Monthly Archives: March 2012

Extortion By Virus

The butler apparently did do it. It seems that Emanuel Nicolescu, a former butler for Anne Bass, devised a very unusual extortion scheme that sounds like something from a Sci Fi movie. Maybe one of the many incarnations of the classic DOA.


In the real life version, Nicolescu allegedly injected Mrs. Bass with a “deadly virus” and told her that unless she forked over $8.5 million she would die. Seems the money was for the “antidote.” Of course, Mrs. Bass didn’t know that viruses don’t have antidotes and her butler likely didn’t have the expertise or equipment to grow and isolate “deadly viruses.” Fortunately, Nicolescu and his partners in crime got nervous and fled the scene, only to be later captured. Of course, Mrs. Bass survived without the “antidote.”

Can you think of anything more sinister than this? I can.

The Schmidt HIV Case

In 1994, Dr. Richard Schmidt, under the guise of delivering healthcare, injected his girlfriend with blood taken from one of his HIV-infected patients. Six months later she was diagnosed with AIDS and went to the police. Sifting through Schmidt’s records, investigators discovered that he had drawn blood from one of his AIDS patients on the same night that he had injected the victim. This was critical since the AIDS virus can only survive a few hours outside the human body.

The main problem facing investigators was that the HIV virus mutates often so making a match between the virus taken from the unsuspecting source patient with that found in the victim could be problematic. Either could have mutated to the point that no conclusive match would be possible. Samples were then taken from 32 other HIV-infected individuals in the area. Testing revealed that the samples taken from the patient source and the victim ex-girlfriend matched almost exactly, while the others did not, proving that no major HIV viral mutation had occurred in the immediate population. Schmidt was convicted of second-degree attempted-murder and sentenced to 50 years.


Posted by on March 29, 2012 in DNA, Interesting Cases, Medical Issues


Q and A: Could My Investigator Determine If the Knife Used in a Murder was Made of Obsidian Rather Than Some Other Material?

Q: I am a lawyer in Tacoma, WA with a hobby of writing detective novels, all unpublished but fun for me. My question is would a knife wound from an obsidian knife be identifiable as from an obsidian knife as opposed to a knife made from another material?

John C. Cain, Tacoma, WA

A: Not likely, unless the knife had an unusual shape or curve or both. Wound analysis will only give the width, thickness, and general shape of the blade as well as its minimum length. The depth of the wound would tell the ME what length of the blade entered the victim. The blade could be longer but not shorter–thus the minimum length. If the ME then had the suspected murder weapon he could measure it and say that this blade was or was not consistent with the victim’s wound. That’s as far as he could go. He could completely exclude the knife as the murder weapon if the wound didn’t match but he could not say that this blade, and no other, made the wound. Only that this blade or one similar to it did the deed. The more unique the blade is the better this would narrow the possibilities.

But there are a couple of ways he could make a more conclusive judgement. If the victim’s blood was found on the weapon, say in the groove between the handle and the blade where the killer would overlook it and where even washing the knife might not remove it all, he could then DNA match this to the victim and say that this knife held the victim’s blood and was very likely the murder weapon. Why else would the blood be there?

Even better, if the point of the knife broke off in the victim and this was found at autopsy, then the ME would know the knife was made of obsidian. A comparison of this tip with the suspect weapon could prove very conclusive. If the tip fit the suspect blade in an exact jigsaw fashion this is very conclusive and individualizing evidence. That is, the ME could confidently say that this tip came from this knife to the exclusion of all others. The science behind this is that no two things fracture exactly the same way.


