Suspense Matters

Suspense does not just belong to mystery and thriller genres. It is a key ingredient in all genres—romance, drama, action adventure, children, religion, and fantasy to name a few—because it draws in and holds the reader as the story unfolds. As a Texas Forensic Investigator, and Tennessee Founder-President/CEO of an innovative biomedical company, I received a heavy dose of suspense on a daily basis. As an author I appreciate the power of suspense in my novels. I sprinkle it throughout like seasoning on a porterhouse steak. Great writing engages readers and holds them. To accomplish this, a writer must recognize suspense matters.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines suspense as a feeling or state of nervousness or excitement caused by wondering what will happen next.  The emotions arise when the reader becomes aware of their lack of knowledge about a developing event or relationship or situation that is meaningful to them. The anticipation and uncertainty of dealing with this unknown pulls them deeper into the story. They become more invested.

The emotion can be anything from excitement and wonder to curiosity and terror depending on the type of story being told. The human emotions spawned by a suspenseful moment are powerful because we do it every day as we go through life. For example, opening a letter from the IRS can be a traumatic moment if one is worried about an audit. Or it can be an exciting moment if one is looking for a refund check. The “close score” baseball game with the last batter in the box—four balls two strikes and two outs—can elicit any of a wide variety of human emotions depending on the back story and unknown outcome. Is the batter struggling in his life and this is a pivotal moment? Does the game decide who goes to the playoffs? Did someone bet their life savings on the outcome? Regardless of the story the unknown outcomes create suspense. Human emotion grabs and holds the reader. They are satisfied. If you simply wrote about a baseball game won in the last seconds, you missed an opportunity to get your readers to invest more in the characters and story.

I investigated thousands of unsolved deaths for the medical examiner’s office. Although I handled so many cases, each death had its own unique suspenseful moments. Walking into each new crime scene I dealt with new unknowns. Is it possible a homicide has been manipulate to look like an accident or suicide? Or, did the killer make mistakes? Am I smart enough to find them?  Did someone manipulate the crime scene, hide or change evidence? Did they inadvertently leave their DNA?

Like working a homicide crime scene, the questions we have throughout our lives stop only when we stop breathing. As a mystery/thriller writer I view the questions as suspense building opportunities. As a forensic investigator I walk into each case managing the suspense. The emotion is engaging and powerful.

For writers of mysteries and thrillers the creation of great suspense is vital. A mystery novel is about tracking down the truth. The protagonist is not typically in danger until they approach the truth. A thriller novel hunts for truth too, but the protagonist is in danger from the onset, and the reader knows it. As I talk about suspense as a writing tool, don’t confuse it with the rules of suspense novels as a genrewhere the protagonist learns of danger gradually and the reader knows more and worries gradually. Suspense as a writing tool is used in all stories and genres like romance novels—will the boy get the girl? Even when writing a religious story suspense is a necessary ingredient to attract and keep readers engaged. They pick up the book seeking answers—how does good overcome evil?

Because my background is forensics and biotechnology, I have deep reservoirs of suspenseful moments from which to draw to create a riveting story.  When my reviews say they could not put down my book, I know why. Suspense attracts and holds readers because it elicits the emotions that guide us through life. If you are a writer, make sure it is in your stories. If you are a reader, I know you are looking for it.

Steve Bradshaw article “Suspense Matters” appeared in Southern Writers Magazine



Authors Writing about Murder for Sophisticated Readers

Today writers can’t just kill somebody. They’ve got to get it right or they lose readers. Before I became a suspense/thriller author, I investigated over 3,000 unsolved deaths as a forensic field agent for a county medical examiner’s office in Texas. Although it was not a consideration at the time, my advanced training and real life experiences equipped me for the killing sprees in my novels. Because few writers have these exposures and rarely witness life unedited, today more than ever it is vital they find other ways to get murder right.

