When I was asked to write something for aspiring young authors on the subject of ‘How to build suspense’, my initial response was – “Sorry, I’d really like to, but I don’t think I can.” The reason for my hesitation was that, for me, the process of building suspense is one of the many aspects of writing that’s almost entirely instinctive: I know I can do it, but I don’t consciously know how. I don’t have a set of rules in my mind labelled ‘This Is How To Build Suspense’.
So how do I know how to do it?
And, more importantly, how can an aspiring writer learn how do it?
I really don’t have any definitive answers – in fact, because writing is such an incredibly personal experience, I don’t think there are any definitive answers – but I’ll try to explain how I think I ‘learned’ how to write by telling you about something that happened when my first book, Martyn Pig, was published.
I was very lucky to get some good reviews when the book came out, and in one of these reviews I was very surprised to find myself described as a ‘master of plotting’, or something along those lines. The reason I was so surprised was that although by that time I’d written countless unpublished books, I was still very much a beginner as a novelist, and I simply couldn’t understand how I could be called a ‘master of plotting’ when – as far as I was aware – I didn’t know the first thing about it. I’d never been taught how to plot, I’d never read any Teach Yourself Plotting books, I’d never really given it much thought at all. I’d just worked out a story, hoping it was OK, and then gone ahead and written it.
It wasn’t until some time later, after I’d had time to reflect on Martyn Pig and view it a bit more objectively, that I realised (throwing modesty to the wind!) that the reviewer was right – the plot was pretty good. And I’d written it, hadn’t I? So somehow I must have known what I was doing.
And it was then I realised how.
I was forty years old when Martyn Pig was published, and I’d been a voracious reader since the age of four or five, so I’d read literally thousand of novels – some of them masterpieces, some of them just rattling good reads, and some of them completely terrible. But the one thing every novel has is a plot. So by the time I started writing novels, or trying to write novels, I’d read and digested thousands of different plots, and all the time, without being consciously aware of it, I was soaking up everything about them – how they’re structured, how different structures work in different ways, the underlying purpose of plot, and so on. In short, I was subconsciously learning how to plot.
And that was it, basically. That’s how I learned not just about plot, but about every aspect of novel writing, including how to build suspense; simply by reading thousands of novels. Of course, the more I wrote, the better I became at channeling this knowledge into my work, but even now – after fifteen years as a professional author and twenty-odd published novels – I still don’t consciously know exactly what I’m doing when I’m writing. But the key thing is, I know that I don’t know; and I don’t just accept it, I actively embrace it.
I’ll leave the last word to a true master of plotting and suspense, Stephen King. The following quote is from his book On Writing, which is perhaps the best book about writing I’ve ever read.
Fiction writers don’t understand very much about what they do – they don’t understand why it works when it’s good, and they don’t understand why it doesn’t work when it’s bad.
Hold on, I’ve changed my mind; I’m leaving the last word to myself!
I often get asked for advice from young writers, and – as you’ll have gathered – I find it quite hard to know what to say. But the one thing I can always say without hesitation is this: novels are about life, and if you want to write about life, you need to have one. So while it’s important to write (and read) as much as possible, it’s even more important to make sure you don’t spend all your time sitting alone in your room slaving over your latest masterpiece. Get out there and live, otherwise you won’t have anything to write about.
And always enjoy it, even when it’s tough.