The 5 Most Common Suspense Pitfalls (and How to Avoid Them)

15:00 EST - May 12, 2020

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Alyssa Matesic  Avatar

Alyssa Matesic

Alyssa Matesic has worked at Penguin Random House, Macmillan, and a top-tier literary agency, where she gained insights on what top publishers and agents look for. With her expertise in developmental editing and evaluating manuscript submissions, she hopes to help connect authors to said publishers. She specializes in thriller/suspense, historical fiction, and contemporary women’s fiction.

This transcript has been edited for clarity. To find out more about how Alyssa can help you on your publishing journey, head to her profile on Reedsy.

My name's Alyssa Matesic, and I’m based out of Boston. I have experience in traditional book publishing both from working at publishing houses and at agencies. Throughout my career, I’ve worked at Penguin Random House, Macmillan, and a New York-based literary agency called The Book Group, and I was lucky enough to work on some New York Times bestsellers — amazing beach reads from the past few years — like Something in the Water and Believe Me.

At all three of these organisations, I took a liking to suspense. It’s a niche I've continued to explore, particularly in my freelance career, so I'm very familiar with the genre. So today, I’m going to talk about the common stereotypes or tropes that I often run into when editing and evaluating suspense novels from the perspective of an agent or publisher looking to sign on with an author. We're going to talk about what I personally consider the top five pitfalls, how to spot them in your own writing, and, most importantly, what can you do to strengthen your draft if you think your novel has some of these elements.

I’ll be outlining the subgenres, going through the pitfalls, and then we’ll look at some excerpts to see whether they demonstrate these pitfalls. We’ll also discuss how the writer might proceed in such situations.

What does suspense entail?

Before we dive deeper into the pitfalls, I do want to elaborate on what we mean when we say suspense. What is a suspense novel? There are tons of subgenres underneath suspense, and I want to briefly cover them here.

Psychological thriller. This is a popular subgenre: these books have pervaded the bestseller lists of many of the past years. The focus of these narratives is the psychological unravelling or reckoning between characters. It's driven by internal developments rather than outward action.

Domestic suspense. You might see this term used interchangeably with “psychological thriller.” When I think about domestic suspense, I think again about a narrative in which intimate relationships and conflicts between characters unravel through suspenseful moments happening within the home.

Police procedural. This is the type of novel where we follow a detective or a police officer as they investigate some kind of crime. Often police procedurals end up being a book series where you follow that same protagonist through multiple novels.

Sci-fi thriller. A suspense novel, potentially more of the psychological or crime variety, that has some sci-fi element to it.

Crime thriller. This is a thriller that’s specifically focused on a certain crime that occurs, typically a murder.

Mystery. I refer to this as a category that encompasses anything that I didn't already cover with those other subgenres. Mysteries don't always have to be super dark, sinister, or psychological — we have cosy mysteries, which are typically about lighter crimes. Maybe there's no dead bodies, or maybe there is a dead body but it's not that scary. Basically a mystery is any story where readers uncover something as the novel progresses.

Let’s go through the common tropes and mistakes that I see in suspense. I’ll go backwards from five to one, with one being the biggest pitfall.

5. The Damaged Woman

I'm calling this “The Damaged Woman,” although this character is not necessarily a woman. This can be a character of any gender; what’s important is that this is a damaged character whose backstory involves several terrible events.

This is not to say that you can't have characters who have had traumatic events in their past. Oftentimes that type of backstory is critical to who the character is. What we're talking about is a kind of character whose backstory and traumas get so much attention, it’s almost overkill. At that point, said character turns into a stereotype rather than a well-built and layered character.

How to spot it

Here are the two things that usually are red flags for “The Damaged Woman”:

  • A traumatic backstory that doesn’t contribute to the character (and by extension, the plot)
  • Unnecessary flashbacks

Typically, in psychological and domestic thrillers, “damaged” characters would have some kind of emotional or physical abuse in their past, e.g., the tragic death of a loved one, a miscarriage, alcohol/drug addiction. All of these details are completely valid — indeed they make up a very common archetype in psychological and domestic thrillers — but only if they remain important to informing who the characters in your novel are. Simply adding a traumatic event to your character's past isn't a substitute for proper character development that can make them layered, interesting, and authentic.

If you're just throwing in these traumatic events for the sake of it, you might end up making the character feel more superficial.

You might also notice that you have flashbacks to one of these events that are either more melodramatic than the rest of the narrative, or they're a bit too heavy without contributing that much to the plot at hand.

What to do

Just make sure that everything in your character's past and everything that they experience over the course of the novel directly informs who they become and what they do in the narrative. Don't provide any flashbacks or excessive backstory that really don’t make a difference to how your narrative unfolds.

4. Laziness as Luck

This one I’m calling “Laziness Masked as Luck.” What I mean here are all the convenient events that we sometimes lean on to unravel our plot the way we need it to. I get that suspense novels are complex and have so many things going on that sometimes it’s easier to conveniently let something happen to go from X to Z.

