Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Two Steps Ahead or Two Steps Behind? Mystery or Suspense?

Sherlock Holmes

Two Steps Ahead or Two Steps Behind?

by Amy Maida Wadsworth
Whether you want to write a bona fide mystery with all the genre conventions or are just looking to weave some nail-biting suspense or an air of mystery into your romance or sci-fi, the key to snagging your readers’ interest is in filling them with fear. How you imbue a reader with fear or deep concern requires several strategies, but we’re covering the two primary considerations below. Let’s start with an example:
As Sherlock approached 221B Baker Street, he saw splinters of wood where the lock had been jimmied open. He pushed open the door, slowly and silently, to let the dim afternoon light spill through the doorway. Cleaning supplies were strewn across the entryway floor. Someone had forced their way in—a man, who had scuffed his black-soled shoe along the wall on his way up the stairs. He had been dragging someone who snagged her sweater on a protruding nail—the woolen fibers, scratches across the steps where she had dragged the thick heels of her Mary Janes, and the level of fingernail marks along the wallpaper indicated she weighed approximately 120 pounds. Though everything was quiet upstairs, he knew someone held Mrs. Hudson there, likely at gunpoint, and they were waiting for Sherlock’s return. He stepped quietly up the stairs, a can of cleaning spray tucked in his pocket. At least the abductors were imbecilic.*
This is obviously a mystery sample, right? And who better to illustrate the example than Sherlock Holmes? I’ll admit I’m a huge fan. I’ve watched the television show, the documentaries (I recommendHow Sherlock Changed the World), and the movies. I love Sherlock’s focus on detail and power of observation, his knowledge of apparent trivia, and his ability to induce and deduce the truth based on physical evidence. I even love his socially awkward, slightly autistic-savant demeanor. (It doesn’t hurt that Benedict Cumberbatch, in the BBC series, is adorable.)
Sherlock is such a great detective because he’s able to visualize the crime by looking at the crime scene—it’s almost like he stares at the evidence and pushes a rewind button in his mind, then watches the crime occur. This works brilliantly because crime scenes are the physical remnants of crimes, mysteries are the remnants left after suspense is over.
I started this post with Sherlock entering 221B Baker Street after Mrs. Hudson had been snatched. This is what makes it a mystery. I could write it as a suspense scene with a simple shift in point of view.
A scratching at the door interrupted Mrs. Hudson’s cleaning. It wasn’t like Sherlock to forget his key, but he had run out of the house in a start. She stepped into the entryway to make sure. Three burly men forced the door open and rushed to grab her. The tallest of the three slapped Mrs. Hudson with the back of his hand, and she dropped her cleaning supplies, her cheekbone stinging. He grabbed her by the wrists and dragged her backward up the stairs, and no matter how hard she clutched at the wall and kicked at the steps, she couldn’t get away from him. Mrs. Hudson screamed for Sherlock as they neared the top of the stairs. She’d never been treated in such a way—a woman her age, slight of build, respected in the community. What did the men want? What were they capable of if they were so willing to bruise her, beat her, and make her scream? Her heart pounded so vigorously she ached. Perhaps she would have a heart attack. Perhaps that would be best.
There are two main differences between suspense and mystery. One is point of view, the other is time. These differences are important, but suspense and mystery also have a key element in common—fear. Though Sherlock may not seem afraid, he is aware that there is a possibility—however slim—that despite his awesome intellect, he may be too late to save Mrs. Hudson. Mrs. Hudson, of course, is full of fear. Though the levels of fear may differ, it is still the driving emotion in either type of story. As noted above, this fear must be compelling enough that it will transfer to the reader.

Point of View

The biggest  difference between suspense and mystery is in point of view. Dwight V. Swain states, “A thing isn’t just significant. It’s significant to somebody.”  In other words, events are only significant because they affect people. In the world of fiction, people are more important than events. Feelings are more important than facts. Point of view is the lens that brings events into focus and tells the audience why an event is important.


