Writers Write is your one-stop resource for writers. We have put together some tips to help you write a gripping read.
A Tense Situation
I have just finished reading The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton. I read it compulsively – in coffee shops, in the car, at my desk and in bed. I had to know what happened next.
The novel is not a thriller. It is the story of a young country girl, Nella, who is married off to a rich merchant trader in Amsterdam in 1686. The story is set over four months, but the undercurrents between the characters in a house strangled by secrets made me feel as if I had lived through a lifetime by the end of a book.
The writer’s skills created a palpable tension on every page.
This book made me think about how authors manage to write those stories that turn reading ‘just one more page’ into five more chapters. I realised that I was constantly on edge. The story was filled with suspense and cliffhangers that made me turn the page.
Here are the five tricks the author used to keep me wanting more.
5 Tips To Help You Write A Gripping Read
Try to include these five ingredients if you want to create tension and suspense.
Change. Burton begins at the moment of change. Nella, travelling alone, arrives at her new home in a strange city. We are immediately as disoriented as the young woman is.
Mystery. We want to know what’s happening. Her husband is mysteriously absent. Where is he? And she is confronted with an eclectic household of striking characters who don’t seem to know what to do with her. Why is his sister so distant to Nella? How do the dark-skinned man servant and confident maid fit into this world? When Nella thinks she has the answers, she realises that she hasn’t even been asking the right questions.
Secrets. ‘Words flow like water in this city.’ The books simmers with unanswered questions, whispered conversations, overheard snippets of arguments and doors that open and close in the dead of night.
Surprises. Her husband does not come to her bed, but gives her a cabinet-sized replica of her new home as a gift. An elusive miniaturist furnishes the doll’s house with creations that show what the real house hides.
Danger. There is no safe place for Nella. She has no idea who she can trust. An unsettling couple, the Meermans, demand her attention. The corrupt Catholic Church oozes fear into the streets of the city. An aggressive young Englishman arrives on the doorstep.
The novel does what every great read has ever done.
It drops the main character into a situation that requires change. In the inciting moment, Nella is thrown into a foreign society and an unknown house without the comfort of family and friends.
It asks a question that demands an answer. Why does Nella’s husband ignore her and how is she going to survive in this new life?
It has an empathetic protagonist who finds out she is stronger than she ever imagined she could be. Burton made me care about Nella.
It is populated with a handful of striking, interesting characters, including an antagonist with the power to destroy lives.
It is full of conflict. There are minor and major conflicts that remain unresolved throughout the novel.
It is coloured by a setting that should comfort but only serves to threaten.
And then the author makes everything worse…
I realised that novels that keep you turning the page do not distract with an abundance of characters, irrelevant sub-plots, and unnecessary flashbacks. The story moves relentlessly forward, backstory is filtered in when it is needed, and that backstory usually adds to the suspense rather than lessens it.
I learnt a lot from reading this novel. I hope this post helps you to create tension in your novel.
© Amanda Patterson
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