Building suspense with Libby Fischer Hellmann

Sisters in Crime – Chicago met today at Centuries & Sleuths Bookstore in Forest Park (thanks, Augie!) for a great workshop on writing suspense.   Libby Fischer Hellmann, author of the Ellie Forman series of mysteries, was the lecturer.  It was a great way to spend 90 minutes… my only regret was that it couldn’t be longer!

This is the first workshop I’ve taken from Libby, but I got a lot of good ideas from it, so it won’t be the last.  She started out by defining suspense and outlining factors which differentiate suspense from mystery.   She then spent some time explaining the techniques for building suspense, including ideas such as hooking the reader by starting in the middle of a scene, ending the chapter with a cliffhanger (or “sting”) to keep the reader reading, and raising the stakes so that just when it seems the protagonist’s situation can’t get any worse, it does.  What made the information relatable was was the way Libby could illustrate the information she provided by quoting familiar books or drawing parallels with popular movies.

Especially fun were two exercises she had us do – the first was to write a first sentence that would start the story in a way that left the reader hanging, wanting to know more.  I used the start of a short story I’ve already completed:  Since he left her, his only pleasure in life was bowling with Jimmy Lerkowitz. That one was rated okay.  But my second one was grabbier:  All she took were her favorite jeans and my Mercedes. I wish I’d written down some of the others’ sentences… the creative juices were really flowing!

In the second exercise, we had ten minutes to write a scene using the techniques of suspense we had been discussing and a scenario that Libby distributed.  Reading them aloud, it was clear that even given the same starting place, the directions we were taking were wildly divergent.  Who knew there were so many ways to build suspense by using a cell phone?

Libby will be back at a SINCC program at Centuries & Sleuths in March, along with members of her writing group, to address how to set up a successful writing group.  I’m currently in my third writing group.  It’s new and we are still learning how to work with each other and how well we fit together.  Mutual respect, similar expectations, and being in the same place in terms of commitment seem to me to be the most important factors.  In the meantime, I’ll be reading her new book, Doubleback, when I’m not hard at work on my own second mystery, In Scene.  I owe my group 50 pages and I’m short 20!

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