Writer’s Problem: Keeping the suspense/tension high

Last Saturday, my local writing group’s program included authors talking about how to solve a particular writing problem.   One presentation was on how to develop and maintain suspense.  The solution:  chapter ending hooks.

Nancy J. Cohen wrote an interesting blog post (Killzone Blog) that talked about seven types of chapter ending hooks.  These are used to provoke the reader’s curiosity or to shock or tease or entice or worry or otherwise propel your reader to the next page and chapter.  There may be more than the seven but I thought it was a really good list to start from.

These hooks can be found in lots of different mysteries and thrillers but to give you a few examples, I completed the list from a few of the books from my shelves.  Some fit better than others but I think you can get the idea from these.    Where needed, I included more than one sentence since I wanted everyone to get a sense of why I included it, and I’ve tried to give some context when I thought it would be helpful.

Decision:  Finally, he stopped, turned around and walked back, his steps slow but deliberate.    Louise Penny, A Trick of the Light, Chapter 15.

Danger:   Any cops come in on this and your granny’s dead.  Janet Evanovich, Seven-Up, Chap 12.danger

Revelation:  Someone would remember that review.  The artist himself.  Louise Penney, A Trick of the Light, Chapter 6.

New Character:  My sister’s driving the Buick.  Janet Evanovich, Seven-Up, Chapter 9.

Emotional Turning Point:   I didn’t know what the right grieving behavior should be from a boy whose favorite teacher ever, Laura Smiley, had only six days before slashed her wrists and bled to death. Diane Mott Davidson, Catering to Nobody, Chapter 1.   Note that this might also be revelation about how the Laura died so some of these could include more than one type of hook – or this might be better considered a revelation but I wanted to have something that illustrated how a hook could be more complicated.Puzzled

Puzzle :  It was signed by Ronald DeChooch.  Bad enough that he creeped me out at the social club, now he was sending me flowers.   Janet Evanovich, Seven-Up, Chap 3.

Sex:   Nobody had to tell them about the birds and the bees. Diane Mott Davidson, Catering to Nobody, Chap 20.  Note that sex in a cozy is a harder one since it’s generally off stage but possible.

I’m not suggesting that every single chapter has to have an ending hook.  But to really create the suspense/tension, this method if using them sprinkled throughout your novel seems like a really good idea that I am going to use on my current work in progress.

So now that we have these, how do you use them, or better yet, evaluate your novel for these?  Our speaker suggested creating a chart for your novel, chapter by chapter – it could look something  like the following:

Chapter #            Pages                    Situation              Excitement/Tension         Hook

I’ve used Davidson’s Catering to Nobody and Chapters 1 and 20 as examples to reflect how you might complete this based on what is happening in each chapter.  The following would be the first entry on the chart and then you’d follow it up for each succeeding chapter to see whether you have a hook or not.

Chapter #:    1

Pages:  13

Situation:  Catering the wake for Laura Smiley

Excitement/Tension:  Goldy’s (main character)  ex-husband will be at the wake with his girlfriend, who she has just learned, he is marrying.  MC’s son has a rough day with friends.  Missing supplies for catering to be done are coming in last minute.

Hook:   I didn’t know what the right grieving behavior should be from a boy whose favorite teacher ever, Laura Smiley, had only six days before slashed her wrists and bled to death.

Then work through each chapter of her mystery and Chapter 20 might look like this:

Chapter #:   20

Pages:  9

Situation:  Goldy (MC) visits Polmeroy to get honey

Excitement/Tension:   Arrives to get the honey and Polmeroy shows her his telescope where she sees her former father-in-law having sex with Patty Sue, who is not his wife.

Hook:  Nobody had to tell them about the birds and the bees.

When you’ve completed the chart you will have an idea of the excitement and tension in each chapter as well as which ones have ending hooks and which ones don’t.   This is a fairly simple and efficient process that doesn’t seem to take a lot of time. Plus you may already have some sort of chart like this where you can simply add the ending hooks.  Once done, you can then evaluate the ending hooks.  Are there too many clustered together?  Not enough through the novel?  Do you go too long between hooks?  Do you have a sagging middle without an ending hook to keep the reader wanting to stay up all night to find out what happens?  Using this, you can re-write to achieve your goals of creating or maintaining tension/suspense.

So what do you think?  Is this something you can use?  Do you use some other method?  Can you think of other chapter ending hooks to add to this list?

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2 thoughts on “Writer’s Problem: Keeping the suspense/tension high

  1. Enjoyed the post, Carolyn, but think I might need an extra glass of wine to work thru all of this! Definitely a thorough look at how to evaluate tension and make sure we’ve got those all-important hooks set in the right places.

    Especially appreciated being introduced to the Killzone blog and am thrilled to find that my personal hero, James Scott Bell, blogs there on some Sundays. As a result, have set my alarm clock just a little earlier for the so-called “day of rest.”


  2. Excellent idea. I took a workshop years ago with Mary O’Gara on hooks. At the time, it seemed too complicated, but I think I’ll revisit my notes.
    Thanks for a great post.

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