Thursday, 22 October 2015

7 Building Blocks for Suspense

Here's another blog post from my now defunct Magic Beans blog which feels kind of relelvant to me at the moment. If you're trying to write suspense, perhaps you might find it useful too...

Readers will be drawn to your writing for all sorts of reasons, but one of the ways to keep them there is to build suspense. Keep them turning the pages of your book, whatever the genre, and you will have a happy reader. 

Tinkerbell had found the perfect
place to hide...
1. Show us your protagonist’s weakness
Maybe she has a major character flaw, a debilitating phobia, or a secret from her past. Show us her flash of violent anger, her frozen fear of heights, or that humiliating moment of past failure, at the beginning of the story and build up to the moment when it is exposed to others. As readers, we will know the moment is coming; we will empathise with your protagonist and dread the moment as much as she does. Chances are, we will all be biting our nails in expectation.

2. Make the Wicked Witch really wicked
You know we should fall in love with your protagonist don’t you? Well, one way of nudging that along a bit further is to pull out all the stops and make your antagonist really nasty.

and Monty thought he was safe too...
3. Think the worst
What’s the worst thing that could happen to your main character? Go on, make it happen. They’re going to have to deal with some pretty tough obstacles anyway, so why not make them tougher? Problems to be overcome are what stories are about, after all. Without conflict there is no plot, and no plot = no suspense.

4. Show us the danger
For your reader to understand the gravity of a dangerous situation, you may have to show us exactly how real the danger is by hurting another character first. This gives us the chance to feel the fear and anticipate the worst, and of course also allows for tremendous relief when the danger has passed.

But Buster had a new trick that
neither of them knew about...
5. Up the stakes
If you’re going to build tension, you’re going to have to keep upping the stakes, creating bigger and bigger obstacles for your protagonist to overcome, until you reach one so big there’s no way they are going to escape. (Except of course they will. That’s the point.)

6. Go against the clock
Set a deadline - a time, a day, a week… something specific. That way your reader will know exactly when the dramatic climax is upon them and they will feel a real sense of urgency.

7. Employ the unexpected...
...but don't rely on it. While you might be tempted to let your characters do something unexpected, if you do it too much, you risk losing your reader. Suspense is about what might happen and involving your reader in the build up to that event is crucial.  

Friday, 9 October 2015


I’m always intrigued by how much of an author we see in their stories, and when I read Headline Murder – an absolute corker of a book – I couldn’t help but want to know a little more about Peter Bartram. 

In Headline Murder, Colin Crampton, newspaper reporter at The Brighton Evening Chronicle is desperate for a scoop and finds one when Arnold Trumper, the proprietor of the Krazy Kat golf course, goes missing. In the course of his investigations Crampton uncovers all sorts of shady dealings, discovers a dead body, meets some very dodgy characters, falls in love with Aussie traveller on walkabout Shirley Goldsmith, and finds himself in grave danger. But nothing will stop Colin from getting that all important story...

I loved everything about this book. It is a fast paced mystery, superbly plotted and kept me guessing right until the end. Despite the murders, it is light hearted, easy to read, and perfect escapism. Sixties atmosphere oozes from the pages to enrich the whole reading experience.

But for me, the best thing about this book is Colin Crampton himself; he is extremely likeable with lots of sharp, funny banter, and a good heart; if I was Shirley, I’d definitely give up my walkabout for him.

So, knowing that Peter has spent a lifetime in journalism, the obvious first question is, are you Peter Bartram basically Colin Crampton?

Peter Bartram in Brighton
Peter: Perhaps I’m a bit of a frustrated Colin. I think every good journalist lives for chasing a story - and that’s what Colin does and what I’ve spent most of my own career as a journalist doing. But I’ve never been a crime reporter - although I have covered crime stories. And, unlike Colin, I’m sadly not 28 anymore! I’ve known a lot of good journalists over the years and there are bits of the best ones in Colin.

Wendy: How did your own experience as a journalist influence Colin’s character and behaviour? Are you, for example, a frustrated sleuth?

Peter: One thing that drives most reporters is a desire to find out things that people very often don’t want to tell you. A colleague once said to me that he thought a journalist needed a “low bred curiosity”. I think he had a point. So, in that sense, sleuthing is as much part of a journalist’s life as a detective’s.

