Thursday, February 27, 2014

Planning your Novel for SpeedBo

Planning your Novel for SpeedBo

Are you ready for SpeedBo? If you are, good for you! You’re way ahead of me.

If you’re a panster you might not want to plan how you’re going to write your story. You’ll just need an interesting idea (hopefully unique and intriguing), a few characters in your head and a general idea of where the story should take you. You’ll be ready to start writing without a lot of preparation but probably with plenty of enthusiasm.

If you’re afraid of getting lost in a forest of words without any clear path in sight, you might want to think a few steps ahead and make a plan, even if it’s a bit vague.

I like to plot, but not every last detail because I’d get bored before I finished my story. Like many other writers, I’m a combination panster and plotter.

I thought I’d tackle something new for SpeedBo. Since I love reading romantic suspense books I decided to try writing one. But reading and liking a genre doesn’t mean I can easily write and sell one. So I read a craft book about (you guessed it) writing suspense. Writing a Killer Thriller by Jodie Renner. I’ve written historical romance before but not suspense, so I needed to learn more about this sub-genre. After I plan the suspense, I’ll weave in the romance. Many writers would begin with the romance and then work on the suspense. Right or wrong, I always start with plot.

Some romantic suspense novels have more suspense than romance and vice versa. Many have equal amounts of each. It’s smart to check the guidelines for the publisher you’re interested in before you begin.

Before I even started planning, I needed to find out what a suspense/thriller actually involves. It’s a fiction story involving criminal activity, catching the bad guy(s), and at least one murder. In a thriller, the reader often knows who the villain is early on, and sometimes the hero does too. The hero’s goal is to outwit and catch the killer before he kills others, including the hero, or endangers the world. The protagonist is almost always threatened, fighting for his life as she matches wits with a clever, determined, and evil antagonist/villain.

Thrillers appeal to our emotions and our enjoyment of excitement and adventure, a desire to vicariously confront danger and defeat villains. They’re fast-paced and suspenseful. The hero/ine has a nearly impossible mission to foil evil. Her goal puts her into terrible trouble. Readers love the emotional high, the heart-pounding suspense, the apprehension and exhilaration that drive the narrative.

Their appeal comes from high stakes, nonstop action, surprising and exciting plot twists, and an intense pace that never lets up until the climax.

A thriller needs skillful plotting, with lots of conflict, tension, suspense, twists and turns and surprises.

It needs exhilarating scenes, each connected to the next and to the story as a whole, with lots of direct cause and effect.

You need to create a clever hero and send him on a difficult, almost impossible mission to foil evil for the benefit of others. Use red herrings, plot twists, and cliff-hangers extensively.

A thriller has a character (hero/heroine) who wants something badly, and an adversary who is trying equally hard to prevent the hero from getting what he wants. In each scene, the hero attacks his problem in a new way, the antagonist fights back, and the hero either fails or his initial success leads to a bigger problem.

So, where do you begin?
Find a great idea that grabs your interest. Remember, this story has to sustain you, the reader, for a few hundred pages. If the idea doesn’t carry you to the end, it won’t capture the reader either.

You can either develop the plot further at this point, or concentrate on your characters.
If you prefer working on characters, you might start with the villain.

The Villain

Spend some time creating a memorable, three-dimensional villain.
Find his evil mission and why he pursues this goal. This is the plot behind the plot, the hidden story. Consider his past and what led him to this desperate point in his life. Of course this doesn’t mean he’s justified in committing his terrible acts, but it does allow the reader to see something of his motivation.

The villain must be a worthy opponent who is at least as tough and smart as the protagonist, often more so. The villain usually poses the initial threat that sets off the story action, so make sure he’s complex, capable, well-motivated, and determined. You need a really bad bad guy.

A villain should be believable, complex, and chilling. Make him evil, devious and determined, but also someone who feels justified in his actions.
What does the villain want and why does he think the heroine is in his way? How does he explain his own motivations to himself? How does he rationalize his actions to himself?

Create a mini-biography of the villain
Include his upbringing and family background, early influences, and harrowing experiences or criminal history. You can use 1st person or diary form. Include resentments, temper-tantrums and schemes. You need to know what drives him to think and act the way he does.

The heroine has to be impassioned, unique, and likeable.
Give her some inner conflict, baggage, and insecurities to keep readers identifying with her. Maybe add in a secret or indiscretion from her past.