CraftFest: Check Out the Great Instructors Who Will Teach This Year

Look who will be joining us this year at CraftFest! Don’t miss this opportunity to meet and learn from these masters of the thriller genre.  Confirmed instructors include:

John Sandford
Joseph Wambaugh
Steve Berry
Jan Burke
Lee Child
Catherine Coulter
Bob Dugoni
Lisa Gardner
Heather Graham
Andrew Gross
Gayle Lynds
Phillip Margolin
David Morrell
Michael Palmer
Ann Rule
Donald Maass
Grant Blackwood
Allison Brennan
David Hewson
Peter James
Steven James
Joan Johnston
Melody Johnson Howe

We’ll also be featuring martial arts expert and former marine, Jack Hoban, who will be conducting an in-depth workshop on Fighting: Ethics, Tactics, and Techniques for Writers. Bring your questions!

Jon Land and Kathleen Antrim will return with their dynamic What If? session to help AgentFest attendees prepare their very best pitch.

The phenomenal Buzz Your Book workshop hosted by MJ Rose and Doug Clegg is also back by popular demand.

CraftFest is a one-of-a-kind intensive retreat on the craft of writing. Whether you’re a new writer or an established author, these talented instructors can help you hone your craft and take your work to the next level. Come join us!

D.P. Lyle, MD
VP, National Events
CraftFest Director


Posted by on March 24, 2012 in Writing


My New Book on Forensic Science for the American Bar Association

Last year I was asked by the American Bar Association to write a book on forensic science for lawyers. It is part of their ABA Fundamentals Series and will be out April 20th. I just got the cover art and it looks good to me.



Posted by on March 22, 2012 in General Forensics, Writing


Taking the Mystery Out of Writing Mysteries

NOTE: This is a repost of an article by Dennis Palumbo that appeared in Psychology Today.

Taking the Mystery Out of Writing Mysteries

If you saw the season-ending episode of The Mentalist, do you remember the clue that helped catch the killer?
Me, neither.
In the movie version of The Lincoln Lawyer, what was the mistake Ryan Phillippe made that proved he was guilty?
You got me.
In the more recent film, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, what led Blomkvist to identify the serial killer?
Who remembers? I’m just glad Lisbeth Salander got there in time to save Mikael!
My point, and I do have one, is that often TV and film writers think the most important aspect of a good mystery is the the ingenuity of the crime, the unraveling of the clues. Which is why many Hollywood writers are scared to death of even trying to write a mystery or thriller.
Fear no more.
Yes, viewers of mysteries and thrillers like tightly-plotted narratives, clever red herrings, and a certain element of surprise. And you should always strive to weave as many of these aspects into your whodunnit or crime script as possible.
But these factors are not what makes an onscreen mystery memorable. Think of TV’s Castle, or The Closer. Or a classic series like The Rockford Files. Think of films like Chinatown and Silence of the Lambs. Or iconic Hitchcock films like Rear Window or North By Northwest. As best-selling crime author Michael Connelly wrote, “The best mysteries are about the mystery of character.”
But what does that mean?
Let’s start with the basics: What is a mystery? In simplest terms, it’s a story about the disruption of the social order. A crime against society is committed: A man is murdered, a bank is robbed, whatever. We, the viewer, want to know two things: Who did it, and why.
At least that’s what we think we want.
What do we really want? We want order restored. We want the violator of the social compact—the killer, the thief, the blackmailer—to be caught, so that things in our world are set right once more. And who do we want to do this? Our surrogate, that’s who—the smarter, wittier, and more doggedly determined version of ourselves: the detective hero.
Whether a street-wise cop like Popeye Doyle in The French Connection, an obsessive-compulsive homicide detective like TV’s Monk, or a tea-drinking, sweater-knitting old lady like Miss Marple (in innumerable BBC reboots), we want this one thing from our mystery protagonist above all others: we want order restored.
But not just social order. The best mysteries, whether TV’s Prime Suspect (with Helen Mirren) or cinema’s Anatomy of a Murder, are also about the exploration and resolution of psychological tension. In other words, how do the characters interact? What do they want?
For example, in most mysteries, whether a suspect is guilty of the crime or not, he or she invariably has a secret. A clandestine relationship, a trauma from the past that haunts them still, perhaps even a connection with the killer (or the victim) that helps complete an entire mosaic of possible motives, entanglements and intrigue.
Henry James famously said: “Plot is characters under stress.” Well, nothing ramps up the stress level of a group of characters like the murder of one among them. A further “turn of the screw” results when the murder comes under investigation by an outside agent—the hero or heroine, the cop or private eye—determined to ferret out the truth.
How does that apply to the mystery screenplay or TV pilot you’re trying to write? A reasonable question.
Remember what it felt like when some kid broke a window at school and the principal gathered you and all your classmates together? Remember the mounting tension as the principal went down the line, interrogating each of you, sometimes even feigning humor or sympathy, but always with the relentless, eagle-eyed determination of a predator searching for his prey?
Well, do the characters in your mystery or thriller script feel that way? How do they show it—to the camera, to each other, and to the detective? Or, perhaps more importantly, how do they attempt to conceal it?
In most memorable mysteries, or in the best thrillers, this context of mutual suspicion and misdirection of motives is pivotal. It’s what keeps the suspense mounting for the viewer.

