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Sue Coletta Talks About Writing Crime and Shares 10 Tips for Building Suspense

on Mon, 03/13/2017 - 18:16

Sue Coletta Talks About Writing Crime and Shares 10 Tips for Building Suspense

By Lisa Allard


This Saturday, The Toadstool Bookshop in Milford will be having a Local Authors Open House event at 3:00pm with six local authors, including crime writer Sue Coletta.

Sue Coletta is a member of Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, and International Thriller Writers. She has published six novels, including Marred and Wings of Mayhem, as well as resource books such as Crime Writers’ Research  and 60 Ways to Murder Your Characters. She has been published in numerous anthologies, including Murder U.S.A, A Crime Fiction Tour of the Nation. She is the founder of #ACrimeChat on Twitter.

Sue Coletta is very passionate about her work. To gain an insight into her writing process, I decided to ask her some questions. She also shared ten tips for building suspense in writing.

LISA: What do you enjoy most about writing crime fiction?

SUE: Murder, serial killers, mayhem, investigations and police procedures. What’s not to love?


LISA: What methods do you use to keep your readers’ attention? How do you build suspense in each scene?

SUE: To build suspense, we need to raise our readers’ concern over how our POV characters’ plans can go array. Ever hear this comment when talking books with a friend? “Nothing really happened so I stopped reading.” I’ve put down numerous books for the same reason, and some by authors who are household names, authors who should know better. But that’s the thing about suspense. It’s not easy to hold our readers hostage for 300 pages. By employing the following techniques we have a better shot of grabbing them by the throat, then it’s a matter of not letting go.


LISA: What inspired you to write your most recent book, Wings of Mayhem?

SUE: Cat Burglar Shawnee Daniels, the main character, has been with me for years. When I was still in the slush pile I wrote four Shawnee Daniels novels, but it wasn’t until I gave her a day job at the police station—she runs the Cyber Crimes Unit—that Wings of Mayhem came to be.


LISA: When researching your crime fiction, what are some of your go-to resources? How long do you spend researching before writing a book?

SUE: I run a popular resource blog, so I’m a research-aholic. It’s one of my favorite parts of the writing process, and if I can’t find the information I’m looking for, then I dive in head-first, so to speak. For example, my next thriller to release, CLEAVED, opens with the main character stuffed inside an oil drum. Not only did I not have real-life experience to pull from, but I couldn’t find any information on how it felt to be confined to such a degree. My solution? I slipped inside an oil drum and hung out a while, and I was amazed by what I experienced. Afterward, I wrote an awesome scene!


LISA: What kind of difficulties have you faced in your writing, and how did you work to overcome them?

SUE: Self-doubt and fear are biggies. What if I let down my readers? What if they hate this book? Endless “What ifs?” are enough to drive a crime writer insane! And it can paralyze us if we’re not careful. When we write professionally, however, we still need to move forward, so whenever that little voice whispers negativities, I read my reviews, or a sweet email from a fan… anything to disrupt that voice in my head. If all else fails, blare the music to drown it out.

I’d love to say as we grow we move past this sort of thing, but I’m afraid that’s just not true. I know authors with 70 novels to their name who still go through it. For me, with every new release comes the worst panic, akin to standing naked for all to judge. Once I start to hear from fans, I’m fine. Between pre-order and release is the absolute worst. In fact, I’m heading there again at the end of this month. Yikes!


LISA: What have you learned about yourself through the writing process?

SUE: I’d say, I’m determined to have it all. I want the big dream, and I won’t quit until I’m a household name. I truly believe we can achieve almost anything as long as we work hard, take the time to hone our craft, and don’t let anyone take away our dreams. Perseverance really does pay off.

I’ll share a secret. This is my theme song:


LISA: What do you hope to accomplish next as a writer?

SUE: I’d love to win the Edgar or see my name on the top of the New York Times bestsellers list. Yes, I’m typing that with a straight face.


LISA: What advice do you have for aspiring writers?

SUE: Study story structure. Whether you’re a pantser or a planner is up to you, but every success novel, novella, short story, movie, and TV show have the same structure. It’s the magic bullet of storytelling, and learning it can change your writing life.


Building Suspense in Crime Fiction: Ten Tips from Sue Coletta

  1. Promises, Promises

Rather than asking yourself, “What should happen next?” Try: “What can I promise that’ll go wrong? Problems that will bring our characters to their knees.”

The central dramatic story question promises an intriguing quest.

By making promise after promise, we keep our readers engaged. Don’t tell the reader, of course. Instead, hint at the trouble to come; tease the reader into finding out. Do it right away, too. We need to establish our CDSQ on page one. If we can accomplish it in the first paragraph, all the better.


  1. Don’t Give Away Too Much Too Soon

This is a story killer. Don’t explain what’s happening, or why. Trust the reader to figure it out on their own. I realize it’s not always easy. After all, we know what will happen next (at least we should), and we can hardly wait for the reader to find out.

Trust me on this. Keep it to yourself for as long as possible.

No information dumps! Just because we know our characters’ backgrounds does not mean our readers need to know it. Share what’s relevant to the story, or enough about the POV characters so the reader can empathize with them. Sprinkle the information throughout the story rather than dumping it all at once.