The ideal heroine is clever, resourceful, charismatic, likeable, tenacious, experienced, and is physically fit. She has special skills/talents. She’s confident but not overly brash, passionate but not overly emotional, unique, unpredictable, complex (imperfect with some inner conflict), wounded but still vulnerable. A heroine has some self-doubt and fear. She’s also idealistic, honorable, self-sacrificing, often a loner or rebel, and courageous, but not perfect.

Give your heroine an Achilles’ heel (a weakness or phobia), a vulnerable spot.

A heroine may be an ordinary person whose life is suddenly thrown into turmoil. She’s forced to reach deep inside herself to find courage and the resources she never knew they had. Sometimes the heroine is a rebel who defies society’s rules, but she has inner integrity and a personal code of honor, and will risk her life for a worthy cause.

In a romantic suspense story you also have a hero who often joins forces with the heroine to catch the villain. He’ll probably be handsome and he’ll definitely have heroic qualities, just as he has in other romance novels.

Using your story idea play the “What if?” game. Write down the ‘what if’ questions, pick a few of your favorites, and then build on them to see where they take you. Ask more questions and add dilemmas and conflict. Keep escalating the initial idea by continually raising the stakes, the conflicts, and the suspense. In a romantic suspense remember to add lots of romance! Straight suspense usually has a love interest included, but the amount of romance will vary.

A thriller consists of a character (hero/heroine) who wants something badly, and an adversary who is trying equally hard to prevent the hero from getting what he wants. In each scene, the hero attacks his problem in a new way, the adversary fights back, and the hero either fails or his initial success leads to a bigger problem.

Or you could approach it by saying that the villain drives the story and threatens peace and security. The heroine spends the whole story reacting to the threads and trying to stop the villain before he reaches his ultimate goal(s) and commits the most horrifying acts.

Your plot needs:
A clever, resourceful, likeable but complex protagonist
A conniving, frightening, determined villain
An overriding problem
Other related conflicts
Interesting and memorable supporting characters
Lots of intrigue, suspense and tension
Some surprises and reversals
A final big, very close battle
A satisfying resolution, with a final twist or surprise, and all the major story questions answered
Even in a hair-raising suspense the heroine/protagonist has a character arc.


Make a rough outline of your plot.
Start with a plot outline.
Brainstorm and list the main turning points of your story, and outline the main scenes showing the villain’s crimes and your heroine’s struggle. The main events should be linked by cause and effect.

What’s the premise of your story?
What’s the story about? What’s the main story question or problem? Write a one sentence story line.


Tell us whose story it is. It’s a good idea to introduce the heroine first, although some writers begin with the villain. Situate the reader right away – where, when and what’s going on. Introduce some tension and conflict on page one.

Make us care about your heroine. She should be sympathetic, but with inner conflict and baggage. Show us her hopes, dreams, worries, and fears as soon as possible.

Give us characters in action. Quickly put her into a scene with someone else, in real time, with tension, dialogue, actions, and reactions.

Think of a gripping, stressful opening situation for the heroine that creates empathy and identification for her and raises intriguing story questions. Then show the scene in real time, with tension, action, and dialogue, through the eyes and ears of the heroine.

Then start writing! Keep on writing. Don’t keep re-working the beginning until you finish the book. Just get on with the story!

If you’re interested, please leave your name and e-mail addy for a chance to win a $10.00 gift certificate from Starbucks.


  1. Coffee! And a gift certificate to Starbucks...with coffee in the system, the adrenaline should be there to carry that story through Speedbo and beyond. Thanks, Cara for a peek into the makings of a suspense story!


  2. I've finally signed up and will be working on another cosy mystery during Speedbo. Will be stocking up on tea, Diet Coke, coffee and some quick comfort foods to get me through. I've done some preliminary thinking about this new story, but I don't feel ready yet. Thanks for your wonderful suggestions, Cara.

  3. Hi Cara Lynn,
    Although you provide an interesting map regarding writing romantic suspense, I am happy to leave that sub-genre for you and others to handle. I just don't have the background to write one and I have so many other ideas banging around in my little bitty brain that need attention. I appreciate your encouragement.

    Speedbo is going to be FUN! My timer is ready and I have my chewing gum all lined up and ready to go. Whoohooo!

  4. I'm all excited about starting Speedbo. I'm shopping tomorrow night to make sure I have plenty of coffee, Diet Rite soda and gum. I need my gum...helps me concentrate.

    I would love to win the Starbucks card.

    May you all have a wonderful day.

