Tuesday, December 02, 2008

The Challenges of Suspense - Jenna Black

One thing all my novels have in common—whether they’re paranormal romance, urban fantasy, or even my upcoming young adult fantasy—is a healthy dose of suspense. There is certainly a strong romantic element, even in the books that aren’t strictly romance, but the romance does not form the central plot.

With seven novels in print and two more completed and scheduled to come out in 2009, I can share the great insight I have had about writing suspense: it’s hard! (Yeah, yeah, like writing anything else is easy . . .) Here are some of the challenges you face when writing suspense plots.

You have to get your hero or heroine in trouble. (In my case, most of my protagonists are female, so I’ll stick with “heroine.”) This isn’t as easy as it sounds, because you don’t want to make her act like an idiot to get her in trouble or your readers will label her TSTL (“too stupid to live,” for those of you who don’t know the lingo) and will lose sympathy with her. So your heroine has to behave in a perfectly sensible, logical way and get in trouble anyway.

Once you’ve got your heroine in trouble, you’ve got to get her out of trouble. This involves devising some kind of scheme for her rescue/escape; a scheme that sounds like it has at least a snowball’s chance of working. Of course, whatever this scheme is, it can’t actually work, because let’s face it, plans that work are boring. So no matter how good the plan is, it’s got to fail. As if that isn’t hard enough, once the brilliant plan has failed, you’ve still got to get her out of trouble. You’ve got her in some kind of impossible situation, and you’ve got to come up with not one, but two reasonable ways to get her out of it. When I think of it that way, I find it mildly amazing that I’ve ever managed to finish a book.

Of course, you don’t necessarily have to do all these things every time. It’s possible some stroke of luck could help the heroine out—but if it does, it had better be a very satisfying stroke of luck, or your readers will feel like she hasn’t earned her victory. It’s possible the hero can swoop in at the last moment to save the day, but that can be a hard sell in these days, when readers prefer heroines who can take care of themselves instead of waiting for the hero to save them.

Right now, I’m working on the fifth book in the Morgan Kingsley series (tentatively titled THE DEVIL’S PLAYGROUND). The third book (THE DEVIL’S DUE) just hit the shelves, and the fourth book (SPEAK OF THE DEVIL) comes out in late July of ’09. I am once again facing all the familiar challenges of plotting a suspense novel. And, despite the difficulties, I have to admit—I love my job!



Gina said...

I love when there is some form of suspense in a book,be it bodyguard, tracking someone or just a mystery from the past.

Maureen said...

I definitely like the heroine to save herself.

Raven99 said...

Hi Jenna,

It was nice to read your insight on the creative process involved with writing a suspense novel. I think I have a new appreciation for authors who can overcome those challenges you mentioned. Great blog!

Jenna Black said...

Thanks Raven! I'm glad the post came out coherent. My next blog should be about the challenges of writing ANYTHING on the first week of a new book release. Yikes!

Lexi said...

Hey, Jenna! Great to "see" you! I always say my worst day of writing/writing related activities is still better than anything else I've ever done!

(And thanks for posting because reading through your post gave an AWESOME idea for the suspense I'm revising right now!)

kimmyl said...

I also love a mystery in any romance I read.

Helen said...


I do love a romance with lots of suspense keeps me on the egde of my seat while reading.

Have Fun