Moreover, it’s the crucial element that keeps the laying-in of necessary clues from seeming like a mere litany of exposition. By the time we’re halfway through Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (both the British miniseries and the recent feature), the lies told and attitudes expressed by the suspects has us convinced that pretty much anyone could be the culprit. Which is exactly what you, the mystery writer, wants most of all.
Another important aspect of these types of films, as vital as that of the deceptive nature of the suspects, is the world the story inhabits. All renowned cinematic mysteries, from Laura to Diabolique to Witness for the Prosecution, take place in a specific arena of life. The cutthroat design industry, a private boarding school, the be-wigged world of British courtrooms. Whatever.
If you consider a film like All the President’s Men a mystery—and I do, since it meets all the criteria—then the roiling turmoil of Washington politics is the backdrop. As is the economic resurgence of Japan in Rising Sun. As is the sequestered life of the Amish in Witness.
Recall, too, how the key to success for TV’s Columbo was the interaction of our rumpled hero with the nuances of the various worlds into which he ventured, from that of classical music to computer science, from Hollywood studios to military schools. His comfortable, familiar character was our vehicle of entry into the specifics of each of these very particular ways of life.
But what does all the above have to do with you, and the film or TV script you’re writing? Let’s see if we can break it down.
First, let’s look at your protagonist. And here’s where many new mystery writers get discouraged, and for a very understandable reason. When it comes to the hero—whether hard-boiled private eye or spinster librarian, cop-turned-lawyer or criminal-turned-cop—they’ve all been done. How do you make your sleuth unique?
For me, there’s only one answer: ask yourself, what makes you unique? What scares you, interests you, makes you angry? What do you yearn for, or wish to avoid? What are your hobbies, passions? What’s the aspect of your own character about which you’re most conflicted, unhappy, even embarrassed? Believe it or not, this is where the seeds of an interesting, unusual protagonist are first sewn.
For example, my friend Earlene Fowler likes to make quilts. As does her amateur sleuth, Benni Harper, now on her 12th or 13th novel in a hugely successful series. I cite this mostly to prove that you don’t have to be a forensics pathologist in your day job to create a popular or believable hero.
In my own case, the hero/narrator of my series of crime thrillers, Dr. Daniel Rinaldi, is a therapist, as I am. And while I currently live in Los Angeles, Rinaldi’s adventures take place in Pittsburgh, my home town. In both the debut novel, Mirror Image, and its sequel, Fever Dream, I weave aspects of my personal biography, my clinical training, and my views about the current state of the mental health field into the narrative.
This concept operates as well for TV and film as for prose. Many writers of popular TV crime shows and recent film thrillers are patients in my private practice, and I’ve witnessed first-hand how their own issues, prejudices and concerns are woven into their on-screen characters.
The point is, the closer the hero or heroine of your mystery script is to you, the more vivid and engaging he or she will be to the viewer. After all, as Emerson said, “To know that what is true for you in your private heart is true for everyone—that is genius.”
Next, let’s look at the “world” of your mystery story. What is the world you inhabit? Suburban soccer mom or single father? Former football coach, magazine editor, or Rhodes scholar? Travel agent, computer specialist, or kindergarten teacher?
After all, you know the details of your particular world so clearly. You know the ins and outs, what goes on “behind the curtain.” It’s those details that create the backdrop for the crime, that make possible the intrigue, the collision of misleading, back-stabbing, or painfully naïve characters. Think of the casino gambling background in the movie Ocean’s 11. Or that of the legal profession in The Firm. Or that of a police precinct in Internal Affairs.
Why is the background so important? Aside from being crucial to our sense of the reality of the story, and presenting us with a view of a world with which we may be unfamiliar (or that we think we know, but in fact really don’t), a particular arena provides valuable help to the script writer when it comes to building narrative and planting clues.
How? To put it simply, the best clues in a classic mystery involve misdirection. A clue usually seems to point in one direction, when actually, looked at from a different angle, it reveals something else. A typical example is the clue that appears to confirm a certain character’s guilt, when in fact it’s been planted to frame that person.
For the writer, trying to develop the narrative and plant significant clues along the way, it’s much easier (and, I think, more organic) if the clues emerge from the world of the story. For example, if the bad guy uses some antique pistol to commit the crime, I’m much more likely to believe it in a mystery script set behind the scenes at Colonial Williamsburg.
In fact, one of the smartest things a crime writer can do is develop the clues and red herrings out of the world in which the story is set. Case in point: Most used car salesmen don’t know where to get their hands on lethal yet undetectable poisons. But they may know how to cut the brake lines of a car. (Or, failing that, how to blackmail a mechanic to do it for them.)
I’m stressing the use of a vivid background and the investment in character development for two reasons. First, because without these two crucial aspects, no viewer will really care how clever or intricate the plot is. (For example, as much as I admire the plotting in the film The Last of Sheila, I don’t love the movie because I don’t care about anyone in it.) And second, because of the happy fact that most good mysteries only have two or three pertinent clues in them anyway.
This is really important. Most new writers of mysteries seem to think the plot has to be filled with clues. It doesn’t. One or two gems—the misleading planted evidence, the comment a suspect makes that belies his alibi—are all you need to put the villain away. Or all your hero or heroine needs.
Remember, too, that many clues are just as likely to indicate something that’s missing as they are to reveal something that’s present: the unfound murder weapon, the missing wedding ring on the victim’s finger. Remember this classic exchange from Conan Doyle’s story Silver Blaze:
Sherlock Holmes to the Inspector: “I refer, of course, to the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”
The Inspector: “But, Holmes, the dog did nothing in the night-time.”