Wendy: How did you make the transition from journalism and article writing to story writing? Was it something which came naturally to you?

Peter: I had written a few short stories and a radio play before I attempted my first full length novel. I’d also spent a year writing a weekly serial for a newspaper - it was about the adventures of two hopeless businessmen who were trying to make their company a success. Then I had what I thought was a good idea for a crime novel and wrote 108,000 words. But when I’d finished it, I realised the whole thing was a mess and needed a complete rewrite. So I put it to one side and had a deeper think about what I needed to do to produce something that would appeal to a publisher. In terms of making the transition from journalism to crime writing, I think that was reasonably easy because journalism teaches you to get on and write to meet a deadline. You don’t have time to sit around fretting about writers’ block. That habit of writing daily is useful when you’re writing a 70,000-80,000 word novel.

Wendy: Headline Murder is absolutely bursting with plot. I loved the intrigue and thought it was very accomplished to keep the pace going whilst dealing with quite a complex plot. I’m guessing you must do a lot of planning. What’s your writing process?

Peter: When I wrote the 108,000 abandoned book, I just started with an idea and made it up as I went along. That’s why it ended up as a complete mess. Crime fiction needs to be intricately plotted - everything needs to be properly “clued”. You can’t have things happening later in the book that come out of nowhere. You have to give the reader the chance to spot it coming - and hope that they’ll miss the clue and be surprised when it happens. So after I had the original idea, I carefully plotted the whole book in 68 scenes before I started writing. Some of these scenes changed a little when I came to write them. But having a clear plan meant that I could concentrate on the writing and making each scene entertaining without worrying about where the plot was going next.

Wendy: As mentioned earlier, Colin is gorgeous! He’s so funny and sharp and quite a charmer too. But what came first – the plot or the character?

Peter: The character. I wanted to write a series of crime mysteries around the same character and I spent ages agonising over how to make a detective sound original. It seemed that everything, but everything, had been done. And then I realised the answer was staring me in the face. I was a journalist - my protagonist would be a journalist. He would be a crime reporter who had to solve crimes in order to get his front-page scoops.

Wendy: The nostalgia element of Headline Murder is a huge part of the enjoyment of this book. How much of this did you have to research?

Peter: The books are set in the 1960s. There are two reasons for that. The first is that the 1960s is one of only two decades in history that has a name with capital letters - the Swinging Sixties. (The other is the Roaring Twenties.) The second is that (showing my age!) I started my career in journalism in the 1960s and so I knew what newspaper offices were like in those days. Very different from today - not a computer in sight. You can recreate an era by doing a lot of research - but the best research is actually having been there and done the kind of things you’re writing about. But I do research to fill in some of the detailed stuff.

Wendy: It’s hard to imagine how this story would have played out in 2015 – modern technology, mobile phones, and internet archives would all have scuppered some of your lovely scenes and cliffhangers. Do you think modern crime novels suffer because of this?

Peter: I’ve certainly read modern crime novels where the latest technology is central to the plot or used to create tension. But when you’re writing about a different age, the problems posed by, for example, having to rely on newspaper cuttings rather than looking things up on the internet create all kinds of new plot opportunities.

Wendy: Telephone boxes or mobile phones?

Peter: Mobile phones and tablets have transformed journalism. But there was a sort of raw excitement when we had to find a telephone and then dictate our story live over the line from our shorthand notes to a copy taker at a typewriter at the other end.

Wendy: MGB or the 2015 Ferrari LaFerrari?

Peter: It has to be the MGB. When I was Colin’s age, I had a white one - so it seemed only fair to bequeath it to him in fictional life!

Wendy: Chocolate éclairs (with real artificial cream) or Krispy Kremes?

Peter: A chocolate éclair - definitely with real real cream!

Wendy:  Will we see Colin Crampton in action again?

Peter: Yes. He’ll be back in 2016. Colin gets into all kinds of trouble when he investigates the strange theft of a What the Butler Saw machine from Brighton’s Palace Pier.

Wendy: ...And I can't wait for that!

To find out more about Peter, visit his website
Connect with Peter on Facebook
To meet Colin Crampton, visit his website
Buy Headline Murder