This post is sort of a follow-up to my post on suspense and tension, and one the one where I compared plot twists and suspense (and pitted Emma and Pride and Prejudice against each other…). I wanted to discuss one of the most powerful ways to create suspense, and show you the method I’ve been using personally while revising The Coffee Shop Book.
I created the 1st Draft of a novel during NaNoWriMo in 2020. I even chronicled the whole journey, which you can check out here. (That’s the last post in the series, so there are links at the bottom of it to the rest of them 😉) I finished it January 3, 2021, but it wasn’t until later that year in the summer when I began to refer to it in the online space as The Coffee Shop Book, instead of my NaNoWriMo 2020 novel. It is currently sitting at Draft 3.
So, what did I do between January of 2021 and 2022 to get myself from being done an entire manuscript to having revised it twice?
I am so glad you asked.
The thing about finished messy manuscripts is that you can fix said finished messy manuscripts into a not-so-messy new manuscript. And, right after finishing that 1st Draft, I knew that I wanted to revise this particular novel. 😆
Previously in my writing life, I had spent years rewriting a manuscript called The Storm Inside, trying to make it work. (Spoiler alert: it didn’t.) But this manuscript was different; I loved it so much, and I wanted to share it with the world someday. (I mean, obviously I had wanted to do that with The Storm Inside. But I got so caught up in the technicalities of story and trying to be ‘professional’ that all the joy I found in writing went flying out the window.)
Now, looking at my beautiful baby manuscript that actually wasn’t that small because it was over 100k, it struck me that… I actually didn’t know how to revise. Completely tear down and rebuild up, sure; but revise?
Cue me diving into a month of research.
I read blog posts, listened to podcasts, watched YouTube videos, and read books. I compiled the best information I found into my own unique process (which I ended up talking about) and set out to revise my story.
One of the steps in this process was to read through the manuscript; this is something referred to as a cold read, which is when you read it in as few of sittings as possible while being as objective as possible, as if you were a reader seeing it for the first time.
And, in reading it, I noticed a problem come up that I hadn’t ever expected: pacing.
My pacing was a train wreck not in motion. As in, it was slow. Boring. And didn’t move. At all.
How did I fix this?
I ended up utilizing suspense.
Now, I was a newbie to writing suspense. Still am, seeing as it’s only just about a year later. But one of the books I read during my research-rampage talked about suspense and tension; it was one of the first times I’d ever seen the subject talked about…
…and I had never struggled so much in my entire life to grasp a writing concept.
I read, reread, took notes, and reread that part of the book again and again, trying to wrap my head around it. I ended up finding a podcast episode on suspense that I listened to over and over again – and then one that would mention elements concerning it, which I also listened to a lot as well. I think at one point I listened to them, alternating between episodes every week, for weeks in a row. 😂 I just didn’t get it.
But, eventually, I began to try my hand at using it.
I changed the way the character arc was flowing over the course of the story, since I’d accidentally moved it along too quickly, and began to introduce suspense more intentionally. But it still ended up being boring when I read it the second time around, and I had to work even more on the suspense for the 3rd Draft.
Okay, all that aside… I’m sure you’re currently yelling at me to actually tell you what I did. I think you already can guess at least partially from the title – but that’s not the whole story.
Pun totally intended.
Mini-Boss Cookie Goals
I’m kind of laughing from just writing that section header out – but that is genuinely what I refer to these as. 😂
I like to think of these not as questions, per se. A question, of course, means that something is held in question – just like how something is held suspended in a suspense arc. But a question doesn’t quite do the concept justice.
A question should be involved, but shouldn’t make up the entirety of a suspense arc. Quite frankly, it’s just not interesting enough on its own. Maybe one or two, but for all the suspense in the novel to just be questions?
I’m going to break down my title for this backwards so you can understand just what I mean.
I personally set a lot of goals. I’m always in the middle of pursuing something; I like to have direction, intention, and growth. Goals are a finite way to help me do that.
The same goes for suspense.
I’ve talked before on how you always should know at least the ending of your story; this gives you a sort of big target to aim at and shoot for, which streamlines your story to some extent and gives it direction.
But you can also do this on a smaller scale.
If you have ever written an essay, you will understand this idea: there is one ultimate guiding idea, which you then break down into paragraphs, and each paragraph contains support for the point of the paragraph. Each sentence supports each example, each example support each paragraph, and each paragraph supports the thesis.
You can create that same sort of structure within a story. You have your ultimate message that you want to convey, and you can do so throughout the story. Goals would be each paragraph, and then you’d support those through scenes, sentences, and moments. If you want the big effect, you must go small.
Having a goal comes with the idea of going somewhere with intention the whole time. You want to get the reader somewhere (generally, this is further into the character’s arc), and the reader has the goal of finding how the suspense arc concludes; they will achieve their goal, and in doing so, you will achieve your goal.
This builds trust in you, as well, as they count on you to answer the questions you introduce.
Stories are made up of promises and fulfilling those promises; goals make it easy for you to see that you are fulfilling them.
Ya’ll know I love me some chocolate croissants, but cookies really do the trick in this situation: think of a laying a cookie trail throughout your story.
Bribery is such a great method. 😝
Jokes aside, I personally like to picture this like Hansel and Gretel, if the witch had left a cookie trail leading to her gingerbread house instead of Hansel leaving one behind them. You think those kids liked candy? Think of how much faster they would have gotten to that house this way. The witch could have guided them exactly where she wanted them to be. (To her goal) (hint hint wink wink)
The idea here is that the trail gets eaten, and therefore, is followed deeper into the woods. The imagery is a little weird, I know, but it helps me. 😂 Think about it: there’s a trail that you, as the author, are laying out. This is the suspense arc.
