Readers love suspense. However, too many authors these days are going for shock instead. And the reviews they receive give proof to that. takeherbreathawaycover

A bad review can kill a sale. I see this with suspense books all the time. Reviewers might give a bad review because the author used an excessive amount of description with the murder. Basically, the author went for shock over suspense. In turn, a potential reader will thank the reviewer for the warning and not purchase the book.

In order for your book to be considered suspense, someone has to be in peril. By the end of the book, that person should be your protagonist or someone close to him or her. Unfortunately, a lot of authors don’t seem to know how to keep the suspense going throughout their book, so they resort to shock instead. I see this quite a bit, especially with new authors.

Many authors will go into great detail to describe the killer’s harm to the individual. There’s the clichéd rape scene in these types of books, filleted skin, and sliced off body parts, all in intricate, grotesque detail. These authors seem to think the description ramps up the suspense. It doesn’t. Some of these descriptions only make the reader’s skin crawl. However, it does little to get a reader’s heart pumping with anxiety. In some cases, the more the description, the less likely a reader might continue with the book, if they purchase it at all.

By choosing shock, you lose the suspense. The torture and killing overpower your story.

One way to tell if you’re using shock over suspense is to see how long the “kill/torture” scene is. The murder should always be shorter than the lead up to the capture.

One way to heighten your suspense is to have your killer’s point of view. Just make sure when he’s watching his next victim, he’s not thinking about how great the knife will be against her skin. Instead, have him wonder about the softness of her hair. Maybe she smells of jasmine, his mother’s favorite perfume. These things are creepier than some guy focused on a kill.

Making your killer creepy is another way to ramp up your suspense. He’ll give your reader a shudder, not an upset stomach. And remember, if your scene makes your heart race, it will get your reader’s heart pounding also.

And don’t rush. Too often the suspense portion is flown through to get to the kill. But the lead-in to the capture is what creates your suspense. By the time the killer gets his victim, the suspense is pretty much over. But if you’ve done it right, the reader’s palms are sweating.

The only time you should use a long “torture” scene is if the killer has captured your protagonist. At that point, the reader should care so much about your character; they don’t want them hurt. However, make sure most of what you describe is from your protagonists point of view. This way we not only feel the pain but the fear as well.

Writers like Steve Barry and David Baldacci are excellent at the buildup. So was Alfred Hitchcock. Watch some of his movies to see how it’s done well. The act of killing was always minimal compared to the lead-in to the suspense. I still recall how my heart raced watching Cary Grant carry that glass of milk upstairs in Hitchcock’s movie Suspicion. Was the milk poisonous? Would his wife drink it? While it only took a minute, it felt like five. Remember the scene with the investigator looking for Norman Bates in Psycho? The entire scene where he starts to walk up to the house takes a good three to four minutes. You’re on the edge of your seat as he climbs each step of the staircase. Once Mother ran out of the room with the knife and stabbed him, your heart was racing.

The more you keep focused on heightening your suspense instead of the details of your murder, the more fans you will acquire. Just keep in mind that the murder is the end to your suspense, so stretch out your capture of the victim.

If you get too involved with writing your murder, and you lack the build up, you can get low reviews no author wants to receive for their book.

kathrynbainKathryn J. Bain is an award-winning author of Christian, mystery, and suspense, including the Lincolnville Mystery series and KT Morgan short suspense series.

Ms. Bain has garnered several awards, including two Heart of Excellence Readers’ Choice Awards and a First Place Royal Palm Literary Award for Inspirational Fiction.

A past President of Florida Sisters in Crime and Public Relations Director for Ancient City Romance Authors, Kathryn enjoys doing talks and teaching about writing.

She lives in Jacksonville, Florida near her daughters and granddaughter. Kathryn has also been a paralegal for over twenty years and works for an attorney who specializes in elder law.

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  1. Hi Kathryn, welcome to MMO we are thrilled to have you. Excellent points all. There is a fine line between suspense and close the book, too graphic. Do you think, though, that it varies by genre and audience? I know I can’t read something too graphic, nor can I read anything that has violence against children and/or animals, but I know other readers who shrug it off because it’s fiction.

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  2. Nice post Kathryn. Mystery does vary from cozy to hard-boiled to some stories that are on the verge of horror and that impacts the nature of how graphic a work might be. Crime is often very graphic if it decides to face its subject matter. I think Kait has a very good point that graphic varies by genre. Presentation is very important always. Fiction has the luxury of deciding what to tackle and what to leave alone. Life by nature is graphic and we all have our limits as to what we can endure reading about. There is a place for graphic in non-fiction when it describes war, personal experience, etc.I don’t think Remarque lost any readers from describing the corpse rats in the trenches of WW1. I think it is valuable and necessary for people to honestly and plainly describe the horrors of life as well as write for entertainment. There is a time for all things and all types of writing. I imagine that deciding who your target audience is will determine much of this. As for writing, some of it is well-written and some is not regardless of subject matter and point of view. Thanks for your post Kathryn, I enjoyed it. Best to you in all things.


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  3. Very interesting and thought-provoking post, Kathryn. TAKE HER BREATH AWAY contains subtle Christian undertones (I browsed the book at Amazon & read the reviews) and as such, the minimal violence suits the overall tone of your storyline. I write a more hardboiled style mysteries and my books/stories contain violence, but not to the extent that it sidelines suspense. I applaud you for pointing out to readers and writers alike that the overuse of blood and gore CAN be a deterrent to suspense. {Violence for violence sake, a good story does not make!} Did I mention I’m also a poet? Well, I’m not. 🙂
    Even in a book or story about a mass murderer, or a Jack the Ripper knockoff, without building and sustaining suspense the story will fall flat if it relies only on the shock value of gruesome violence to “make” the story. Thanks for contributing to our humble blog, and remember the welcome mat is always out at MMO!


  4. Some really good points Kathryn. I always teach that if the description you’re writing – whether graphic violence or setting or about the person – takes the reader out of the story then it is too much. I think as long as the author is not doing information dumping i.e. putting a lot of description lumped together but is using it sparingly throughout it can be used effectively and well. I’m not into really graphic that go into a lot of gory detail and personally I don’t think there is a need. I think the suspense can be built on alluding to what could happen and using that to build the suspense – what’s coming next.


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