“That is the curious incident.”
Okay, let’s wrap this up. The three things to keep in mind when writing mysteries are: 1) establishing the unique character of the protagonist, 2) making narrative use of the world in which the story takes place, and 3) planting clues (remember, only a few) that derive from the particular aspects of that world.
One final hint, to spark your creativity when thinking about writing a mystery or thriller script: is there a little-known fact, an oddity of history or natural science, that you were taught or stumbled upon and has always intrigued you?
For example, I was blown away years ago when I learned that after famed psychologist Carl Jung broke with his mentor Sigmund Freud, Jung founded a clinical journal devoted to “non-Jewish” psychoanalysis. I’m still trying to figure out a way to weave that painful chapter in the history of psychoanalysis into a mystery story.
What’s in your background that you can use? What’s filed away in that mental Rolodex in your head that might serve as the germ of an idea for a mystery or thriller? Maybe your grandfather was the first guy in his town to own a car. Or the guy who bought the last Edsel. Maybe your cousin ran a betting pool in the seminary while studying for the priesthood. Maybe your mother tells the story of getting hit on by some dorky guy at a bar who went on to become Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.
Everybody has some story, some incident, unique to them and them alone. All a writer has to do is “twist” that story a little bit—the “what-if” that inspires all storytelling—and a terrific new movie thriller or TV mystery series emerges.
The recipe is simple: all crime stems from conflict, and conflict stems from strong emotions. Kind of like life.
Because, in the end, that’s where all the best stories come from. Life itself. The greatest mystery of all.


