Writing Suspense, Part 1, by Lillian Duncan

Today’s post comes from Lillian Duncan, author of Pursued. Lillian lives in a small town in the middle of Ohio Amish country with her husband, four parrots, one Jack Russell, and a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel. Whether as a speech-language pathologist, an educator, or as a writer, she believes in the power of words to change lives, especially God’s Word.

Lillian believes books can be entertaining without being trashy. She writes the types of books she loves to read, suspense with a touch of romance. Her newest release is PURSUED and her fifth novel, DECEPTION, will be released later this year. Her website is: www.lillianduncan.net and her blog is www.lillianduncan.wordpress.com.

Always wanted to try your hand at suspense but don’t know how to start? Lillian’s here to show you how in this two part series. Join us Thursday for the conclusion of this topic, then come back Friday to learn more about her novel.

Writing Suspense—PART I 

I love reading and writing suspense. No matter how hard I try to write something else, it always turns into a mystery or suspense. One agent suggested I write an Amish story since I live in Amish country but before the end of the first chapter, I had a dead body. What can I say?

First, let’s look at some definitions. These are my working definitions, and so you’re allowed to disagree.

MYSTERY is a story where the MCs are trying to discover who the murderer is. Somewhat slower paced than suspense but not by much (unless it’s a cozy mystery.)

SUSPENSE is a story where the MCs are trying to stop a murder. Often times the story starts with a murder, but it’s not necessary.

THRILLERS are a subgenre of suspense and usually include a conspiracy of some sort that will affect more than just the MCs. Political and Medical thrillers are common.

ROMANTIC SUSPENSE is a story where the romance between two MCs is as important as the mystery/suspense plot. Romantic suspense follows the same sorts of rules as romances.

There’s obviously a lot of overlap between these genres and sometimes it might be hard to figure out. One of my working definitions is when the Main Characters can keep their normal schedule as the story proceeds while they search for the killer, then it’s probably a mystery. When the Main Characters lives are interrupted because someone’s trying to kill them to stop them from exposing the truth throughout most of the story, it’s probably suspense.

My advice, don’t worry about it too much. Write your story then pick the genre you believe is closest. My stories are usually a mixture of mystery and suspense with a romantic subplot (different than romantic suspense.)

Now, let’s take a look at some of the elements of suspense writing. Today, we are looking at Pacing, Vocabulary, Violence and The Dreaded Foul Language Conundrum.


Getting the right pacing in your suspense novel is crucial. Too slow and you’ll lose most of your readers. Too fast and you won’t get the depth and layering that makes for a better story.

  1. Keep the focus on the story. Every scene should be about the story, not what she had for dinner, how her workday was (unless someone tried to kill her), who she talked to on the phone.
  2. Fiction is the illusion of real life, not real life. Or as someone important once said “good fiction is life with the boring parts taken out.” (Might have been Alfred Hitchcock.) This is very true for suspense novels. We read suspense for the goosebumps and the worry—not to hear about their day.
  3. Build up the excitement and tension of the story. Suspense novels shouldn’t just be one explosion after another. There needs to be a story and a plot that makes sense. We want to root for the main characters and we can’t if we don’t get to know them. Readers need a break from all the action so they can breathe—just not for too long.
  4. Showing and Telling. I know you know all about showing not telling, but you should use both techniques in your suspense story. If the pace is too slow get rid of the telling parts and show. If you need to slow the pace a bit, throw in some telling.
  5. Telling is a great way to show time passage or the mundane matters of life without letting the story drag.
  6. Short = faster pace. Long = slower pace.  Shorter sentences, shorter paragraphs, shorter chapters quickens the pace. Longer slows down the pace.
  7. 7. Cut the backstory. Backstory will kill the suspense in your suspense novel. If you must include backstory, do it in dribs and drabs not as in information dump. And better yet, do it as dialogue between two characters.
  8. Limit description. If you want to write long beautiful descriptions of sunsets, pick another genre. Suspense is fast paced and it seems to get faster paced with each passing year. You need to include description, of course, but it should be done in such a way that it blends in with the action.


