Beginning (Act I)
The beginning of a suspense must be dynamic and hook the reader within the first few seconds. Part V of this Suspense series talks about the opening paragraphs and you can review this information there.
Act I also includes the same information any novel provides—establish main characters, setting, and the opening conflict. In suspense, this conflict is the beginning of the suspense element—something traumatic happens: kidnaping, stalking, murder, robbery, threatening letter or phone call, break-in, or any strange phenomenon that will cause major problem to the main character or the person he or she is protecting. This immediately evokes the dangerous or sinister tone of the novel which all readers expect.
The initial introduction of the crime can be done in a variety of ways:
• finding a body
• someone is missing
• threats of danger
• a cryptic note
• an old map or letter
• a telephone call or email
• focus on a playground with a child’s bike parked near the jungle gym bars but no child
Any of these elements set the reader on edge as well as the main character and the race begins.
Middle (Act II)
The middle act of a suspense novel is the building of conflicts—tension and emotion—as the hero or heroine tries to solve the major issue in the story. This is where red herrings are found, meeting the villain or contact with the villain, and watching the hero or heroine dig deep into their abilities to find resources they didn’t know they had. Here is where you see cunning and growth. The middle of a novel covers about 50% of the plot.
As I said earlier, the middle is made up of conflicts and tension which results in emotion. Emotion makes the readers care about your characters and what happens. Therefore it’s important to make sure that the middle is action and emotionally paced in a suspense. Conflict is the action that happens as the main characters follows the leads to the villain.
Ways to reveal conflict and tension are:
• Through dynamic dialogue
• Plot twists—faces roadblocks, resolve on issue to face another, things aren’t as they seem.
• Ticking Clock—setting a timeline with horrific results if not resolved, bomb under the table and the reader knows but the characters don’t
• Cliffhangers—stopping a scene in the middle of action and changing the scene to a different POV character usually in a different location.
• Jack In The Box—letting the reader know through hints or clues that something is about to happen, but they don’t know when.
• Foreshadowing—tossing out a comment or showing a piece of business that has greater meaning than it appears. Readers often realize, and it makes them work at putting the pieces together and solving the crime. It also promises that something will be fulfilled.
Plotting is the journey from one place to another and pacing is the speed at which the character travels. I have used white water rafting as an example. The rafter begins the journey and knows where he’s headed, but the river has shallows, rocks, large boulders that pull at the raft, eddies, dangerous white water experiences that can overturn a raft, and even a waterfall. The journey is filled with moments of danger followed by moments of calm. As you plot your novel, use pacing to plan how your story will flow. Make each problem more and more serious as they approach their destination. Use the calm moments to review the clues, think through the crime solving process, recount suspicious activities, introduce new characters, discuss possibilities, reveal information, romance the heroine, rejuvenate and grow as a character.
The Ending (Act III)
The final act is the last quarter of the book when the most desperate situation must be faced. This is where time is running out, where the villain has become even more devious and all seems lost. The hero will then find a way to overcome the villain and where final threads are quickly resolved and the story ends in a way to please the reader. In most cases, this would be the punishment or capture of the villain and the victory of the hero.
Plotting is complex because it is also affected by the number of POV characters you will use in your novel and it includes many other elements such as conflict, tension and emotion as well as other suspense techniques such as foreshadowing and red herrings. So it is important to keep track of each of the these facets of fiction writing so that the story isn’t confusing to the reader and you cover all of the elements you set up in the novel.
For each chapter, you must keep track of what’s happened in terms of foreshadowing, conflicts, red herrings, characters’ POV and plot lines. You can use any of the following techniques. Make notes for each chapter, chart the plot showing what special elements were used, keep a running synopsis, and one final method is using index cards to keep track. I have found jotting ideas and info on index cards allows me to shuffle them and see where they best fit into the plot to keep the tension and conflicts growing.