    Smiles & Blessings,
    Cindy W.

  5. I am printing this off!!!!!

    Cara, this is a simply put, understandable outline for excellence!!!! I'm so glad you shared it with us.

    I love romantic suspense. Mary Stuart was one of my faves as a teen. The encroaching darkness, the build-up. I LOVE IT!!!!

    I think that's why I devour Deb's books. You go, girl, I love that you're venturing into new waters! #awesome!!!!



    No time to cook today, my Christmas novel is singing carols to me, tempting me to work, but donuts... YES!!!! Lent is less than a week away and pre-Lenten donuts are a must... as if I need an excuse to eat a cream filled donut. :)

  7. Hi Cara,

    I love playing the what if game before I begin writing and when I hit a wall.

    I'm so excited about Speedbo. I told my husband last night I planned to participate. He's going to be gone the first week of March and laughed that I wouldn't miss him at all. Not true.

    Starbucks? I'm going to need it.

    Thanks for sharing these great ideas!


  8. CARA: this is great--getting to the heart of a suspense story. I hope you have a FABULOUS and FUN time writing in March. This should get you (and others!) off to a good start!

  9. Wow, Cara. Just wow! I feel like I just took a fabulous course in how to write romantic suspense. Since I'm smack dab in the middle of writing one right now, this is a fabulous checklist for me.

    Thanks so much!

    And best of luck to you with your new genre. Sounds like you have it mastered. I already want read it.

  10. CARA: this is great--getting to the heart of a suspense story. I hope you have a FABULOUS and FUN time writing in March. This should get you (and others!) off to a good start!

  11. Good morning, Marianne! I think I'll need a lot of coffee to keep me on track during SpeedBo. It's hard for me to stay put and concentrate on just writing. But it's the only way to improve my word count.

  12. Carol, good luck on your cozy mystery! I've been vacillating between writing a romantic cozy mystery and romantic suspense for a long time. They have so many elements in common. I read an equal number of each. I'm not really sure if I should write mystery or suspense but I had to choose for SpeedBo.

  13. Hi, Lyndee! I had to laugh at your comment because I don't have any background to write a suspense either. That's why I'll write a 'woman in jeopardy' story. It's my favorite to read and I think I'll need less knowledge about police work etc. than some of the other types like police procedurals. I might be kidding myself!

  14. Cindy, gum helps you concentrate? Maybe it would work for me, too. I should try it.

  15. Ruthy, send me a donut through cyberspace, please. It sounds so much better than a piece of toast.

    Glad you liked my process for writing rs. I haven't tried it out yet. It seems to me mystery and romantic suspense need a lot of pre-planning.

  16. Oh CARA how brave and courageous and fun. I love romantic suspense. I just know it will be wonderful.

    Happy writing.

    And great tips for starting that book. I needed those.

  17. RUTHY send a donut my way too while you're at it. Sounds yummy right now at this early hour.

  18. Great points for crafting a suspense, Cara! I'm more plotter than panster, but even so, I can't imagine plotting all the twists and turns needed in a suspense. I'll stick with historical romances. Most of your points fit any genre so thanks bunches!


  19. Jackie, being immersed in writing will help the time go by faster when your husband is away. Think of all the extra time you'll have to write.

  20. Glynna, I hope you find a lot of time to write during March even though you have a day job.

  21. Mary, have fun with your rs. I hope you get a lot written during SpeedBo.

  22. Sandra, while was eating my toast for breakfast, I was thinking of Ruthy's creme filled donuts. I sure wish I had one. But not the calories.

  23. Julie, I'm glad you're going to do SpeedBo. I hope you have a really productive month.

  24. Janet, I have a feeling historical romance is easier to write than romantic suspense especially if you like history and doing research. I think that's why I keep going back to writing historicals! But a challenge is good once in a while.

  25. WOW, Cara, talk about workshop in a blog -- this is OUTSTANDING!! AND soooooooo helpful because I have just begun a contemporary novel that already feels a bit foreign to me because it's this century, so I can use all the help I can get!

    SO good to see you back in the saddle again with writing, and then to tackle a suspense??? WOW!! I agree with Sandra -- you are definitely "brave and courageous"!!

    If ever there was a keeper, this is it, so the printers will be busy this morning!!


  26. Cara, glad you've stepped over into the spooky suspense side! Great blog on how to create a suspense.

    Perfect timing for the LIS Search for Killer Voices!

    Good luck with Speedbo!

    I'm ready to get started...