How to spot it

Examples of this include:

  • Serendipitous meetings of characters
  • Spontaneous key-findings and unlocked doors
  • Digital device failure

The important thing to note is that these events rely on luck or convenience to get to their end result. For instance, novels that take place anytime within the past 10 years and that feature a convenient breakage or disabling of a digital device (e.g., in the middle of the woods, so that no one can find them) will sometimes stretch the reader's imagination a bit too much. It's not that common for us to lose signal, or for our phones to spontaneously die these days, so you want to make sure that you’re not over-reliant on these occurrences in your manuscript.

What to do

Make it more difficult: It’s true, sometimes you need these things to happen for the plot to move forward. Usually, it’s the phone, and that’s an area that you can give a little. You might use a burner phone (but that’s becoming a trope in and of itself), or you might have to have the power die right at a critical moment. Readers can tolerate that sometimes. But you should always ask yourself, “What happens if you let your character keep their phone?” Is it possible for the plot to move on in that way somehow? Experiment with that and see if there’s another way to keep the story going without the convenient situation.

The three-strikes rule: This rule doesn’t mean you can only use these less believable elements three times, rather it’s a reminder to check the frequency at which you use them. You just don’t want to overuse these elements and have your readers rolling their eyes or wanting to put the book down because it has veered off into unbelievable territory. Use convenient circumstances sparingly to ensure that you're keeping the reader's suspension of disbelief.

3. The Final-Third Frenzy

Say, for the first two-thirds of your novel, you do a beautiful job of pacing — balancing character backstory while the plot is chugging along so that we’re learning about the characters as we go. Then, we get to the last 100 or 150 pages, and suddenly it's plot reveal after plot reveal. Everything seems to be spiraling out of control, and readers can’t quite get a handle on what’s happening before something else has occurred. That's the final third frenzy, and I think it's a pretty common pitfall that particularly plagues earlier drafts of suspense novels.

It happens because the pacing isn't quite right and the reveals aren't timed out in a way where there's ample spacing between them.

How to spot it

Keep an eye out for:

  • Several big reveals happening in quick succession
  • Shorter, action-oriented chapters

When this happens, character development and backstory take the backseats, while the actions and revelations come to the forefront. You might notice this particularly in novels with multiple POVs, where you can literally have one page on character A, the next on character B, the one after that on C, etc., one page after the other. In this case, you might be trying to balance multiple characters and their reveals, as you spent all this time building up their plots.

What to do

Have some breathing room: What I mean by “space” is literal pages of your manuscript. Can you have 10 or 50 more pages between this reveal and the next one? With this space, allow the characters — and your readers — to react and grapple with what you've just revealed a bit more. Remember that while you know what’s about to happen and might be anxious to reveal everything, it’ll be the first time your readers and characters experience it, so give them the space to grapple with the ramifications of each reveal before you then dive into the next one.

Look at the big picture: You can reevaluate the pacing by physically looking at your manuscript to see where, in terms of page number, is the first big twist. What would happen if you made it happen 50 or 100 pages sooner? How would that change what then happens over the rest of the manuscript? And would it give your novel a more even and interesting pacing?

2. Unfinished Business

As we've mentioned, suspense novels are incredibly complex — potentially the most complex type of fiction out there. So I'm sure many of you have character maps, timelines, flow charts to map out your plot. Even as an editor I’ve made those charts to keep track of everything. But even then, there may be details that slip your mind, creating unfinished business.

How to spot it

Unfinished business can come in the form of:

  • Minor characters who vanish without a trace
  • Filler scenes

The first refers to a minor character — a Jack Doe — who pops into an important scene, then disappears without a trace, and you never hear from him again. Maybe he has an interesting and important exchange with your protagonist, but that never crops up again in the rest of the story.

Alternatively, unfinished business may take the form of a filler scene, in which you compose occurrences that have no real influence on the plot, even though you might’ve loved writing it. Readers keep these characters and scenes in the back of their mind as they read and eventually, they’ll start to wonder what the point of said character or scene was.

What to do

Simplify, streamline, and slice: Look back at your flow chart to see if there are any extraneous details that you can do away with. Can plot points be reached in a simpler fashion? Sometimes this means killing your darlings, but ultimately it’s good for your novel.

Merge the roles of your characters: Make two characters become one. Or more accurately, see if a character can do more than what you’ve given him/her to do. For example, if Jack Doe only comes into the novel to give your protagonist a key, why can't this other main character take up that task? Why not have fewer characters who do more things? Then we’d have fewer characters to worry about.

Don’t dig rabbit roles: This goes back to what I was saying about having scenes in there that actually don't matter to the plot. If you're spending your pages showing your readers something — whether it’s a discussion or event — then they are going to log that as important. They’ll expect follow-ups. In order to avoid loose threads that disappoint readers, take out anything in your manuscript that isn't critical to the story.

1. Breadcrumbs to Nowhere

This is the most concerning pitfall, and the one that’s the toughest to resolve. I will give some advice to remedy this, although I admit it’s the most difficult to crack.

