I first learned about one of Alfred Hitchcock’s maxims for suspense in a GrubStreet class. Say five people are sitting around a table talking about baseball or playing poker – suddenly, a bomb goes off. It’s shocking, but the minutes leading up the explosion are wasted, in a sense. What if instead, you know from the start of the scene that a bomb is ticking, just underneath that table. What was an innocuous conversation is now imbued with emotion – and suspense.
In searching for this scenario, I came upon an interview with Alfred Hitchcock from 1972. Some of it is specific to film, but I found it fascinating to learn how much he relied on writing – on working out what happened on paper – before even stepping foot on set.
If you’re looking for a way to up the ante of suspense in your own writing, especially in these doldrums of winter, I have good news! On January 18, you can join Craft on Draft for a conversation with novelists Dan Fogarty (KILL THE PRINCE), Lise Haines (BOOK OF KNIVES), and Henriette Lazaridis (TERRA NOVA). Join us IRL at GrubStreet headquarters, or virtually via Crowdcast, and check out their books – which you can purchase ahead of time or at the event – at Porter Square Books.
Dan, Lise, and Henriette were kind enough to answer some of my burning questions as a preview to the event. Read now, because this message will self-destruct in ten minutes.
SARA SHUKLA: Let’s start by talking about the ingredients you need for suspense to really take off. In this interview, Hitchcock said, “There are many elements that you have to clarify so that you leave room only for the emotions.” In other words, don’t mistake confusion for suspense.
Dan Fogarty: Absolutely. I had never written a novel before. So for the first few years I was writing KILL THE PRINCE, ambiguity became a placeholder. I didn’t fully understand my book, so I left things confusing in the parts I hadn’t fully figured out yet. I was building the house and papering over the parts I hadn’t built. I was making gestures toward suspense.
But if left like that, a book can become a Potemkin village. Without actual tension and human emotion underneath — and without the author fully knowing what’s going on in each scene — it’s all a facade. The reader picks up on that, even if they can’t articulate it.
By the way, I think it’s totally normal to go through this stage when writing a novel. It’s part of the process. I’ll go through it again in my next book. And I’ll have to stick with it, spend time with it, and keep editing it until I understand each scene, moment by moment.
Lise Haines: I recently rewatched “Rear Window,” and appreciate Hitchcock’s work. Sadly, women were sometimes mistreated. I don’t know about all of the films and the full history of treatment but Tippi Hedron is one clear example in the filming of “The Birds.” I was put off at the start of the interview which started by referring to women as “chicks.” I say this understanding that this has always been a relatively disparaging term.
Though I appreciate that Hitchcock wanted to leave viewers with emotions (at least in this quote), I’m interested in a wider range of takeaways. He probably was too. To the question about confusion and suspense, I like to provide great clarity yet open up possibilities that the unreal might be at play as well as the real. This goes to things like ghosts and otherworldly experiences. Are they real or unreal? It depends on one’s view of things, and sometimes we aren’t entirely sure.
Without both plot and emotion, a reader isn’t going to keep turning pages. Any tips on, um, making that happen for nearly 300 of them?
Henriette Lazaridis: I think it has to be a process of asking the reader questions that hang over them (hence the “suspense”!) for a while before they’re answered by the narrative. The timing/pacing is important. You can’t run out of questions. And you can’t have each question be answered fully before the next one is posed, because then you have a situation of narrative inertia in which, every time you ask, you’re trying to move the story from a dead stop.
You want the reader to have a sense of accomplishment (like, hey, look at me, I figured out why the father mysteriously disappeared all those years ago) while also remaining curious (but wait, if he was killed, who did it?).
DF: This is an overwhelming question and gives me anxiety just thinking about it. So here’s what helped me early in the process: I had to figure out my story’s “third rail.”
In the book “Story Genius” (which is a good one for figuring out your plot), Lisa Cron talks about the concept of a third rail, the electrical current that keeps your plot propulsive. A third rail is essentially the internal struggle your protagonist faces. It’s the interplay between a deep desire to attain a goal and a central “misbelief” they have that keeps them from achieving it. According to Cron, everything in your book has to touch the third rail: every scene and every action. Even sensory details. That’s the driver for your plot. That’s what keeps readers reading. And as a writer, that’s the home base you can come back to when you feel overwhelmed.
Nico, the protagonist in my book, wants to become a world-champion fighter. Further below the surface, he just wants to feel safe in his body after a lifetime of trauma and brain injuries. His internal roadblocks are the very symptoms he’s trying to overcome (and which, conversely, are worsened by his chosen profession): hypervigilance, paranoia, and visions of figures lurking outside his apartment. He is full of fear but can’t show the world. Every interaction he has with his surroundings—everything he sees, every thought he has, every conversation—is seen through this prism of fear. It is the room he’s trapped in and the one he tries to break out of.
What books or writers or essays (or even TV or movies) did you turn to when you felt stuck? Or simply when you needed a creative or narrative boost to keep going?
HL: I actually get myself away from words when I’m stuck. I find it very difficult, nigh-on impossible, to solve a problem of words with words. So I watch television or movies, or I engage in some other art form (like playing music). I find that that keeps my brain thinking about story, but in an indirectly engaged way that allows for creative freedom.
LH: I listened to one soundtrack throughout: “A Ghost Story.”