  27. Cara, this came along at the right time. My Speedbo project is finishing the novel I STARTED for NANO. It is a romance with a strong suspense element -- my heroine, Julia, is trying to find the daughter her former pimp Charlie told her died at birth. She has to outwit both Charlie and his sworn enemy to find the little girl. Julia is a Christian now, but has to dip back into her knowledge of the underworld to find the daughter she never knew. AND I have been struggling with the suspense element of my plot, which is why it isn't finished. Thanks, Cara.
    Kathy Bailey

  28. Cara, you nailed it! Everything I love in a book! And I'm happy with equal parts of suspense, romance, and mayhem.

    I'm printing this great article to keep in my handy reference file. Thank you for bringing it to us.

    And now on the count of three, I'm wishing a wonderful day for you! :-)

  29. Oh, that I was that organized, Cara. But I have found that it really, truly is much easier to edit thirty days of STUFF than thirty days of NOTHING.

  30. Great post, Cara! (Even if you are more of a plotter--LOL!) I enjoy a good romantic suspense or thriller, and I know you'll write a terrific one!

  31. Cara, great post!!! I am working on a historical romantic suspense story--well, off and on. Actually, I love romantic suspense and don't know why I don't read more of them. I think the books I write are gravitating toward romantic suspense. I love that heightened suspense and tension, but my stories also have to be heavy on the romance. Romance is #1 for me! :-)

    Cara, you described me perfectly when you said: If you’re a panster ... You’ll just need an interesting idea (hopefully unique and intriguing), a few characters in your head and a general idea of where the story should take you.

    This is me! And this describes what I have for my Speedbo book I'll be starting in the next three days! I'm so excited about it. Yay!

  32. Hello there. First time Speedo participant and I am READY. So, just to ready my fingers for the task, I have added the goal of checking into Seekerville first thing every morning instead of waiting until the blog is sent to email when it is too late to comment. So, this morning, in an effort to practice, I checked the blog and low and behold if the topic isn't exactly what I need to make my villain come to life. The Lord is good, and so are you Cara. I am printing this off too!

  33. Julie, I'm sure your contemporary will be as great as all your historicals. At least for me, changing to contemporary is an adjustment. But writing something fresh and new is fun along with challenging.

  34. Debby, once I started researching how to write a suspense I developed an even bigger appreciation and respect for writers who tackle such a difficult genre. At least I think it's difficult! Is it hard? What do you think?

  35. Kathy, I hope you make a lot of progress on your NANO book during SpeedBo. I hope this blog helps you with your suspense elements.

  36. LOL, Tina! You're the most organized person I know.

  37. Cara, you must know me personally, ha! ("Don’t keep re-working the beginning until you finish the book. Just get on with the story"), that has me written all over it. I am saving this post for frequent and future reference, thanks!

    In my current manuscript I have a final villain who is a total surprise - connected to the "lesser" villain but he represents a true plot twist (Even to me as I was writing it!)

    Jenna Victoria

  38. Cara, so much of this information is applicable to other genres, that I'm going to keep it by me while I write. It has gotten me thinking (no easy feat).

    It also gives me an even greater appreciation for romantic suspense writers. Especially when you add a spiritual thread along with the other two!

  39. I'm going to jump in. Thanks for the opportunity and the challenge.


  40. I'm going to jump in. Thanks for the opportunity and the challenge.


  41. Cara, what a great post! While I seriously doubt I'll ever leave my historical western romance to write modern day suspense, I found this post very intriguing.
    While the giveaway is wonderful today, I'm not entering, as I only eat (and drink) organic.
    I am ready and rarin' to go for Speedbo. Can't wait to start!

  42. Cara, no wonder I feel overwhelmed trying to write a suspense.

    Because of the Killer Voice contest, Emily Rodmell has been giving advice. One thing I never considered was when talking about the villain, she said to think of the villain's motivation. If he's trying to kill, he doesn't send threatening letters. And if he's his purpose is to scare, he doesn't shoot at them for fear he might kill them. (I'm paraphrasing.) That makes so much sense.

  43. And I'm printing this out. You put so much good info in there.

    You said,"After I plan the suspense, I’ll weave in the romance." This is me!

  44. Mary Curry!!! I thought of you this morning when I was reading this, and then had to take care of little cuties... Who are, in fact, CUTE!!!!

    Isn't this perfect timing???? Oh, that God!!! And several members of the "series" class are working on suspense, so I'm going to cue them in tonight.


