What an honour it is to have Brenda Chapman as my guest today. She’s the author of Cold Mourning, My Sister’s Keeper, Second Chances, The Second Wife, In Winter’s Grip, Trail of Secrets, Where Trouble Leads, Hiding in Hawk’s Creek, Running Scared, and When Boomers Go Bad.
Tumbled Graves is scheduled for release on February 27th, 2016. I’ve pre-ordered my copy and won’t that be a nice surprise when it arrives on my kindle in February.
If her list of books is not enough to entice you to keep reading, Brenda is sharing some wicked writing advice today.
The Art of Creating Killer Suspense by Brenda Chapman
Alfred Hitchcock was a master at drawing an audience into the lives of his characters while ramping up tension. Hitchcock used techniques that crime writers have long recognized as keys to successful story-telling.
The art of creating suspense is tied to an author’s ability to have readers care about their characters. Without first building this connection, the reader is never fully engaged and the frisson of fear or anxiety as the characters face danger cannot be fully achieved. The litmus test for an author is the sympathy we also feel for our characters…and how difficult it is to kill any of them off.
In writing one of my earlier novels, I planned to murder one character, but when the time came, I couldn’t bring myself to do it. Instead, I killed off another character of whom I hadn’t grown as fond, but unfortunately, the book ground to a halt. I had to go back and kill off my originally intended victim. The book ended up being stronger for it, and I eventually got over the loss.
How do we make readers care about our characters? For me, the back stories are key: revealing what matters to the characters, their fears, hopes, friends and family. They have to have human failings that everyone can sympathize with and relate to while exhibiting some trait that makes the characters likable. Seldom are people all good or all evil although in crime novels, somebody has to be amoral enough to kill. Revealing what led them to kill can be used to make them human, especially if readers can see themselves in some part of the scenario, although hopefully not the hitting someone over the head with a blunt object bit.
Giving characters difficult or painful secrets is another great way to build tension and draw readers into their world. Officer Kala Stonechild is introduced In Cold Mourning, where I reveal that she grew up in foster care and helped hide a murder when she was ten years old. I take my time filling in her back story over the course of the series, sharing some of her secrets while she works on murder cases and struggles to form relationships. I give the other main characters different but equally flawed personal histories, secrets and troubling dilemmas.
I even share inner dreams and problems for minor characters, who might pop into the story for a chapter. For instance, in the third Stonechild and Rouleau mystery Tumbled Graves, which will be released in early 2016, a long distance transport driver, who is only on stage for one chapter, shares the physical alienation he feels from his family when he is away so much, but also the love he has for his wife and kids that keeps him returning home.
Once the reader cares about the characters and doesn’t want anything bad to happen to them, the time is ripe to add the ticking time bombs—a husband with a gambling problem, a child hooked on drugs, a vindictive ex-lover… The key is to introduce potential problems and slowly twist the tourniquet so that characters and readers are on the edge of their seats, waiting to see what happens next…who makes it to the finish line in one piece.
Thanks to Brenda for sharing her advice with us. As a special photo, I’ve included my signed copy of Butterfly Kills.
Thanks for reading, and please share your thoughts on writing advice or ask Brenda questions in the comments section.
If you’d like to buy one of Brenda’s books, just click on one of her book covers above and you’ll be taken to Amazon.