The thing is, a suspense arc doesn’t have to be exactly the same shape of arc as, say, a rainbow. It can backtrack, wind, and even do loop-di-loops. The point here isn’t the shape; you just have to keep continuously laying out new hints for readers to gobble up (cookies). When you do that, then you’re keeping a desire to reach the end of the trail alive. They want to find out more! More than that, they want answers. They want to reach the end of the cookie trail and find the big answer to the suspense arc.
As long as you have anything held suspended, a reader wants more cookies! So, ultimately, this part of the name just helps me to remember to keep laying the trail. You don’t have to remind readers about it in every single scene ever, but you should be coming back to it consistently until you’ve finished it. If you forget about your own suspense arc, then we’ve got a serious issue here. 😂
I don’t mention this very often, but I enjoy video games. I don’t play as often as I used to, but video games are another format of story that can be very helpful and in teaching us writers new elements.
One of my personal favourites is the series The Legend of Zelda.
In all the games, there are dungeons. In most of the games, this is quite literal: an actual dungeon-dungeon holding something terrible captive. In some of the games, ‘dungeons’ are also complex forests you have to figure out, or underwater caverns. It’s cool how they can be so different.
At the end of each dungeon throughout a game, there typically is a big-boss you have to fight – the terrible thing held captive at the end. After you defeat it, you usually win something big.
This big-boss fight is kind of like the climax in a novel: you go through all the work of discovering everything in the dungeon, figuring all the puzzles out, overcoming the obstacles thrown at you along the way, and at the end of it all, you need to fight one final battle to overcome the whole dungeon. This is what it all comes down to. This is what all this was for.
Now that I have gone so in-depth on the big-boss, allow me to direct your gaze slightly to the left. *shoos you away from the big-boss final battle*
Typically, shortly before the big-boss fight, there’s a mini-boss you need to go through. They will be a difficult challenge to over come – usually a hard monster to fight – that is guarding a vital thing you need to be able to get to the boss. A lot of the time, this is a key to the room containing the big-boss in the dungeon. You can’t win without fighting the big boss, but you can’t reach the big boss without fighting the mini-boss. The mini-boss, of course, is not as hard as the big-boss – but it is still difficult in its own right.
I like to include these kinds of challenges in my own books: difficult, necessary if the character wants to be able to win (or even so much as reach) the final battle, and is a battle of sorts for the protagonist.
This is the arc in its entirety: it’s a not-so-mini-battle that the protagonist must overcome, and it will give them some vital thing to help them on their journey to or at the climax. They cannot win without it.
Bringing this All Together
Now that I’ve explained each piece, allow me to wrap this up in a neat bow for you.
The idea here is that each suspense arc is necessary to the novel. Nothing should be in a story that isn’t necessary to it, obviously, but I think writers can sometimes get carried away with adding in stuff and forget that.
It’s a mini-boss; it’s necessary, and gives the protagonist tools that will either help them reach the climax, or else overcome it. (Preferably both.) A suspense arc, as you already know if you’ve been reading my posts, can be holding many things: for example, a question (and therefore an answer), a character’s backstory, or even a reaction (if the reader knows something through another character, for example, they will want to know what the protagonist will do once they find out). You hold something suspended, and voila! A suspense arc is born.
But it must have a purpose.
When the arc touches down and the answer given, or the backstory revealed, or the reaction shown, it must move the story in some way, shape, or form. It should affect the protagonist in some way and move the plot forward.
My litmus test for this sort of thing is to picture the story without the element; would it still work without it?
If the answer is yes, it isn’t important enough. Either you should take it out, or make it more important somehow.
Now, to move on to the next part of the name, a suspense arc should appear consistently within a story until it is resolved. You cannot introduce a suspense arc and then leave it to die; if you hook a reader and get them interested, they are going be frustrated if you leave them hanging and don’t so much as reference it. Remember, you need to keep the reader trusting in you. Fulfill the promises you make to them.
So, lay the trail! Entice them to read further. Promise them answers. Keep revealing more, slowly, but surely. They will eagerly tear through the forest to gobble up those cookies. If the suspense arc is important, then by default, the cookies will also be important. Each small reveal leading up to the big reveal adds to the story and the plot.
And, finally, goal. Each suspense arc ultimately must lead to something. If it doesn’t, it will have no direction, no point, and will be unfulfilling. The reader will feel betrayed.
I see each suspense arc as its own mini-plot; it has a climactic moment that will give the character something necessary. They cannot win without it. The arc is a story in its own right; you choose what is the main plot line versus a subplot by the degree that it matters to the character. What is the most important to their arc and the message they need to learn gets the most attention – and what is a side quest of sorts gets a little less screen time, so to speak.
Every suspense arc must be important, consistent, and have direction to a satisfying place to end. That’s essentially what is conveyed to me in my name mini-boss cookie goal. 😂
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It took me a long time to begin to understand suspense, but I hope that my posts about it have helped you! 😁 I have more posts in the works for the rest of the year that are gonna be epic, so if you don’t want to miss those, make sure to subscribe!
Also, if this post helped you in some way, maybe consider buying me a Kofi (or chocolate croissant 😜)! It helps support me and my blog, and will help me to build to even bigger and better things in the future.
Have a great day, my friend; write on.
Do you ever play video games?
Have you ever revised a manuscript with pacing issues?
And, most importantly… what is your opinion on cookies? 😜