  45. Cara, perfect post for pre-Speedbo! It's loaded with tips for all of us, not only suspense writers.


  46. Thanks for the vote of confidence, Myra!

  47. Melanie, when I don't plan I usually get stuck at some point and I head off in the wrong direction. We all do things differently. As long as it works for us.

  48. Hi, Eileen! I'm so glad I wrote about villains. They're usually more interesting than the hero and heroine! Have fun with SpeedBo.

  49. Hi, Jenna! I used to spend a lot of time re-writing chapter one until I was satisfied. But by the time I got to the end of the story I'd made so many changes to my original plan I had to re-do the beginning. Sigh.

    I'm on Monday so I'll talk more about it then!!!!

  51. I could use a Starbucks fix. what's even better, I needed a guide for suspense. (thinking of attempting the Killer Voice search and have idea sparked by forum commentary). Of course, this all laid out so logically has my brain panicking that I haven't planned things out enough.

    ah, but then TINA says fixing thirty days of something beats fixing thirty days of nothing *phew*

    there may be hope for me yet.

  52. Love this point-by-point detail. I'm with the others who will be printing it out for future reference. Thank you!! And Starbucks? Yes, please!

  53. ALright, I'm in. How do I sign up from Speedbo again?

  54. Plotting, planning, writing.

    Add Coffee.

    Wash, Rinse, Repeat.

  55. Hi Cara! Thanks for the tips. I'm more on the cozy side of mystery than romantic suspense, but that's why there are so many awesome books out there! This also inspired me because one thing that has been hanging me up for a long time on the draft I'm trying to polish is a plot point that just seemed too dull. Your tips have given me some inspiration to spice that plot point up! Thanks!

    Oooh, Starbucks is a must for this writer!

  56. Cara, how exciting for you that you're trying something new for Speedbo! I'll cheer you on ... and hope to see it in print one day :-)

    Nancy C

  57. Donna, after doing research on how to write romantic suspense I also have tremendous respect for rs writers. It can't be easy to weave so much together and make it heart-pounding!

  58. Loree, I'm so glad you're going to take the challenge of SpeedBo.

  59. Hi, Crystal! Have fun with SpeedBo. I imagine westerns are fun to write.

    Connie, I love to come up with villains and what makes them tick. To me they're most interesting to write than heros and heroines!

  60. Jan, I think the structure of the Hero's Journey, for example, is basic to most stories.

  61. I totally want to do this, and not just for hte starbucks!


  62. Walt, all you have to do is sent an e-mail to telling Tina you want to sign up.

    Let's do this, Walt, my buddy!!!!

  63. Ruthy, thanks for giving Walt the addy.

    Melony, sign up, too, and go for it! It'll be fun.

  64. Mary, I'd be shocked if you didn't finish your manuscript in a month. That's your SOP.

  65. Stephanie, good luck with your mystery. I've found a lot of books on mystery writing, but not many on writing romantic suspense. I don't know why this is since rs is so popular.

  66. Thanks, Nancy. I'd love to have a romantic suspense published some day.

  67. Deb, you've probably planned enough. When SpeedBo starts just write and worry about revising later.

    Meghan, I'm glad the blog was helpful.

  68. Pam, I'll bet you're all organized and all ready to go. Are you?

  69. Cara - what an amazing post! Since I'm going to be brainstorming a romantic suspense at a fun writers retreat this is so timely. Did I mention I get to go to a fun writers retreat? I'm hyped about that!

    During Speedbo I'll be working on a Christmas story.

    Carol - I love cozy mysteries.

    Connie Queen - I've seen your posts over st the killer voice. I'm Terri W. over there. Good luck!

  70. Oh Cara, you adventurous gal! Crafting a novel outside your comfort zone sounds like a perfect project for Speedbo. If you love reading romantic suspense and have a sense of the rhythm of the plot, I think trying to write it within a 30 day period gives you a great opportunity for encouragment, yet a set timeframe so you can't overthink it.

    Way to go, girlfriend! I can't wait to see how it progresses!!

  71. What great info, Cara! I hope you have a great time writing your new story in a new genre!

  72. Thank you for the tips on writing romantic suspense. It is my genre of choice and I am also printing out the blog. Thanks for helping me to have an amazing start to this month!

  73. Wow...this is what I call a divine appointment...reading this blog post...just what I needed to kickstart my wip for Speedbo!! Thanks, Cara, for such an in-depth look at creating a killer thriller!!