Lessons that Cross Genres from a Writer Who Leaped into Suspense Fiction by Andromeda Romano-Lax

Next week, my first suspense novel, The Deepest Lake, will be published. It’s my sixth novel and a big departure from my previous genres of historical fiction and literary fiction. I don’t plan to write only suspense novels from this point, but I’m acutely aware that plunging into this genre has taught me lessons I’ll now apply to every kind of writing I do.

Even if you read suspense or mystery novels without writing them, I think you can apply these lessons to everything you write, too.

From the start, raise a big, compelling question that intrigues the reader…

Mysteries speed along thanks to a powerful and familiar storytelling engine: the question of who did a crime, or how, or why. Readers understand these questions. They don’t muddle along thinking, “Why am I reading this? What is this about?”

Literary fiction is powered by questions too, including the most important ones, about the meaning of life—and yet, as writers toiling on early drafts, we aren’t always as good at coaxing these questions to the surface.

When you’re in early draft stage, you may not know exactly what big thematic question you’re asking, but by the end of your book, as you prepare to revise, that question should be coming into focus. Notice I’m not saying that the answer needs to be clear. (In mystery, yes, usually; in more literary genres, no.) What is the big question being asked by your novel or memoir? What are the questions being asked in your favorite books across the genres?

…but don’t ask too many additional questions too quickly without answering a few 

Suspense and mystery rely on a big question that will last for hundreds of pages, plus lots of smaller ones that get raised and answered along the way, providing a steady drumbeat of intrigue and partial satisfaction. Crime writers must think hard about how many questions the reader will tolerate without getting frustrated.

Hitchcock, the undeniable master of suspense, once told an interviewer, “You can only get suspense going by giving the audience information.” Notice that? Giving information—not excessively withholding it—is the key. Across the board, apprentice writers of every genre usually make the mistake of withholding too much.

Pay attention when you’re reading a suspenseful novel or watching a suspenseful movie—What do you know? What don’t you know? When an important mini-mystery is resolved, what new question takes its place? If the questions start piling up, how is the author or filmmaker grounding you in what’s known, allowing you to keep other mental files open without causing cognitive overload? It’s interesting to think about how the clear, unambiguous elements of a mystery or suspense novel—vivid setting, concrete description, comprehensible characters—can help balance all that we can’t know right away.

Study how tension, as a general principle, works in fiction and creative nonfiction

I used to think suspense and tension were the same, only because I hadn’t given it sufficient thought. Now I know that suspense is a pleasurable state of mental uncertainty and anticipation that builds over time, fuelled by that big plotty question we talked about at the top of this blogpost.

Tension is a stealthier beast, less about an explicit question and more about general unease—a discomfort that is extremely useful for the writer. In both life and fiction, tension makes us more vigilant, searching for the source of the threat. We want our readers to be vigilant. It helps them notice and savor details.

Tension can be produced many ways in the text, even by things as small as word choice, syntax, or a specific image. Dissonance and strangeness produce delicious discomfort, even if we don’t understand why we’re feeling tense and uncomfortable, and even if we don’t know what that tension has to do, exactly, with the plot.

Here are the opening sentences of Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn.

When I think of my wife, I always think of her head. The shape of it, to begin with. The very first time I saw her, it was the back of the head I saw, and there was something lovely about it, the angles of it. Like a shiny, hard corn kernel or a riverbed fossil. She had what the Victorians would call a finely shaped head. You could imagine the skull quite easily. I’d know her head anywhere. And what’s inside it. I think of that too: her mind. Her brain, all those coils, and her thoughts shuttling through those coils like fast, frantic centipedes.

Notice that we don’t yet know what the novel’s big question is. We don’t know someone is missing. We don’t know anything about the marriage of Amy and Nick—we don’t even know who is narrating those very first sentences. But even before we know what to ask, tension is triggered via images. (Corn kernel. Fossil. Centipedes!)

Suspense takes place over time and involves a longer-term strategy of asking a question and delaying the answer. Tension operates moment to moment. Tension is the tic-tic-tic. Suspense is the bomb.

Make use of delay and dilation

Two techniques for creating suspense are delay—making the reader wait for something she wants (like an answer to a specific question)—and dilation—slowing down some moments by stretching them out and saturating them with details. Both of these techniques can be used to heighten any kind of writing, whether fiction or nonfiction. Often, people think that the key to compelling writing is making things move as quickly as possible. But notice that neither delay nor dilation are about speed. They are the opposite. They are about stretching time like taffy and putting obstacles in the way of characters’ desires.

I love thinking about how all writing can be suspenseful, even writing that isn’t, technically, “suspense.” I also love thinking about how every genre of writing can teach us something about the other genres. Literary fiction can teach us about ambiguity, interiority, and specific tools like defamiliarization—making the familiar strange, so that we are reawakened to wonder.

Speculative fiction can teach us about the opposite—making the strange seem familiar (and possible).

Historical fiction can teach us the importance of pinning down precise details of eras and places, making maximum use of accurate specifics to make the reader feel like she is time traveling, in the realistic sense.

I’m sure horror can teach us lessons, too, but I don’t know what those lessons are yet. I hope to find out!

I had fun making my first genre leap into suspense, and I’m not done leaping. My next novel is another psychological thriller. But I miss the other genres already. Why limit myself? Why limit yourself? Everything you write can teach you lessons that will help you with the next, different thing you write. Isn’t that magical?



Andromeda Romano-Lax is the author of The Deepest Lake, which will be followed in 2025 by What Boys Learn. She is also a book coach. Visit her at www.romanolax.com.

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