Formerly a Hollywood screenwriter (My Favorite Year; Welcome Back, Kotter, etc.), Dennis Palumbo is now a licensed psychotherapist and author of Writing From the Inside Out (John Wiley). His work helping writers has been profiled in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, GQ and other publications, as well as on CNN, NPR and PBS. He also blogs regularly for The Huffington Post and Psychology Today.


His mystery fiction has appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, The Strand, Written By and elsewhere, and is collected in From Crime to Crime (Tallfellow Press).  His crime novel, Mirror Image (Poisoned Pen Press), the first in a new series, featured psychologist Daniel Rinaldi, a trauma expert who consults with the Pittsburgh Police. The sequel, Fever Dream, is on sale now.


For more info, please visit


Posted by on March 21, 2012 in Guest Blogger, Writing


Your Brain on Fiction

A very interesting article by Annie Murphy Paul appeared in the New York Times yesterday. It was titled “Your Brain on Fiction” and deals with how the written word affects our brains. In the article, she talks about several studies done with functional MRIs (fMRI). A functional MRI looks at brain activation by revealing changes in blood flow. If a certain area of the brain is stimulated, then that area will receive increased blood flow and this can be measured with a functional MRI. Such testing is currently being looked at to perhaps develop a more reliable lie detector. It appears that different parts of the brain activate when someone is remembering an event as opposed to making it up. Hopefully, this technique will help to distinguish truth telling from fabrication, but that’s another story.

The areas of our brain that are concerned with language processing are predominantly Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area and their interconnecting neurological tracts. These areas are activated when we read. But it is also been discovered, that depending on the word or words read, other areas of the brain are also activated. For example, the word “cinnamon” not only activates the above language areas but also the olfactory (smell) area of the brain. This also seems to happen with words such as perfume and coffee but not with words such as chair or key, since these have no associated sensory meaning.

Even more fascinating is that there is evidence that metaphorical terms cause more brain activation then do more concrete ones. Researchers found that saying a singer had a “pleasing” voice did not cause the same activation as saying the singer had a “velvet” voice. Of course the word “velvet” is more metaphorical and sensory than is the word “pleasing,” which tends toward the generic. Similarly the the term “strong hands” causes less activation than the term “leathery hands,” where again a difference in sensory connotation is obvious.

For the writer, this means that using more metaphorical terms will impact your reader on a more emotional and sensory level than using simple concrete terms. I guess you could say that vivid writing is more “stimulating” then bland writing.



Between now and March 30th you can sign up to win one of two signed copies of my next Q and A book, More Forensics and Fiction, which will be released April 1st. To enter the contest go to my public FB page (link below), click the SWEEPSTAKES button, click LIKE, and fill out the entry form.


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Posted by on March 15, 2012 in Writing


Guest Blogger: Jodie Renner: Heightening the Suspense, Part III

Specific Techniques to Ratchet up the Suspense


* Use the setting to create anxiety and suspense. This is the equivalent of ominous music; harsh, stark, or very low lighting; strange camera angles; or nasty weather in a scary movie. This applies to both indoor and outdoor settings, of course. Also, appeal to all senses, not just the visual… breaking glass, a dripping faucet, footsteps on the stairs, a crash in the basement, rumbling of thunder, a sudden cold draft, an animal brushing the skin in the dark, a freezing cold, blinding blizzard, a putrid smell coming from the basement…

* Mood and pacing: Thrillers and other suspense fiction generally need a tense mood and fast pacing throughout most of the novel, with “breathers” in between the tensest scenes.