Using inappropriate vocabulary is one of my pet peeves as I critique other writers’ work or even when I’m reading for pleasure. The vocabulary you choose should enhance your story, not make the readers scratch their.heads and wonder what the writer is talking about.

  1. 1. Vocabulary can help set the mood. Shrouded in darkness sets a much spookier mood than ‘the room was dark.’
  2. 2. Don’t show how smart you are by using “ high-falutin” words. Nothing irritates me more than a writer who wants to show off their vocabulary level. If I have to get the dictionary out and look up a word—it definitely stops the story and that’s not a good thing.
  3. 3. Vocabulary is especially important in dialogue. Let kids sound like kids, let a college professor sound like a….well, you get the idea.
  4. 4. Technical vocabulary must be explained. If your story features an unusual profession or setting, then find a way to explain the technical terms to the reader. One technique is to have one character explain it to another character who isn’t familiar with the vocabulary.
  1. 5. The dreaded foul language conundrum. Suspense and mysteries have bad guys—sometimes really bad guys. And yet some writers want to have them using what I consider silly terms, like “aw shucks” or “fiddlesticks.” Come on, let’s get real. Do you really think a serial killer would talk like that? I don’t. I hope I haven’t hurt anyone’s feelings by pointing that out but having your murderer use such terms takes away from the story.

On the other hand, I believe Christian Fiction should be different from the general market. One of the reason, I don’t read a lot of general market books anymore is that I got really tired of every other word being of the four-letter variety. This has been debated very vigorously on the loop. It brings out a lot of deep feelings and I don’t really want to revisit the topic but… The way I deal with it is to leave out the specific oaths and simple tell the reader they cursed.

James Scott Bell says he writes them in to help with the realism and then takes them out as he edits. Sounds like a good way to do it if you want that edgy feel.


We write Christian Fiction and that should mean something but readers who choose suspense/mystery know violence will be part of the story. The question then becomes how graphic will you (the writer)get? Here’s my list:

  1. Fistfights-yes.
  2. Blood-yes.
  3. Shootings-yes.
  4. Knifings-yes and no. I show them, but not step by step.
  5. Death-yes.
  6. Rapes-no. If there must be a rape in a story I use telling not showing.
  7. Dead bodies-yes.
  8. Dead, decomposed bodies-no. Again use the telling technique. I don’t want to hear about worms climbing out of the dead body. But that’s just me.

Your list may be different from mine and that’s fine with me. Do what works for you and your story.

Tomorrow, we’ll take a look at Overwriting and Creating Tension. See you then. In the meantime, I’d love to hear your reaction to the information questions below.

  1. Share your list of what’s acceptable and not acceptable when it comes to violence in your story.
  2. How do you deal with the “foul language” issue?

About Jennifer Slattery

Novelist and speaker Jennifer Slattery, also writing as Jen Pheobus, uses humor, grace, and truth to inspire God's children to live abundant, Christ-centered lives. She does content editing for Firefly, a southern fiction imprint with Lighthouse Publishing of the Carolinas, and is a regular contributor to Crosswalk.com; Internet Cafe Devotions; Faith, Friends and Chocolate; and manages the social media for Takin’ it to the Streets, a ministry that serves Omaha’s working poor and homeless. She’s placed in numerous writing contests and her work has appeared in numerous compilations, magazines, and e-zines.

Posted on October 11, 2011, in suspense, writing and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. I can do the death and some violence, but I try not to use the foul language even when writing for adults. I know in the real world people talk like that, and I have uttered my fair share in times of stress( thank you Lord for the Grace and forgiveness) but I don’t feel like it really adds to a storyline nor does it set an example for the reader. Just my 2 cents worth.

  1. Pingback: Writing Suspense Part II by Lillian Duncan « Words That Keep

  2. Pingback: What a Great Suspense Novel Looks Like « Words That Keep

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