The readers of mystery and suspense are more sophisticated and knowledgeable in the fields of crime and murder. With growing exposure to a plethora of CSI television shows, true crime documentaries, and blockbuster movies about twisted psychopaths, diabolical serial killers, and sick mass murderers, our reading audience understands how it all happens and know the likely evidence that leads to perpetrators. Writing a mesmerizing murder scene or crisp caper requires today’s authors to know the possibilities; planting legitimate clues, presentation and logical discovery, not missing the obvious, and the accurate treatment of the facts. Today, understanding the death investigation and discovery process is a must.

My first case as a forensic investigator was a ride-along with a senior agent. The call came into the medical examiner’s office as a multiple gunshot wound to the chest. We raced to the scene moments after the discovery of the body in an affluent neighborhood. Being new and fresh out of training, I knew right away we were dealing with a well-crafted homicide. The senior agent was older and a man of few words. As I drove, he blew smoke out the window and announced we were going to a suicide. The rest of the ride was quiet. Looking down my rookie nose, I thought the old guy was burned out. A suicide case was less paperwork than a homicide. How could anyone take multiple bullets in the chest and it not be a homicide?

The deceased, sixty-year-old white male, was slouched over on a back porch swing, multiple gunshot wounds to the chest, gun clenched in his cold, stiff hand. After I counted five entrance wounds, I whispered to the senior agent, “You still think this is a suicide?” He said nothing, just stood over me and nodded in the affirmative.

After photographing (documenting) the death scene from all angles, we placed the weapon in a plastic bag and labeled. We put paper bags over the hands of the deceased and authorized transport of the body to the county morgue. We interviewed family and friends. The deceased was in early stages of rigor mortis placing time of death in a six to ten hour window.

At the institute of forensic science we test fired the weapon—five shots. A gunpowder residue sample was taken from our shooting hand and the hand of the deceased. They were assessed analytically and qualitatively via mass spectroscopy and other advanced detection instrumentation. Gunshot residue can contain various amounts of lead, barium, antimony, sulfur, aluminum, potassium, copper, titanium, zinc and more. Test results confirmed the gun was in the hand of the deceased when fired five times.

I was not convinced—being new and smarter than everyone else on my first case. The victim could not have physically shot himself five times—like the old story of the suicide where the man backed into the knife five times. I knew the diabolical killer put the gun in the victim’s hand and forced five rounds into the man’s chest. And I didn’t like the way the son-in-law acted at the death scene—very mechanical, no emotion, seemed to dodge questions, and just the way he behaved with his weeping spouse. The truth would come out after I delved into the victim’s history, his financials, and the story about his son-in-law. With or without my senior field agent on board, I would not stop until I found the veiled reason this man was killed.

It was not until the autopsy that the story came into focus. Four of the five shots into the chest missed the heart and internal structures that would cause immediate death (such as major arteries). One bullet found the heart. And because the bullets used were a mix between Colt and Remington, we were able to determine the bullet that hit the heart was the last fired.

I won’t go into contact wounds, patterns, and gunpowder burn anomalies. I won’t go into angles of entry and exit or the smokeless gunpowder today that can change everything but contains over twenty detectable compounds. I won’t talk about the suicide history uncovered or the doctor appointment where the deceased learned he had a brain tumor eight hours before he was found dead on the porch swing. What I will say is it took the field investigation, forensic testing, and the autopsy to get it right…regardless how it looked or felt.

This is just one example of how a traumatic death in today’s world is solved. People that do this every day understand cause and manner of death can only be determined when we replace speculation and emotion with logic and facts. As writers creating killers and death scenes, we can write our best chilling, thought provoking stories when we understand the advanced tools and processes employed in a modern world to catch the bad guys.

I encourage writers of suspense and mystery to make use of the internet to read about forensics and real cases. Attend writer conferences to hear from experts in forensics (which I often do). Visit a medical examiner’s office and the county morgue. Observe an autopsy. Ride with a homicide detective to see how the real world works today. If you are going to write about murder, I believe you get your best stories when you know more than your readers: how crime scenes are processed, how autopsies are conducted, the important clues and how to plant them. When writers get it right, readers come back for more.