Writing a Nail-Biter

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Is there anything more exhilarating as a reader than a book that keeps you turning pages long into the night? One more chapter turns into another and, pretty soon, you’re up way past your bedtime. These “unputdownable” books are a sure sign that the writer has hooked you, and powerfully. It’s also the sign of a good writer.

Often when we think of nail-biters, we have a tendency to think of books in the suspense genre. That’s definitely applicable. While I’ll come back to that, the truth is that all forms of fiction require writers to use the skills necessary to produce a nail-biter, just in varying degrees. All writers should aim to be master manipulators who ensnare their readers from start to finish. But how?

Stakes, Stakes, Stakes

Between workshops and my writing critique group, I’ve been critiquing other writing for almost fourteen years. During that time, if there’s one note I’ve written more than any other, it’s been: “Raise the stakes!”

Raising the stakes of any novel is the most important way to get your readers invested in the plot. Consider this:

Red has to get muffins to her sick grandmother’s house.

Sure, Red can go on a journey and give Grandma the muffins. A scary wolf that wants to eat her and her grandmother adds tension. But how could we make this plot more interesting? The answer: CONFLICT.

Conflict Hooks Interest

What if Red doesn’t have a choice about her trip? Options include:

  • She’s the lone survivor of a wolf attack on her home and grandma’s house is the only safe place left for her.
  • She’s the victim of abusive parents who will mistreat her if she doesn’t do their bidding to go to Grandma’s, despite the danger.
  • Grandma has devised a scheme to get grown-up Red out of a bad relationship by pretending to be sick and in need of care. Did we mention the handsome woodcutter that works by her house?

In each of these examples, you can go deeper and raise the stakes even further. I guarantee the higher you make the stakes (the more important you make it for Red to get to Grandma’s house immediately), the more the reader is going to be interested in seeing her go on that journey.

Of course, even the most well-plotted novel can still be dull. Conflict isn’t actually enough to get people to keep reading. So what can you do to get your readers invested?

Writers as Emotional Manipulators

Think about any book that made you want to keep reading late into the night. What drove you as a reader? Fear, maybe. Excitement. Nervousness. Hope. Devastation.

…in other words…EMOTION.

Reader interest in the journey is just one part of the equation. To make a book truly “unputdownable,” you must make your readers feel something (and hopefully, that feeling won’t be to chuck your novel across the room).

The art of evoking an emotional response in your readers is so complex and nuanced that it would take several blog posts to break it down. So let’s narrow our focus a bit and circle back to that original “nail-biting” genre, suspense.

Evoking the Emotion of Suspense

As far as genres go, suspense provides its writers one of the least “suspenseful” frameworks to operate under. The suspense writer must give some things away immediately: what’s at stake, why the protagonist must be involved, and the time frame they have to work with. What’s more, in some suspense novels, we have a pretty good idea of what’s going to happen—did you ever really think Batman wasn’t going to stop the Joker in The Dark Knight? No. But that didn’t matter. What mattered was the how.

This risk of giving the game away doesn’t have to work against you, though. By allowing the reader to have information the protagonist doesn’t have, for example, readers can become more fully invested in what’s to come. Multiple point of views, especially from the antagonist POV, work really well in this genre (especially when you fully develop the antagonist’s motivations/character).

In keeping with the raise the stakes advice from earlier, the writer must keep turning the screws in suspense. Your protagonist needs to be desperate, out of time, sometimes even morally conflicted. They have to be so uncomfortable that the reader feels that discomfort, too. We don’t want to exhaust the reader, though.

Even the most “non-stop thrill ride” gives the protagonist some time to process their experience. This processing time is crucial, both for the reader and the protagonist. When the protagonist feels defeated and frightened, when they acknowledge that everything keeps getting worse, it makes the reader care about their experience. And that’s most important secret weapon of all for suspense: those down-time moments introduce doubt, doubt introduces stress, and stress…well, that makes a terrific nail-biter.

Do you have a topic you would like us to cover? Let us know about your suggestion. 

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About Author

Annabelle McCormack is a writer and photographer from Baltimore, Maryland. When she's not busy writing, she's chasing around her four kids and enjoying life in the country. To follow her journey, check out @annabellemccormack on Instagram, where she posts regularly about her adventures.

2 Comments

  1. Is it odd if I follow the protagonist for a little while, he becomes aware of the antagonist, and then shift the story to the antagonists viewpoint? then start to bounce back and forth between the two and end up back with the victorious protagonist?

    Or should I just uncover the antagonists (actions/dialogues/etc through the protagonists interactions.?

    Its a young adult (protagonist) that uncovers the neighbor (antagonist)’s actions.

    • Annabelle McCormack on

      That can be a great approach if you go the dual-pov route. Antagonist povs can be really useful in certain genres (like suspense/thrillers and fantasy) because they give the reader insight into the antagonist’s motivation and create conflict.

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