This pitfall is about all the little clues and hints that you've left for your reader. While we do want the reveals to be a surprise, it should also be possible to trace back and say, "Oh yeah, that makes sense!" That’s the characteristic of a perfect suspense novel — and it’s also the hardest thing to achieve. Sometimes, you sprinkle breadcrumbs that take the reader down a certain path, but that path somehow doesn’t match the final reveal. In other words, you've been leading the reader in one direction, and then have the reveal come out of left field.

How to spot it

Manifestations of these breadcrumbs — often tied in with the Final-Third Frenzy — may be:

  • Confessions that come out of left field
  • Revelations that fall flat due to reader-character knowledge gaps

First, there are random announcements and confessions that don't have any previous backing in the text, or are inconsistent with the characters that you’ve built thus far. For instance, there may be a character who's never talked about having a child before, and then all of a sudden, in the last 10 pages of the novel, they’re excited to learn that they are expecting a child.

Then, there’s the reader-character knowledge gap, whereby the reader suspects something that you’ve strongly hinted at throughout, but the characters somehow only come to terms with it in the final one-third of the novel. You may present it in the narrative as a big revelation, but it falls flat because the reader already knew or guessed that. So that means the traces, the clues, and the hints that you've left for the readers don't quite match up to the effect you're trying to get when you make those reveals.

What to do

Read your novel as a reader: This is honestly very difficult to do, particularly in suspense, so I always recommend entrusting beta readers and your editor. They can really come at it with fresh eyes and make sure that these reveals are tracking, that you’re leaving enough breadcrumbs and clues.

Map out who knows what: At any given moment, and especially during moments of major revelations, you should know what each of your characters already knows. It also helps put into perspective what the readers know at every given moment. Understanding all the main perspectives of your story allows you to better execute your reveal.

Examples from published books

I’d like to dive into some excerpts and talk through how some of these pitfalls might manifest in a piece of text.

Excerpt 1

“Your daughter was a lovely girl, Ms. Baron. I met her at the beginning of the year when she volunteered for the Harvest Festival. She was so polite and dedicated. You must have been very proud. The most exquisite, unusual eyes too. Is that a family trait? Two different colors like that?"

"No, it was a genetic disorder," Kate said, trying to figure out how they'd veered off into this conversation.

I would highlight this as a potential unfinished business. The reason for that is these two characters are having a conversation about the second character's daughter, and the first character brings up, out of nowhere, “Oh, by the way, she has two different-colored eyes. That's strange." To which the second character replies unsurely — indicating that even the character found this turn in the conversation odd. If this is never mentioned again in the text, I would flag it as something that can potentially be cut out.

As it happens, this is from Reconstructing Amelia, in which the genetic disorder does later play a role. So with context, it’s actually not an example of unfinished business, but it looks like it could be one. Also, during editing, I’d probably still advise the author to revisit this scene to see if we can more naturally integrate this detail into the text, because it kind of sticks out a little.

Excerpt 2

Maybe I could have handled it better had my home life been the slightest bit stable. It wasn't.

By then my father's cancer had returned with a vengeance, leaving him too weak and nauseated from chemo to help soothe my ragged emotions.

For me, this is a potential example of The Damaged Woman/Person. The narrator is clearly struggling with something and stating that maybe he/she could have dealt with this situation better if he/she had had a more stable household. Then we learn about this character’s troubling home life and the cancer that her father’s having to fight.

If I was editing this manuscript, I’d probably highlight this section and say, "Hey, do we need to layer on the fact that the character's father has cancer? We already have a lot going on with this character; we know that he/she’s not in the best place right now. Is this just tacking injury on to injury, or does this actually come back in the narrative later and serve an important purpose?"

This excerpt is from Final Girls, a suspense novel I very much enjoyed, similar to all the other books whose excerpts I share with you today. What I want to show here is that having some elements of the pitfalls I’ve mentioned doesn't automatically make a novel bad. It just means that there are areas in the manuscript that you could improve on, and there's always more revisions you can do to make your novel even stronger.

Excerpt 3

I pull out the iPhone out of my pocket and I push the power button... Then the screen flashes up. It's not the lock screen. There's no lock screen, no password, just apps, straight to apps. Oh my God! No password? That's ridiculous. Who does that in this day and age?

Here’s where Laziness as Luck comes in, and even the character calls out that the unlocked phone is really lucky. Everyone should have a passcode on their phone, but clearly for this narrative to unfold, the writer needed the passcode to not pose an obstacle.

This is from Something in the Water, one of the novels I worked on at Ballantine (a Penguin Random House imprint). I loved working on it, and this part of the text again shows that sometimes you just have to use one of these pitfalls. Sometimes it’s difficult to get around it, and that’s fine. Just remember that it's all about balance. You want to find a balance that keeps your readers’ trust so that they can still immerse themselves in the world and enjoy the novel.

So if you fall into one of these pitfalls, it’s not the end. These are just areas that you can look at closely and revise so that you create the best possible manuscript.

If you want to collaborate with Alyssa on your next book, visit her Reedsy profile and send her a request!

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