International bestselling author Lee Child published an article in the New York Times recently titled "A Simple Way to Create Suspense."

In it, he states: "As novelists, we should ask or imply a question at the beginning of the story, and then we should delay the answer...the principle works in a micro sense, as well as in a macro one. Page to page, paragraph to paragraph, line to line — even within single sentences — imply a question first, and then answer it second. The reader learns to chase, and the momentum becomes unstoppable."

Lee has sold millions of books, so he's obviously doing something right. But does this simple technique create true suspense? Is that really all there is to it?

And, of course, for a different take, there's rule #8 from Kurt Vonnegut's eight rules of writing: "Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages."

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Lee is right on the money IMO about how to create suspense and how to write a novel in general. (I've not read Kurt V and I'm sure there are other approaches but in most novels you'll see these dramatic questions being posed starting on page one.)

The single best piece of advice I've ever received was when I took a class from author Susan Taylor Chehak in which she quoted another author (whose name I've forgotten). It went something like: "Fiction is compelling only to the extent that it raises questions and delays answers."

Yes, it absolutely can be that simple. Suspense is the anticipation of waiting for something to happen, whether it's a good thing or a bad thing.

Sounds right. Heard it before. But I don't believe anything about writing well is easy.

I don't think Vonnegut's advice will work for most mystery writers these days.  Readers want to be drawn into the story more or less against their will.  That's probably not a good thing, but that is what is happening.


Lee Child is very successful and suspense works very well for him, but his strength is really his character Reacher.

There's more to a successful novel than just asking questions, and suspense is not exclusive.  Most successful authors have mastered it.

Isn't this kind of like saying, do you really only need three chords to write a hit song?

That's about what I was thinking, but phrased better than I had in mind.

What Child said is no revelation. The trick is pulling it off for 300 pages before the reader has enough of what can easily become a series of "baits and switches" in the wrong hands.

Ah, there's the rub.  So true.

I don't think about most of these rules when I write. I just write and let the story develop. Then I revise, get feedback, and revise some more. (Process may be repeated several times) I don't think any organic absolute rule is really useful by itself.

Nativism is bunk. (Just my opinion, of course.) You have to know the craft in order to break its rules and gain something.

Isn't this kind of like saying, do you really only need three chords to write a hit song?

I have the perfect response, John, one that will blow your mind and forever change the way EVERY WRITER ON THE PLANET approaches suspense.

But I'm busy right now, so I'll tell you later.

Naw, I think the suspense has to be based on something plausible... ;)


I've listened to too many newbies playing without knowing the chords not to think it's good that Lee Child wrote this article. (God, the noise I once made!)


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