If you (as the character or the reader) arrive at a crime scene and the crime has already been committed, you are probably trying to figure out what happened in the past  in that crime scene—you are two steps behind, and the novel (or scene) is probably a mystery. You don’t know what happened, and you are trying to figure it out by observing clues—mapping blood spatter, dusting for fingerprints, taking photographs and imagining scenario after scenario—until you can rebuild history in your mind. You feel curiosity and an anxiousness to solve the crime and prevent possible subsequent crimes. Excitement may even accompany your quest as you fit the pieces together and begin to make sense of the puzzle.
If you arrive at a location ten minutes before  the crime scene, you will likely be involved in the crime—as a perpetrator, a victim, or a witness—and you’re probably part of a suspense novel. You know what happens because you are part of it. You feel fear, anxiety, and maybe even pain. Panic muddles your thought processes. Your senses are heightened, and your body goes into fight-or-flight mode.
Suspense and mystery happen in the same setting, but from different points of view and at different times. Characters in a suspense novel experience firsthand what becomes the subject of a mystery. Understanding this is important to fulfilling the conventions of each genre and pleasing your genre’s fan base.

Elevating Fear

Since both suspense and mystery require a good dose of fear, it’s a pretty important emotion to portray, and it’s a tricky task. It’s far too easy to feel fear when you imagine a scene but fail miserably in translating it to the page. Part of this is because readers—and writers—have different levels of tolerance and fear (the mere mention of spiders will send some into a tizzy but make others yawn), but mostly it’s because we don’t use point of view and time with enough strategic precision.
To elevate fear, put your point-of-view character in danger of losing something. (It goes without saying that you’ve drawn a compelling character readers care about and thus care if he or she loses something.) This doesn’t mean you’re writing a suspense novel—your detective also has to have something to lose if he doesn’t solve the case. Even emotionally aloof Sherlock will lose the game of being unstumpable if he can’t solve the mystery at hand. Loss equals danger, and danger equals fear. The greater the sense of loss, the greater the fear.
Another way to elevate fear is to shorten the amount of available time. If you put time pressure on your character, you again increase the odds of loss and increase the amount of fear.

Do This Now

  1. Since this article focuses on point of view in developing reader interest, be sure to review our article about point of view, and check out those action steps as well.
  2. Listen to a podcast that sparks your imagination about time, memory, and what it means to try to figure out the past. I love the podcast Serial,  a popular spin-off of This American Life.  The first season of the podcast explores a real-life murder and the guilt or innocence of the young man convicted of the crime. Another podcast that sparks my imagination every time I listen to it (by the same producers) is The House on Loon Lake.
  3. Once you’ve heard The House on Loon Lake,  do some family history. Seems like a strange action step, but family history is an act of restructuring the past, and solving mysteries about family traditions, quirks, and the meaning of heirlooms. You can build a story in any genre around an object with memories attached. Remember, suspense stories create the clues that mysteries interpret.
  4. Fan fiction is a great way to practice your writing skills, and it makes for a fun writing group session. Choose your favorite scene from your favorite mystery and rewrite the scene from the point of view of the villain, the victim, or a witness, then make that scene part of a suspense novel. Or do it the other way around. Choose your favorite suspense novel and turn a scene into a mystery.
  5. Share your fear. As already discussed, fear is a tricky but important emotion to incorporate in your writing. Strengthen your fear-writing skills by sharing your fears. Start this process by describing a fearful experience or a nightmare without ever using the word fear.  Use your senses in this description. Be aware that when you are in the throes of fear, time shifts—it either slows down and you are painfully aware of everything you experience, or it speeds up and blurs into an indecipherable haze. This depends on your character’s mental state and how he reacts to what happens to him. It depends on point of view.
  6. Check out How to Write Killer Fiction: The Funhouse of Mystery and the Roller Coaster of Suspense.
* Summarized from “A Scandal in Belgravia,” an episode in season 2 of BBC’s Sherlock.
Amy Maida WadsworthAmy Maida Wadsworth published three novels with Covenant Communications—Shadow of Doubt,  Silent Witness, and Faraway Child All three books are available for Kindle and Nook. Amy started teaching fiction writing in 2006 and has been a writing coach ever since. She works as a freelance editor and blogger for Eschler Editing, and is pursuing her master’s in human development and social policy.
YOUR TURN: If you found this information helpful, please share! And now your thoughts—which mystery writer or mystery-writing tactic have you found the most helpful for building reader suspense?

