What was that Sound? Weaving Suspense into Your Story.

We have author Phillipa Nefri Clark sharing with us about how to weave suspense in your story. She has a new book, Jasmine Sea: A River's End Love Story. Book Two.


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I love a bit of edginess in the books I read, whether a full blown suspense/thriller, a mystery, or a romance. Including an element of the unknown heightens the experience for the characters and therefore, the readers.

Day to day life has moments of uncertainty. An unexpected sound in the house when you know you are alone. You call out to see if anyone is there and bravely go into the darkened study. Oh, it’s just a branch tapping the window. You might giggle at yourself for thinking it was anything more.

In The Stationmaster’s Cottage, my protagonist inherits an old cottage. From the beginning, Christie Ryan is so comfortable there that she doesn’t bother with the basics of security, things like locking the door and closing windows when she’s out. It is a small country town and a generally safe place to live.

This frustrates potential love interest Martin Blake. Even early on, when he is suspicious of her motives and can’t let his guard down, Martin worries about Christie’s apparent disregard of her own safety. It is as though he can foresee danger. The more he insists she keeps things locked up, the less inclined she is to do so.

There is a writer’s plan behind all of this to set up small doubts in the reader’s mind. Is the town really safe? Is something ahead that will put Christie at risk? Seeds of suspense. But instead of allowing the reader to dwell on it, I distract them with the conflict between the two main characters. Readers take sides. Christie is a world-wise adult who can look after herself. Or, Christie is putting herself at risk because she refuses to listen to good advice, however it is delivered.

By the time the real threat comes along in the shape of her ex-fiancé, Derek, the reader is in a place of trust that nothing bad will happen. He just wants to patch things up. So, how to make his appearance in town ring alarm bells? I sent him to visit the local real estate agent. He is smooth and charming when talking to Daphne but scowls behind her back. When he leaves, it occurs to Daphne that Christie’s own fiancé should know where the cottage is, rather than asking directions. This heightens the suspense. 

From the lounge room, Christie hears the front door open and freezes. But she immediately rationalises the sound - her previous guest must have forgotten something and returned. Further, she tells herself she must have not heard them knock.

Whew. All good.

Hurrying into the kitchen with a welcoming smile, she has unwelcome shock. The ex she hoped never to see again stands there. He tosses a bunch of orange lilies onto the kitchen table. This is a small detail. Orange lilies can mean hatred and danger. Derek is here with ill intent and the flowers reinforce his motives.

There are plenty of other little hints and misdirects through the book, but you get the gist of it.

Set things up early. Christie ignores security.
Drop breadcrumbs. Martin observes this and is worried.
Create a diversion. Is this more about their dynamic than any real risk?
Up the ante. Potential danger is close.
A moment of relief. There is a rational explanation.
Boom. Christie’s poor judgement made it easy for Derek to waltz straight in.

The sequel, Jasmine Sea, is filled with suspense. There is increased danger, not only to Christie, but the whole town, including those she now loves. When you read it, enjoy the book but then go back and find all the techniques I used to create those uncomfortable, exciting, dismaying feelings of concern, worry, fear, and outrage.


What makes great suspense for you?

Jasmine Sea: A River's End Love Story. Book Two



Sometimes facing the past is the only way forward.

Starting over never felt better. Christie Ryan adores the little cottage she’s renovating, the seaside town that embraced her, and Martin Blake, the man she longs to marry. Ex-fiancé Derek Hobbs is finally out of the picture, and there are no more secrets in her life or mysteries to solve.
Will the arrival of a mysterious woman who commissions a portrait from Martin under a cloud of secrecy break her after all? Unrest and suspicion remind Christie that happiness can be fleeting, and when the peaceful town is shattered by crime, her past is again thrust into the limelight.
With one chance and only minutes to save those she loves, Christie comes face to face with her greatest fear—and there is no way around it.

Jasmine Sea follows on from The Stationmaster's Cottage, set shortly after its stunning conclusion.

Buy on:


Amazon UK               Amazon Aust

Nook                            Kobo



19 comments:

  1. That is a great setup. It helps to put all the breadcrumbs out so that when it all comes together, we the readers know that we kind of saw it coming.

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  2. It is a balancing act... giving enough away to keep it interesting and let the reader enjoy working out the clues, but not so much as it becomes boring. In Jasmine Sea: A River's End Love Story. Book Two!, there are a few red herrings as well, which were so much fun to write. For example, which stranger was the one bringing chaos?

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  3. Hi Nas and Phillipa - so true ... we don't need to be surprised by something unlikely ... love the way you've set it out for us - cheers Hilary

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    1. Hi Hilary, exactly! Much more interesting (I think) if it is the everyday that goes awry. And because Christie is a shocker at not locking doors/windows, one begins to wonder if this will become a big problem later on. Regards, Phillipa

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  4. Hi Nas! Hi Phillipa! What makes suspense for me is an author keeping me guessing, but answering little bits and pieces occasionally so I'm not completely flummoxed!

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    1. Hello Denise. Agree. I created a 'mind map' in The Stationmaster’s Cottage (River’s End Romance Book 1), not only to give Christie a way of keeping track of her progress uncovering the secrets of the cottage, but to offer the reader connections - some misleading of course - between the past and present. :-)

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  5. I like the subtle kind of suspense, the little hints you mention. They seem more real somehow than obvious life threatening danger.

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    1. Great term - subtle suspense - I might borrow that if you don't mind? Writing Jasmine Sea: A River's End Love Story. Book Two! was something of a slow burn... hints, sounds, gut feelings leading to very real danger toward the end. Thank you!

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  6. Great post. I love suspense when the reader knows something is wrong, but the character is oblivious. Sounds like a strong story.

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    1. Glad you enjoyed it! I'm the same, watching the poor character think they are imaging things, much as Christie does in Jasmine Sea: A River's End Love Story. Book Two! when she walks into her bathroom late one night and smells perfume that shouldn't be there. Let me know your thoughts when you read the book. :-)

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  7. Wow! Phillipa did a great job explaining how she built suspense in her latest book. I have to say I am intrigued. I definitely want to know what happens- so great job building suspense. :)

    Wishing Phillipa all the best!
    ~Jess

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    1. Hi Jess, that is so kind of you :-). I discovered when writing Jasmine Sea: A River's End Love Story. Book Two!, in particularly, how much fun it is to use misunderstandings to heighten the tension. After all, who else would send Christie flowers with an invitation than the man she loves? Hehe.

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    2. Hmm... typo there! Should be 'particular'. :-)

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  8. I like suspense too in any of the books I read too, no matter the genre. Thanks so much for sharing the tips on planting them in a story and tricking the reader too.

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    1. Sorry for the late reply :-). I am so happy you enjoyed.

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  9. If a story doesn't have suspense, it's not worth reading, but I like that this focus is on plot suspense. Some romance authors focus only on the romantic suspense, which is rarely enough to carry a story if you ask me.

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    1. For me, I have a natural leaning toward suspense and mystery. I love including elements that tantalise and make you wonder. :-)

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Join the discussion. What do you think?