* Compelling, vivid sensory imagery. “Show, don’t tell.” Invoke all five senses to take us right there, with the protagonist, vividly experiencing and reacting to whoever/whatever is challenging or threatening her.

* Raise the stakes. As the author of a thriller or other crime fiction, keep asking yourself, “How can I make things worse for the protagonist?” As the challenges get more difficult and the difficulties more insurmountable, we worry more and more about whether he can beat the ever-increasing odds against him, and suspense grows. And as a bonus, “Increasing pressure leads to increasing insight into the character.” (Wm. Bernhardt)

* Add a ticking clock. Adding time pressure is another excellent way to increase suspense. Lee Child is a master at this, a great example being his thriller 61 Hours. Or how about those great MacGyver shows, where he had to devise ways to defuse the bomb before it exploded and killed all kinds of innocent people? Or the TV series, 24, with agent Jack Bauer?

* Add obstacles and complications. The hero’s plans get thwarted; his gun jams or falls into a river during a scuffle; he’s stuck in traffic on a bridge; he’s kicked off the case; her car breaks down; her cell phone battery dies just when she needs it most; the power goes out, leaving the room in total darkness; a truck blocks the only way out of the alley… You get the picture. Think Jack Reacher, Lucy Kincaid, Elvis Cole or Stephanie Plum in any number of escapades. The character has to use inner resources to find a way around these obstacles or out of this dilemma.

* Incapacitate your hero. Your heroine is given a drug that makes her dizzy and hallucinating; your hero breaks his leg and can’t escape or give chase; she’s bound and gagged; he’s blinded by sand in his eyes…

* Create a critical turning point. Which way did the bad guys go? Should she open that door or not? Who to believe? Go up the stairs or down? Answer the phone or let it ring?

* Make the ordinary seem ominous. Zoom in on an otherwise benign object, like that half-empty glass on the previously spotless kitchen counter, and imbue it with extra meaning. Who was here? When? Why?

* Plant something out of place in a scene. Or even something just slightly off, just enough to create a niggling doubt in the mind of the reader. A phone off the hook, an open window, wet footprints on the entranceway floor, an overturned lamp, a half-eaten breakfast, etc.

* Use the occasional omniscient tip-off. The author (omniscient narrator) steps in to clue the readers in on something unknown but ominous that’s about to happen, with a statement something like, “If Henry had known what lurked in the house, he never would have gone in,” or whatever. Can be very effective, but use this one sparingly, as it’s kind of “cheating.” Best to stay in the story world, in the point of view of the POV character for that scene/chapter.

But of course, you can’t keep up tension nonstop, as it’s tiring for readers and will eventually numb them. You need to intersperse tense, nail-biting scenes with more leisurely, relaxed scenes that provide a bit of reprieve before the next sensory onslaught begins.


Jack M. Bickham, The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes
Hallie Ephron, The Everything Guide to Writing Your First Novel
Jessica Page Morrell, Thanks, But This Isn’t For Us

See also: 20 Essential Elements of a Bestselling Thriller; Writing a Killer Thriller, Part I, Writing a Killer Thriller, Part II, and Writing a Killer Thriller, Part III
Jodie Renner is an independent editor specializing in crime fiction. For more info on Jodie’s editing services, visit her website at:

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Posted by on March 14, 2012 in Guest Blogger, Writing


Guest Blogger: Jodie Renner: Heightening the Suspense, Part II

Techniques for Building Suspense
As I mentioned in part I of this article, all genres of fiction need some suspense, not just thrillers and action-adventures, to keep the reader interested and turning the pages. And of course, you’ll need to amp up the suspense a lot more if you’re writing a fast-paced, nail-biting page-turner.