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Saturday, October 12, 2013

Heart of the West Writing Conference

This morning, I spoke at the Heart of the West Writing Conference, a conference for the Utah chapter of Romance Writers of America.  I was able to talk about one of my favorite subjects--Point of View and the Choice Cycle.

For those of you who haven't heard of the Choice Cycle before, it's a system that I've developed through years of study, writing, and editing to help writers keep a clear hold on point of view.  Clear point of view strengthens the reader's connection with the main character, and therefore makes them more invested in the story you're telling.  This emotional connection is key to sympathy, interest, and holding your reader's attention so that they won't put your book down. We read to feel something, after all, and readers will feel more if they are able to experience the point of view character's journey with them.

I won't go into detail about the choice cycle here, because I'm currently editing an e-book about the subject, to be published in cooperation with I'll let you all know when the book is ready for purchase.

Here are a few things I touched on--besides the choice cycle--at the conference today.

If I were to put together a "standard works for writers," I would include the following books:

Techniques of the Selling Writer, by Dwight V. Swain

Scene & Structure, by Jack M. Bickham

Characters & Viewpoint, by Orson Scott Card

Hooked, by Les Edgerton

and for Romance writers, On Writing Romance, by Leigh Michaels

We discussed the self-concept and how it is created throughout a person's lifetime.  The self-concept is based on our personalities, how we are raised, what our values are, and culminates into one sentence describing what we think of ourselves--how we define who we are.  The self-concept is at the center of everything a character does, and influences all the choices he makes.  When the character is faced with a challenge at the beginning of the story, the challenge has to hit them where it really hurts--it has to challenge how they define themselves.

In the case of romance, the romantic interest may be the person who presents that challenge.

We also discussed interesting ways to develop a character.  I provided the following list of questions to ask yourself when creating your characters--questions with a psychological and developmental twist to help make your characters realistic, flawed, and very human.

Consider the following questions for each of your main characters:
Is your character able to make choices and take risks? 

How far is your character willing to go to get what he/she wants? 

What is one thing your character WON’T do?  Why?  Would this character vacillate on this standard if presented with the choice between their values and what they love most (their romantic interest)? 

What is your character most afraid of?  (Hint—your character will have to face this greatest fear or the story will fall flat.)

How does everyone else in the story feel about your main character?  What is his/her reputation?  Has your character earned this reputation?

How does your character deal with stress?  He/she needs a physical outlet—coffee drinker? Runner? Soap Opera watcher?  Fiction?  Ice Cream?  Yoga? Reality TV? Secret hideaway?

What is your character’s self concept?  How does it differ from his/her reputation?  How does it differ from who your character really is?  Which view of your character (the reputation or the self-concept) is more realistic? What does your character's romantic interest know about this reputation? Or about the actual self-concept? 

How do you feel about your character?  How do you think readers will feel about him/her?  Remember that we read to feel emotion.  

After your characters are created, use choice cycles to put the characters together, have them interact in their environment, provide external and internal conflict, and control the pacing of your story.  The choice cycle can help you do everything from create a meaningful setting to reveal information about both your hero and heroine, and build tension to a satisfying climax.

It was a great experience to speak at the conference!  Thanks to Jewel Adams, this year's Utah chapter president, and to my friend, Ann Bracken, Utah chapter secretary, for arranging the experience!

