If you give away something too soon, it will take all of the tension you’ve been building and deflate it.
And vice versa.
If you wait too long to reveal something, or if you build up this entire nightmare and never deliver, your novel will die.
Take this excerpt from my new release, Read Me Dead, a YA Romantic Suspense. For two chapters, I’ve built up this tension for my main character, Alex. She’s finally at her breaking point.
“Alex.” Christian’s voice is loud. “Alex,” he says even louder when I don’t answer him.
The man turns away and enters a car and drives away.
Christian forces me to turn around and look at him. “What’s wrong?”
“Him who, Alex? Tell me who you’re talking about.”
“My parents’ murderer.”
“What? Alex, you aren’t making any sense. Calm down.”
My breathing comes in gasps, and I feel like I’m going to collapse. I don’t know what is going on with me, but I want to tell him everything. It would be such a relief to confide in someone I know I can trust.
“Alex, everything’s gonna be okay,” he says.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do.”
“Alex. Please. Talk to me,” he begs.
“I can’t,” I say pushing myself away from him.
“Alexia, please talk to me,” he says, “Something’s been bothering you, and I wish that you would just talk to me.”
From behind her, Landon asks, “What’s going on?”
Christian lets me out of his embrace. I wipe away a couple of tears and turn to face Landon and Matt. Matt looks at me, and Landon stares at Christian.
Christian says, “Alex is having a rough night.”
“What’s wrong?” Landon asks turning to face me.
“Nothing. I’m fine.”
Matt says, “No you aren’t, Alex. Talk to us.”
“Matty, it’s not that simple.”
“Talk,” Matt says.
I look at each of them. They are staring back at me waiting for an explanation of my strange behavior. So many thoughts run through my mind simultaneously. It would be a mistake to tell them the truth, but it would feel nice to tell them, and if I can trust anyone, it is the three boys surrounding me.
Matt asks, “Is it about mom and dad? Because, Alex, that’s been seven years ago. I know it hurts, but you have to move on! You’ve done nothing but mope and push away everyone important to you after they died.”
“You didn’t see it, Matt! You didn’t see their bloody bodies lying on the ground!”
“I know that must be tough,” Landon begins.
“I saw them crying and begging for mercy, and then I saw the killer shoot them.”
“You know who the killer is and you didn’t say anything?” Matt yells.
“He told me if I did he’d kill me!”
“But you know. You could’ve told the police.”
“Matt, I was ten. He threatened me. What was I supposed to do?”
“Tell them anyway! They would’ve protected you.”
Matt walks away and gets into the Explorer. He cranks the car, and Christian pulls me aside.
“Matty!” I yell.
Landon looks at me with sorrow-filled eyes.
“Go with him,” I say.
Landon nods and gets into the car with Matt, and I watch them drive away.
“He didn’t mean anything by it,” Christian says and pulls me into a hug. I don’t move my arms to embrace him back.
“Yes he did,” I say.
I do provide a hint and I build upon this tension throughout the rest of the novel. And I reveal exactly what has happened and who did the killing at the exact right time.
But when is the right time?
I think it’s all about how you perceive it. Writing suspense means that you keep the reader guessing about who did what and why they did it until the near end, and then you give them something that will keep their attention until the very last word of the book. Throughout the novel, you keep building up this tension, pushing your characters to the very limit and to their breaking point. You break them and bring them back out.
That’s how you keep readers reading until the next chapter. You keep giving them enough to make sure that they have to finish reading the book to know what is going to happen with these characters and how they will manage to break free of every situation that we’ve put them in.
That’s what I did with Alex. I thought, “how can I make this worst for her?” Yeah, I know it’s bad, but it makes for good writing. You push your characters and your readers. You make it unbearable, and then build from that and keep the tension and suspense building until… the… very… last… word.
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