After revealing your intriguing story question and showing your inciting incident, you can continue to build suspense throughout your story by using a number of techniques, such as:

* building the sense of danger slowly

* sprinkling in some foreshadowing (teasing) as you go along

* withholding information (revealing critical info bit by bit)

* using a tense mood and fast pacing

* adding ominous details to your setting (environment, weather, etc.)
* using compelling, vivid sensory imagery to bring your story world alive
* adding time pressures (a ticking clock) for your protagonist
* piling on new obstacles and complications that get in his/her way
* narrating the story through several different viewpoints
* giving the protagonist some inner conflict and tough decisions
* introducing a few surprise plot twists

* writing in some cliff-hanger scene and chapter endings
* creating a riveting, “close call” ending
General “big-picture” techniques for writing suspense

* First, make your readers care about your protagonist, by creating a likeable, appealing, strong, smart and resourceful but vulnerable character. If readers haven’t bonded with your main character, they won’t become emotionally invested in what happens to him or her.

* Start gradually, and let it build. When writing suspense, start slowly and subtly — give yourself somewhere to build. As Hallie Ephron says, “If you pull out all the stops at the beginning, you’ll have nowhere to go; worse still, your reader will turn numb to the nuance you are trying to create.”

* Create a mood of unease, by showing the main character feeling uneasy, worried about something or someone, or by showing some of the bad guy’s thoughts and intentions. Maybe, instead of anxious, your heroine is oblivious, but because we’ve just been in the viewpoint of the villain, we know the danger that’s about to threaten her.

* Use the setting to create suspense. To describe the surroundings of the character in jeopardy, use vivid details and sensory imagery that reflect or add to his angst or fears, and bring to life the dangerous situations he’s confronting. (More specifics on this in Part III.)

* Foreshadow trouble to come. To pique the reader’s interest and keep her reading, hint at dangers lurking ahead.
* Pile on the problems and continue to raise the stakes. A complacent hero is a boring hero. Keep challenging him, to amp up the plot and build a character arc in which circumstances force him to be stronger, cleverer, and more resourceful.

* Use delay and subterfuge: Either we know something the hero doesn’t, or the narrator-protagonist has crucial info he’s revealing little by little, doling out to us gradually — the clever author’s way of keeping us on our toes, anxious and questioning, eager to keep reading to find out more.

* Use multiple viewpoints, especially that of the villain. This way the reader finds out critical information the protagonist doesn’t know, things we want to warn her about! And getting into the head of the bad guy(s) always enriches the story.

* Write in cliff-hangers.  Jessica Page Morrell advises us, “To amp up suspense, orchestrate your scene and chapter endings so they don’t wind down, but instead keep the reader hanging. …endings are the perfect places to create cliff-hangers, revelations, and surprises.” But do vary your chapter endings.

* Create a few plot twists. Readers are surprised and delighted when the events take a turn they never expected.

* Add in difficult decisions and inner conflict. These will not only make your plot more suspenseful, they will also make your protagonist more complex, vulnerable, and interesting.

Part III of this series will cover some specific techniques for ratcheting up the suspense in your thriller or other crime fiction.


Jack M. Bickham, The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes


Hallie Ephron, The Everything Guide to Writing Your First Novel


Jessica Page Morrell, Thanks, But This Isn’t For Us

See also: Writing a Killer Thriller, Part I, Writing a Killer Thriller, Part II, and Writing a Killer Thriller, Part III
Jodie Renner is an independent editor specializing in crime fiction. For more info on Jodie’s editing services, visit her website at:


Posted by on March 11, 2012 in Guest Blogger, Writing


Guest Blogger: Jodie Renner: Heightening the Suspense, Part I

Today begins a new three-part series from Jodie Renner on heightening the suspense in your stories. Thanks, Jodie.