For more information and awesome help with any writing tips or services, visit

3 Steps to a Great Kissing Book

by Amy Maida Wadsworth
Remember the opening scene in the film version of The Princess Bride? If you don’t, go refresh your memory, because it’s a great movie. (And if you haven’t seen the movie at all, warning: spoiler alert!) We’re going to analyze this fantastic little film in honor of  Romance Writers of America, since this week is the Utah chapter conference. So for all you romance writers, let’s dive into a favorite love story.
It goes something like this. A sick young boy is sitting on his bed playing video games when his grandfather comes to read him a book. The young boy hesitates, pauses his video game, and looks at his grandfather like he’s hopeless.
Grandad persists and begins reading about young Wesley and fair Buttercup. He reads how Buttercup realizes that when Wesley says, “As you wish,” he really means, “I love you.”
It doesn’t take long for the boy to interrupt with, “Wait. Is this a kissing book?”
Of course, he comes to find out that the story is much more than a kissing book, just as true romances are more than erotica. The relationship between Wesley and Buttercup is at the center of adventures with pirates, kidnappers, miracle workers, an evil prince, a wicked sadist, and torture.
The kissing isn’t half as important as the people who own the locked lips.
As a result, The Princess Bride is the kind of romance that can win over a ten-year-old boy—and become one of the most quotable movies of all time.
Leigh Michaels, author of On Writing Romance, spells out how the character-driven romance hooks the broadest audience in fiction readership, with interests varying from realism to westerns to fantasy. The common thread in every romance, regardless of how it is dressed, is the relationship between the hero and the heroine.
That relationship depends on two key elements—the characters’ personalities and the choices they make. Both characters must be interesting, sympathetic, strong, and attractive (physically and personally). This doesn’t mean that they need to be supermodels, but they need to grab each other’s attention as well as ours.
The best way to establish their interesting personalities is to show them in action—preferably in a situation that puts them in conflict with each other. This conflict is, of course, alive with physical attraction. Still, the choices the characters make will continue to cause conflict and threaten the uniqueness of this attraction, the underlying sense that the two of them have something very rare between them—the once-in-a-lifetime love.
If your characters continuously have to make choices that legitimately keep them apart (not simply failed communication that seems the obvious solution to the reader), the romance becomes more interesting, more realistic. And the kisses—when they finally come—mean more. Romances that sizzle are about two characters who push through conflict to be together. Then, when they finally are together, the union is satisfying, deserved, magical. When written well after all this effort, it’s hard for a well-earned kiss to be sappy or saccharine. And equally hard to write the long-anticipated “I love you” and have it feel hollow or trite. But if you get the lead-up wrong, sappy and trite are all you’ve got.
So, how do you do it right? Here are three tricks to help you.
  1. Put your characters on opposing sides of the same issue. This could involve business, politics, a hobby, or a passion. If she’s a die-hard, blue-blooded Duke fan because three generations of her family have graduated from Duke and he attends Kentucky, you’ve got some ingrained conflict going.
  2. Give your characters important moral dilemmas that force them to make tough choices. If she’s attracted to him but will lose her humanitarian grant if she refuses to work with his organization’s rival, she’s got to get the humanitarian grant. If he is attracted to her but she happens to be his brother’s ex, he’s got to choose to ignore his attraction. They are good people caught in circumstances that make their relationship seem impossible.
  3. Delay gratification at least until mid-story, then rip them apart again and rebuild the climax. In act one, they realize they’re attracted even though it’s unlikely they can ever be together. In act two, they take that chance to be together, experience bliss, and realize this is a once-in-a-lifetime love; then they see that they’ve ruined the very moral decision that kept them separated in act one. Finally, in act three, they struggle until they figure out a way to make things work and they come together with a bright future. It seems formulaic, but if your characters are interesting and their choices are strong and meaningful, then it won’t feelformulaic. It will feel natural and as meant-to-be as their relationship.

Things You Can Do Now

  1. Make sure the issue between your characters has important consequences. This will usually mean that it has to do with other people—not just money, products, or hobbies. Strengthen conflict by attaching secondary characters to the issue.
  2. Read your favorite romance (again) and see how the author implemented these ideas. This critical thinking will help you as you plan your own romance.
  3. Remember that it’s about choice. Go through your manuscript and underline every choice your characters make—their choices should be active and have consequences that affect the relationship. If they don’t, then revise until they do. This will give your story more of a shot in the arm than you think.
If you follow these guidelines, every touch will be earned and every kiss will be satisfying. No more sap or saccharine. No more hollow or trite. Your romance will be more than a kissing book, and your readers will sigh when they read, “As you wish.”
Your turn: What’s your favorite romance, and how does it fulfill some of these requirements?