Make Your Story Tense plus Editor Andrew Karre

Best Writing Coaches

This week I’m talking about tension and suspense in our writing and I am happy to announce that awhile ago I interviewed the super cool Mark Del Franco (author), Steven Wedel (author) and Andrew Karre (editor). They’ll all be appearing in posts throughout the week.


Carol Davis Luce gives examples of how to write scenes that are full of tension.

The first is THE BIG BANG

It’s like this
: A writer is happily working away on her new manuscript when suddenly BANG! Her editor calls. He’s leaving the publishing house. He will no longer be her editor anymore. Her whole world is suddenly tilted upside down. It is disaster. Disaster, I tell you!

Wait. No, that’s what happened to me a few years ago. (Sorry, Andrew.)

Anyway, this type of scene seems peaceful. There are no warnings that something big is going to happen. There’s no build-up to the horrible event. The event just happens.

Luce says, “This type of scene lacks genuine suspense, which is best built slowly. It is, however, extremely effective when used sparingly.”

Basically, if you use it too much readers will get annoyed at you. They won’t be stunned. They’ll be groaning, or as Luce says, they’ll feel ‘cheated.’

The second example is THE JACK-IN-THE-BOX TECHNIQUE

This is when the reader knows, absolutely knows, something big is going to happen. She experiences the moments that build up to the big event. She is scared. She cares. Then it happens.

It’s like this: We see the editor hasn’t sent the writer that many emails lately. He isn’t posting as much on his blog. The writer remembers him telling her how much he’d like to pursue middle grade fiction, however his imprint is only young adult fiction. She checks his blog for news. Nothing. The teapot on the stove boils. The phone rings. The caller id shows the editor’s name. He tells her the news.

According to Luce when writing a suspense-filled book, you want to use this kind of scene. You want to vary the pace of the scene, too.


William J. Reynolds says that you should vary the size of the suspense within your novel. Not all scenes should be huge murder scenes where the suspense is large. Some should be small. He calls these the “I WONDER WHAT” moments.

Add a little physical danger and I WONDER WHAT moments become more medium sized.

Add a lot of danger and some more ambiguity and those moments become large I’VE GOT TO KNOW moments.

Examples using the book Twilight:

Small suspense moment: I wonder why that guy Belle thinks is hot is acting like such a meanie.

Medium suspense moment: I wonder how that guy that Belle thinks is hot saved her from the car that was about to crush her.

Large suspense moment: Oh, my gosh. I wonder how that guy that Belle thinks is hot isn’t going to give in and suck her blood and kill her because she is so tempting and her blood smells so good and he is a vampire after all.

Extra large suspense moment: OH!!!! NO!!! Bella is so not going to turn into a vampire on purpose, is she? What kind of crazy is that, girl?

I talked about suspense to Andrew Karre, an editor at Penguin now who has been my editor in the past.

Andrew quoted Hitchcock and said, “There is no terror in a bang, only in the anticipation of it.”

It’s that anticipation that leads up to those jack-in-the-box moments.

Luce mentions a ‘peril detector,’ which she describes as “Something (a gut feeling, perhaps) tells her she is in danger.”

In my book, NEED, I knew I needed a peril detector. I thought of my own peril detector in real life. Whenever something bad is going to happen (Say, my editor decides to leave the publishing house) the center of my hand starts to hurt, just ache. So, for Zara, I needed something creepier, so whenever the pixie king is nearby, it feels like spiders are running all over her skin.

“I don’t have any sure-fire techniques for building suspense. It seems like suspense should come from the plot, and I’m sure it does to a degree, but the degree and impact of that suspense comes in the manner of the telling and that’s character. I find a steady barrage of big shocks will inevitably dull the reader’s senses.”

Andrew Karre

This is why it’s important to vary the pace and kind of suspense. It shouldn’t be one big shock after another. It’s important to remember about character. Steve Wedel discusses that too in one of our upcoming posts.


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Author: carriejonesbooks

I am the NYT and internationally-bestselling author of children's books, which include the NEED series, FLYING series, TIME STOPPERS series, DEAR BULLY and other books. I like hedgehogs and puppies and warm places. I have none of these things in my life.

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