  1. Characters’ Goals

No matter how we try to build suspense, if our readers don’t care about our characters, we’re sunk. Contrary to belief, the reader doesn’t have to like our characters, but they do need to empathize with them. That’s the key word: empathy.

For three-dimensional characters, we need to know their backgrounds, flaws, world views, religious beliefs, causes they support/protest, fears, concerns, mannerisms, dialect, profession, childhood, history with other characters, how they look, how they act in difficult situations, how they dress, nervous tics, scars, tattoos, favorite music, food…I could go on and on. We don’t need to show all these things, but we do need to know our characters as well as ourselves in order to slip into their skin.

To build suspense the character must have goals that really matter to them. What does she want it, and why? What happens if she doesn’t get it? What’s standing in her way? A strong hero needs a strong opponent. If our character is more timid, then we better make sure she desperately needs to achieve her goal. If she doesn’t do X, then Y will happen. Y is bad. The reader doesn’t want Y to happen. Hence, they stiffen up and pay attention. Voila! You’ve just added suspense.


  1. Violence, Where and When?

“A murder is not suspense. An abduction with the threat of a murder is.” ~Brian Klems, Writer’s Digest

I love this quote from Brian Klems, because it’s so true. The act of violence isn’t suspenseful. The snapping of twigs as our character stumbles through the darkened forest, knowing the killer could attack at any moment is suspenseful. Or the squeaky floorboard on the second floor when the character is home alone. The phone ringing in the middle of the night. A knock at the one door the character never uses. Footfalls gaining on the character when they’ve wandered off the hiking trail. Tires screeching around the corner, the headlights appearing in the rear view mirror seconds later. The click of a shotgun in the deadly quiet milieu. A single flame that shoots from the tip of a lighter in the dark. The possibilities are endless.


  1. Sentence Rhythm

Our sentence rhythm should match the readers’ emotion. Many of us do this automatically. Ever notice when you’re writing a suspenseful scene how you’ll pound the keyboard? When you’re slowing the pace, your fingers glide over the keys. Same holds true for sentence rhythm. Fragmented, staccato sentences quicken the pace. Long, run-on sentences tend to slow it down. Like most things writing, though, there’s a caveat. You can use run-ons to increase suspense if you vary the sentences with shorter ones.


  1. Start Late, End Early 

Start each scene with a story question, intrigue, or conflict. Our goal is to arouse the curiosity of our reader. Keep them guessing. (Start late)

If we make it easy on them, and answer all their questions at once, there’s no reason for them to keep reading.

We can’t wrap up our scene in a nice little bow, either. That’ll undo everything we’ve worked so hard to accomplish, to hook them in the first place. Rather, end on a note of uncertainty, or with a new challenge. (End early)


  1. Scene Cuts or Jump Cuts

This is a cinematic technique that can work in any genre. Create a series of short, unresolved incidents that occur in rapid succession. Stop at a critical point and jump to a different scene, maybe at a different time and place, maybe with different characters. For example, we could pick up a scene where we left off earlier. Or switch from protagonist to antagonist. Or from one tense scene to another. Rapid alternations keep the reader in a state of suspense.


  1. Micro-Tension

Micro-tension is the moment-by-moment tension that keeps readers in suspense over what’ll happen in the next second. The Fire in Fiction by Donald Maas is a fantastic resource that discusses micro-tension. When the emotional friction between characters reaches a boiling point, we build suspense. The characters don’t have to be enemies. Husband and wife. Tension between partners. Parent and child. There are several ways to use micro-tension to build suspense. An easy way is with dialogue.


  1. Scene Structure and MRUs

Briefly, scene structure…

Conflict - Something stands in her way of reaching that goal.

Disaster - Oh no! Something happened to make it worse.

Reaction - How does she feel about it?

Dilemma - If she does this, then this might happen.

Decision - New plan, which is often the goal of the next scene.


  1. MRUs - quick and dirty crash course: 

For every Motivation (outside force) there's a Reaction (inner emotion). This is called MRU aka Motivation Reaction Units. In a nutshell, it's cause and effect.


You stroll around the corner of your house and find a grizzly bear only five feet away (Motivation). You freeze (reaction). He growls (Motivation). Panic thrashes at your ears, your heart's beating out your chest (Reaction). He steps closer (Motivation). You step back, your body shaking like a locomotion barreling down the tracks (Reaction).

By keeping this rhythm in mind while we write, we keep our reader glued to the page. Each MRU can be one sentence or several paragraphs long, depending on pace. For faster pace, use shorter MRUs. To slow it down, drag out the MRUs.


For more helpful resources, visit Sue Coletta’s website

For event information, please visit


Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, and International Thriller Writers, Sue Coletta is always searching for new ways to commit murder…on the page. She’s the Amazon Top 10 bestselling author of Wings of Mayhem, MARRED, The Rendering, Crime Writer’s Research, and 60 Ways to Murder Your Characters. A multi-published crime writer in numerous anthologies, including Murder, USA, A Crime Fiction Tour of the Nation (Grab your FREE copy HERE), One Hundred Voices (use the discount code: 100V91), and an exciting new short story collection, RUN. Sue’s also published forensics articles in InSinC Quarterly and flash fiction in OOTG Flash Fiction Offensive, to name a few.


Lisa Allard is student at Southern New Hampshire University. She is working as Literary Editor for the New Hampshire Writers' Project. For editorial inquiries and requests, please contact