Friday, August 30, 2013

Writing Strong Suspense: The Difference between Speed and Tension in Story

An Interview with Mystery Writer Hallie Ephron

The Boston Globe calls her novels "gripping" because of her real and nuanced characters, and Hallie Ephron's first love is mystery and suspense, although her last three novels cross over into women's fiction.   

She says she likes to write stories "inspired by personal experience with a creepy twist."  This week Hallie talks about the difference between speed and tension in story and how strong suspense comes from a combination of the two, engineered just right.

Tell us where you get your book ideas.
Hallie Ephron:  The idea for Never Tell a Lie came to me at a yard sale. The woman having the sale invited me inside to see the renovations that were underway. As I wandered around in this spectacular empty Victorian, I thought, What if a woman goes to a yard sale, she talks her way into the house, and she never comes out?   

 In my novel, the woman having the yard sale is nine months pregnant; the woman who disappears inside her house is nine months pregnant, too. It gave me a chance to not just spin a creepy yarn, but also explore those feelings of isolation and vulnerability that I felt when I found myself marooned at home in a sort of limbo, waiting for the birth my much cherished first child.

What's a learning edge for you right now, with your writing?  What are you experimenting with?

Up to now, my books have been set in the (fictional) present. But my current novel has the main story set in 1985 and a second story set in 1965.

I'm working to get the idiomatic expressions, clothing, and so on just right. Trying to remember life before email and cell phones and routine DNA testing.

You work with a great technique for defining and understanding the difference between speed and tension.  Can you share it with the readers here and show them how to use it with their own writing? 

I think about this when I'm writing suspense and action -- which are in many ways polar opposites. In writing suspense, your goal is to build tension and make the reader wonder, What's going to happen next?  You slow down time, pull the "camera" in close to your viewpoint character, and amp the senses.

Nothing may be actually happening but that feeling of unease grows.

In writing action, on the other hand, it should be just that: all action. Short punchy sentences (subject verb object), not lyrical descriptions. Action verbs.

You want to open up the turning points and use bits of internal dialogue to make it visceral, but this is not the time to be establishing characters or setting.

How does this technique help you develop characters--or is it only a tool for improving plot?

Both. Always always both. It's just a way of putting the character through his or her paces. Characters SHOW who they are by what they do, what they think, and what they feel.

Anything else you'd like to talk about?

I try to write the kind of creepy that earns its thrill because it feels real. Like that just-off moment when you arrive home and realize your front door is ajar. Or you hear water running and running and no one is turning it off.

A misplaced pocketbook. A misplaced car. In There Was an Old Woman, those moments build until 91-year-old Mina Yetner wonders if she's losing her mind. I consciously tried to pile on those not-quite-right moments when the everyday turns ominous.

A touchstone for me, as a writer, is a famous scene from the Alfred Hitchcock movie "Suspicion." Tension mounts as Hitchcock's camera cuts back and forth between Cary Grant climbing the stairs, carrying warm milk up to his invalid wife Joan Fontaine. She's sure the milk is laced with poison. When the camera focuses, close up on the milk, the glass seems to glow. That's because Hitchcock put a light bulb in the milk.

It's what I try to do in my novels, but with words.

Check out Hallie's books and website at

No comments:

Post a Comment