DF: Read anything good — anything that’s beautiful and reminds you what great writing can accomplish.
GIOVANNI’S ROOM is my favorite or second-favorite novel of all time. It’s not a mystery or thriller, but James Baldwin teaches you everything you need to know about suspense in the first few pages. And it’s got a really compelling (and heartbreaking and beautiful) third rail.
The protagonist, David, is a closeted American man staying in 1950’s Paris. We know his fiance is on a boat heading back to America and that his lover, Giovanni, is being sent to the guillotine tomorrow. The entire book is about the fleeting glimpse of happiness David gets during his affair with Giovanni and the inner shame he can’t untangle himself from. Everything is seen through this prism of beauty and insecurity. And the whole time, you’re wondering if Giovanni is really doomed. You hope not, and since you’re invested in his and David’s story, you won’t put the book down.
(It’s also hard to put down because James Baldwin is the greatest writer of all time. So that helps, too.)
What kind of non-word-processing strategies did you find helpful? Note cards? Spreadsheets? A wall of images crisscrossed with red lines like that “It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia” meme?
HL: I’ve tried all of these—except the wall of images. Each project demands different strategies, I find. So for Terra Nova, I just stuck to my notebook and wrote notes and drew diagrams and talked to myself on paper. For my current work in progress, I’ve tried a spreadsheet, a calendar, timelines, notecards, Scrivener, Dabble, Word. The whole panoply of tools!
How did you make your manuscript new to you, even after you’d read it one billion times? Did you read on an iPad, print pages, take breaks, or read in different locations?
DF: This is a great question. Reading it on my phone did sometimes trick my brain into thinking I was reading something new and exciting.
LH: I work in Microsoft Word. I write whenever I can wrestle time to the ground. I go on the idea that if you can barely stay in your seat as you write—which includes the entire revision process—you just might be on to something.
Were there questions you asked of others — editor or peers — along the way, or requests you made, that you found particularly helpful or impactful?
DF: I think it’s important you get someone you trust to give it a sensitivity read. I know it’s a controversial topic, and I’m sure there are some sensitivity readers who aren’t right for your book (or who aren’t good at what they do), but it’s important to gain insight on your blindspots. You might be saying things you don’t mean to say, and once your book is out, it’s out.
Luckily, I have a friend I trust (who’s also a terrific editor) do my sensitivity read. If I didn’t understand an edit, I wasn’t afraid of asking questions. And I ended up incorporating most, if not all, of his suggestions.
LH: Writers are holding the questions when they’re working on a novel, in my world view. Toni Morrison talked about exploring questions rather than providing answers. If I run into a strictly pragmatic issue like what type of algae is found in a lake in the upper midwest, then I research. Sometimes research is about contacting an expert in their field.
Writing stories that are exciting requires a lot of time that is… not… exciting. What sustained you during the endless hours spent at your laptop? What helps keep your butt in the chair?
DF: The Pomodoro technique. It’s not a writing strategy, but it got me to sit down every day and do my work. I worked on completing six pomodoros a day. Then eight. Then 10. Eight is probably the sweet spot.
LH: This is so curious to me. I hope there aren’t too many authors who find writing boring. I’ve always loved the process. (Fingers crossed for the future.) The career side is tough and getting tougher. I wouldn’t want to stay with it if I didn’t love what I do.
Now please bring your burning questions to Craft on Draft!
Dan Fogarty is a novelist and journalist born and raised in New York City. He’s a former senior editor of digital sports at USA TODAY, a former senior editor at Boston.com, and former advisor to the Concussion Alliance, a non-profit that helps patients navigate brain injuries. Dan’s background in journalism helps inform his work, including his debut novel KILL THE PRINCE, which was heavily researched over nine years. A boxing hobbyist, Dan suffered a mild traumatic brain injury in 2016 during a sparring session. Although the injury required 5+ years of recovery, he was able to get his life (and his brain) back. His recovery influenced KILL THE PRINCE’s storyline.
Henriette Lazaridis’ second novel Terra Nova came out from Pegasus Books on December 6th. Her debut novel, The Clover House, was a Boston Globe bestseller and a Target Emerging Authors pick. Her work has been published in such publications as Elle, Forge, Narrative Magazine, The New York Times, New England Review, The Millions, and Pangyrus, and has earned her a Massachusetts Cultural Council Artists Grant. Henriette received degrees in English literature from Middlebury College, Oxford University, where she was a Rhodes Scholar, and the University of Pennsylvania. Having taught English at Harvard, she now teaches at GrubStreet in Boston. She was the founding editor of The Drum Literary Magazine and runs the Krouna Writing Workshop in northern Greece. She writes the Substack newsletter The Entropy Hotel about athletic and creative challenges.
Lise Haines’ fifth novel, Book of Knives, is just out from Sourcebooks. Rick Moody says of her work: “Haines is an astute psychologist, a cool, unsentimental investigator of humans, who often locates the hard truths.” Her four earlier books are When We Disappear, Girl in the Arena, Small Acts of Sex and Electricity, and In My Sister’s Country. Her work has been optioned by HBO and other production companies. She has been a fellow at VCCA and Ragdale, a Briggs Copeland Lecturer at Harvard, and is Senior Writer in Residence at Emerson College.