A Suspense Writer’s
Technique for Adding New Layers to your Storyby Sandra Orchard
A Suspense Writer’s Technique for Adding New Layers to your Storyby Sandra Orchard
While reading a straight romance recently, I noted many incidental details that, in the end, served no other purpose than to convey a picture of the setting or a visual of the character. Yet as a suspense writer reading about the “blue satin throw pillow” on the sofa, for example, my mind immediately concluded this has got to be significant.
Someone is going to get smothered by that pillow!
Okay, this is romance, I reminded myself. No one dies.
But as I read further, I realized that non-suspense writers miss out on a playground full of opportunities to layer more depth into their stories.
For me, one of the most fun parts of writing a mystery/suspense is dreaming up ways to plant clues that will divert my readers’ suspicions in multiple directions.
But way more cool than that is finding the tidbits that my subconscious planted, and playing with them.
Your subconscious is doing this, too, whether you realize it or not.
A mystery reader—because she’s attuned to looking for clues and spying out red herrings—will stumble over many toys the non-suspense writer unwittingly leaves lying around her story. Toys that, if she noticed them, and played with them, could add interesting new layers to the plot, or give added depth to a character, or perhaps even give the story an intriguing twist.
Let me give a simple example from the movie The Pacifier, in which a disgraced Navy Seal must babysit a family of undisciplined children to protect them from bad guys hunting for the secret their father took to his grave. This story had a lot of fun details. Things like the young girl crossing her eyes to make the baby cry and annoy Mr. Navy Seal. Or Mr. Navy Seal having to do a silly panda dance that the dad had made up to get the young boy to sleep. The kind of things that might randomly pop into your head as you’re writing. But what makes them even better is that, in the end, the screenwriter drew them, and many other, apparently incidental details together to defeat the bad guys and recover the secret.
Just about every writer has had that serendipitous experience at some point in a story when they come up with an ingenious element and realize that they’d unconsciously laid the groundwork for it all along.
Today I want to help you recreate that experience every time you sit down to write.
Here’s what you do: First read what you wrote yesterday and note every specific detail you included for which you don’t already have a plan.
Ask yourself questions about this detail, the most important being how could I use this in the story. What hooks readers is a specific detail that doesn’t quite fit. It suggests possibilities or raises questions that can help you layer greater depth into your characters or plot.
Then play with ways to include the ideas that seem the most promising.
Clear as mud?
Let’s go back to the blue satin pillow. It must have some significance to the pov character, since she took note of it as she walked into the room. Right?
Why? Why blue? Why satin? Is this an heirloom pillow passed down from her grandmother? Does it hold special memories for her? Was it a gift from her first love?
Did she have a parent or spouse or child who was critically ill and used to lie on the sofa with his or her head on the pillow? Did someone sew it for her? Did she sew it? Was it a shower gift for a wedding that never happened, but she could never bear to part with it?
Is it the only “rich” item in a room full of shabby belongings? A remnant of a life she left behind? A life she was pushed from? Is this the only throw pillow in the room, or one of many? Is it a pillow that wasn’t there the last time she was in the room and doesn’t know how it got there? Did she have pillow fights with a beloved sibling as a kid? A sibling who has since died?
Hopefully you can see how any one of these questions could spawn some interesting depth to the character or a twist in the plot that the author hadn’t considered. It’s a great technique to use when you’re feeling blocked or feel like your story is slowing.
I like to write the ideas that come to me in a cluster map. Circling each one as it pops into my head, exploring the answers with lines and more circles, noting how a new idea might connect with other things going on in the story. The exercise is the writer’s equivalent of tipping over the toy box and playing. Have fun with it and see where it leads.
What techniques do you use to add additional dimensions to your story?
I'll be giving away a book to each of two winners- your choice of one of the three books in my Undercover Cops series, or an ARC of my Revell release to be mailed in spring 2013. Please say you'd like to be entered in the comments section. Winners will be announced in the Weekend Edition!
Sandra Orchard is the award winning author of several romantic suspense novels, including the RT’s Reviewer’s Choice award nominee, Critical Condition. She writes for Harlequin's Love Inspired Suspense line, and has a new mystery/rs series debuting with Revell in June 2013. A member of ACFW, RWA and The Word Guild (Canada), Sandra loves to encourage other writers in their journey. She graduated from McMaster University and taught high school math for several semesters before starting her own family, which she homeschooled. She now writes full time…when not doting on her first grandchild. She lives in Niagara, Canada with her husband and the two children that are still at home. You can learn more about Sandra’s books and fun extras at www.SandraOrchard.com or connect at www.Facebook.com/SandraOrchard
Critical Condition (from Love Inspired Suspense)
There's a murderer in the hospital, and nurse Tara Peterson is determined to prove it. With mysterious deaths in the cancer ward, anyone could be next. But no one wants to believe her…except undercover agent Zach Davis. The murderer wants Tara's suspicions silenced, permanently. To protect Tara, Zach lets her in on his secret, and unwittingly into his heart. Tara and her three-year-old daughter are like the family he lost years before. Zach will risk everything to keep them safe, no matter the cost.
Recently nominated by Romantic Times Magazine for a Reviewer’s Choice award, Critical Condition is the third book in Sandra’s series, Undercover Cops: Fighting for justice puts their lives—and hearts—on the line.