The class of eighth-grade girls sat in rows on the floor in front of me. (Isn’t that a great photo of them listening to me? How could I not be touched?)  The group had read Sherlock Holmes short stories the whole semester, and then were assigned to write a mystery story of their own. They were brilliant. I had been invited to their school to discuss mystery writing. No pressure, but they were waiting to hear my writing wisdom. So I did my best.

In the Q and A, one young woman raised her hand, and asked me: “How do you keep up the suspense and emotion in your novels?”

Well, great question. And it got me thinking.

My first answer: be authentic.

Your characters are, essentially, real people – so make their goals real  

If your character has a real life, and the story is believable and plausible, and if the character has an important goal, a true stake in the outcome, then the emotion is already planted. So my first key is to remember the characters truly madly deeply care about what they want. There’s no telling how far they’ll go to get it. And it’s that string of decisions, based on passion and desire and necessity, that push the plot ahead. Decisions that are compelling and personally undeniable. Even doing nothing is a decision, right? With ramifications. Because when a decision must be made, it’s not “pushing the plot”—it’s the real life of your book unfolding.

My second answer: Raise the stakes.

Create stakes that matter to the character

And stakes that will change their life—and the story’s life—if the bad thing occurs. Big, unavoidable important stakes. If the character doesn’t care what happens, the reader won’t care, either. If your characters are not zealously motivated to the goal, there’s no story.

But there had to be more to it. A more practical method of wrangling the emotion and the suspense.

Intensify the choices

Until the big climax, keep a storyline that goes up up up.

If we agree that a story is all about a series of decisions, if you make those decisions more and more difficult, then the story becomes more and more suspenseful. Will this decision be a good one or a disaster? And then the next decision is even tougher. And the next. Each one, a test of the character’s beliefs, and desires, and intelligence, and persistence.

But what is the way to do that? And I realized—it’s all about what if. How do I do it? That led to:

My third answer: I ask myself what if.

Try what-iffing

And the key to what-iffing—is not to choose the first answer that comes to your mind. The first answer is the obvious one, right? Can you dig a bit deeper? Then deeper than that? What would be even better/worse/more interesting/scarier/more surprising/more original than that?

What if there’s a knock on the door?

And off the top of my head, I what-iffed.

What if she opens it and sees….who? Or what? What would be the most interesting/scary/terrible thing for her? Who does she hope it is? Who does she fear it is?

What if she decides not to open it? Why would that be? What if …

What if she’s hesitating, and she hears someone trying to break down the door?

What if…she runs out the back door? Why would she do that? Where would she go?

What if—the knocking stops, and she looks out the window? Who’s there? Or maybe no one? Where are they now? Why?

What if the phone rings at exactly the same time?

What if she opens the door and there’s no one there? Did she really hear knocking?

You see how that goes? Every possibility I imagined creates a new pathway in the story. It made me think about new possibilities, new action, new conflicts. And new chapters.

Did the class understand me? Did they get it? Maybe. Who knows. I hope so.

But every time I teach a class, I learn something myself. After that particular class, I began what-iffing in longhand. And it’s worked every time.

Do you actively think about adding suspense and emotion? What if that student had asked you that question? Let’s talk about it on the Career Authors Facebook page.

And then, you get writing. And I will, too.