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

 

 

A Less Than Obvious Conclusion

When I was twenty-four, I was responsible for investigating thousands of unexplained deaths in Dallas for the medical examiner: homicides, suicides, and accidents. As the youngest forensic investigator in Texas history, I was exposed early to life unedited. Now, as I write my forth suspense thriller novel, I have a better understanding of why my books keep my readers on the edge of their seats—and the reason is not so obvious.

It is well accepted we are each unique products of our genetic lineage and environment. Taking that known reality and wrapping it in chance and happenstance, is further demonstration we go through life as an original—one of a kind. Not only are our points of view based on our own acquisitions of knowledge, but our truths are shaped by a lifetime of infinite exposures to the world under varying emotional and physical conditions. Allow me to illustrate.

When I’m standing in an alley over a horrific homicide victim and a fiery ball is sinking on the horizon—interfering with my investigation—my experience (my reality) is very different from that of a lover watching the same sunset from a sandy beach. For me the sun is a hindrance and the next yellow-orange ball I see will probably trigger a dismal memory. For the lovers the next sunset will reawaken fond memories. Both thoughts pass through minds shaping moods and spurring even more thought. In this example there can be a preferred experience and memory, but there is no right or wrong one. It just is, and it illustrates how one moment in time can shape life very differently.

Authors draw from life experiences. Our travels through the real world shape our characters, settings, plots and more. And because we are unique, the story possibilities are endless. Not only do we see a sunset our own way, we also see it through our own lenses of infinite and fleeting emotion that further change our worlds and how we want to express ourselves.

The characters I create in my stories exist. They are people I’ve known in my life. They are friends, family, acquaintances, or the person walking down the street or sitting at the table in a restaurant. They are the criminal, the victim, the witness, or someone on a plane crossing the Atlantic, or the business contact in a foreign land. They are faces and mannerisms and quirks and personalities that have touched me. But my characters are unique because they are compilations of many. They are built from a cornucopia of images and behaviors that fit my purpose. They are shaped by an author telling a story.

Now for the less than obvious conclusion I promised. My life as a forensic investigator did give me a wide array of skills and knowledge that help me write my brand of suspense thrillers, but the greatest asset I draw from is my vivid imagination, the product of my individuality and it comes from the current totality of my life experiences.

A good part of my stories are born from thoughts at the very beginning of an investigation, the time when the least is known and the worst crawls around in my head. It is the knee-knocking, bone-chilling moment when I stand alone in the shattered glass of a dark brutality and I am thinking about the possibilities. How did the real monster move this night? What was his motivation? What did he do and what mistakes did he make so I can catch him? How did the poor, lifeless victim come to be here at this moment in time, and what can they tell me now?

In the early moments of a terrible experience I take in the carnage. I smell death. I feel the terror, pain, and desperation of the victim and begin to assemble the facts. I touch the cold, hard, carotid artery, pronounce someone dead, and think about the life taken from this world and what it all means. It is in those dark, quiet moments my imagination works best. It is the place where anything and everything is possible, even the answers.

The Webster Dictionary defines “forensic” as relating to or denoting the application of scientific methods and techniques to the investigation of crime belonging to, used in, and suitable to courts of judicature. That is not what stimulates or drives my story telling process. It is my imagination, the place with no limits, the place where I search for meaning. My imagination is where I dig through the mountains of feelings and thoughts and knowledge I’ve collected over a lifetime. Today I write knowing my imagination has the greatest impact the stories I tell, and my conclusion is every author has one.

[Appeared in Southern Writers Magazine, Author Steve Bradshaw, March 2015]