Whether you’re writing a thriller, romantic suspense, mainstream novel or any other genre of fiction, your story needs plenty of tension and conflict, and also a certain amount of suspense, to keep the readers turning the pages. As Jack M. Bickham says, “In fiction, the best times for the writer — and reader — are when the story’s main character is in the worst trouble. Let your character relax, feel happy and content, and be worried about nothing, and your story dies.” According to Jessica Page Morrell, “Suspense forces a reader to stay engaged and is part anxiety, part curiosity. Suspense unsettles the reader, plunges him into nail-biting angst.” And all this curiosity and worry keeps him turning the pages, of course.


What is suspense, anyway? Hallie Ephron relates this story: “Alfred Hitchcock was asked to define suspense. He told the interviewer to imagine two people sitting at a table at a café. Under the table is a bag. In the bag is a bomb. The characters don’t know that the bomb is there but the viewers do. That, he said, is suspense.”


And as Steven James said in his excellent workshop at Thrillerfest, “Suspense needs apprehension. Apprehension is suspense. And impending danger creates apprehension.” James says that suspense is about first “making a promise” (setting reader expectations that your characters and story are going to intrigue them) and then providing a payoff. “The bigger the promise, the bigger the payoff,” says James. “Give the reader what he wants or something better.”

What are the main elements of suspense?


Jessica Page Morrell likens writing suspense in fiction to dancing a striptease, because effective storytelling requires teasing the readers initially with a tantalizing opening, an intriguing story question and an inciting incident, followed by hints and foreshadowing of trouble to come, which creates a feeling of unease. Then add in some delay and subterfuge to keep readers on edge, waiting for the layers to be peeled off to find out what’s going to happen next, or what that deep, dark secret was. Of course, you need to seduce the readers first by piquing their interest in your protagonist, so they’ll start identifying with him — otherwise, they won’t really care what happens to him. As William Bernhardt says, “If people don’t care about your characters, nothing else matters.”


Tantalize, but build slowly. This initial delay, according to J.P. Morrell, “creates unbearable suspense, and suspense manipulates readers’ emotions. Once the inciting incident threatens the protagonist, the writer’s job is to prolong this trepidation for as long as possible.” As a result, “suspense builds and satisfies when the reader desperately wants something to happen and it isn’t happening.”


Suspense is about exploiting the readers’ insecurities and basic fears of the unknown, their inner need to vicariously vanquish foes, thwart evil, and win over adversity. The readers, if you’ve presented your protagonist effectively, are in her head, fighting right in there with her against her cunning adversaries and other dire threats.

Hallie Ephron outlines a typical arc of suspense. As she says, “You can build it gradually, teasing the reader with possibilities. The climax and resolution should feel worth the anguish of getting there.”


Here are the stages of the suspense arc, according to Ephron (my comments in parentheses):


1-Establishing and foreshadowing (set the stage, hint at danger to come)


2-Suspense begins (conflict and action start)


3-Tension escalates (danger looms), then loosens (slight reprieve, breather)


4-Turning point (critical point — can increase or release tension)


5-Sometimes a false payoff (false alarm)


6-Payoff (good or bad: resolved, moves to the next level or “to be continued”)
Repeat as needed throughout the book, always providing some reprieve between these tense, nerve-wracking scenes.


As Ephron says, “Think of a suspenseful scene as if it were a pressure cooker. First you increase it a little, then release it a bit, giving your readers and characters a little breathing space, then tighten again, raising the pressure even higher. Repeat until cooked.”


Part II of this theme will discuss a number of specific techniques for creating and heightening suspense in your novel.


Jack M. Bickham, The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes
Hallie Ephron, The Everything Guide to Writing Your First Novel
Jessica Page Morrell, Thanks, But This Isn’t For Us
See also: Writing a Killer Thriller, Part I, Writing a Killer Thriller, Part II, and Writing a Killer Thriller, Part III



Jodie Renner is an independent editor specializing in crime fiction. For more info on Jodie’s editing services, visit her website at:



Posted by on March 8, 2012 in Guest Blogger, Writing

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