have all these elements. The recipe only works for those who can imagine how the finished product will look like at the end.
    Like a recipe for a dish you never prepared or tasted.

    What we really need are good mentors, coaches that critique our product and then suggest ways to enhance the finished dish.

  2. Always useful to read these summaries. I have to admit, I kind of chortled at the guy going to bed early and reading about how to make paper airplanes. It was just weird enough to intrigue me.

  3. I love to worry and wonder while reading
    I am going to be the dunce at workshop
    The GG..doesn't do this for me
    I don't care one hoot about any character...and only once when Myrtle gets a broken nose do I get involved
    only to not care again
    I think I better keep my mouth shut and ears open
    I think I will like this new book..
    will get it when I get back
    thanks for doing the grunt work and finding so many good books on writing...appreciate

  4. I just read the first paragraph (unfortunately, not much more yet) of The Hunger Games and I was hooked. THAT must be what all the fuss is about--she did it like she was supposed to. Aha!
    Must work on that.

  5. Great post. As writers, we know that suspense is key, and isn't an easy thing to do well. Good stuff here...thanks!


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