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May 29, 2019

Tips and Tricks to Create Suspense Inspired by ‘Where the Forest Meets the Stars’ by Glendy Vanderah

By Lidija Hilje.

Novels are basically all about Q and A; the author poses questions and, with some delay, answers them. In that period of delay lies suspense—a feeling of anticipation, apprehension and anxiety the reader experiences while waiting for the questions to be answered.

The success of a book depends on this feeling; it’s what makes the reader turn the pages. So its always good to explore new ways of drawing more suspense out of your writing.

Here’s what I learned about building suspense by reading Glendy Vanderah’s ‘Where the Forest Meets the Stars’. This remarkable debut is one of those genre-blending novels; it’s a novel about unlikely friendships and overcoming difficult pasts (i.e. about the protagonists’ emotional journeys), that also has thriller elements.

This combination makes creating suspense particularly interesting; in thriller and crime genres, the suspense is what the narrative revolves around (the narrative itself is suspenseful). But are there any tools to build suspense in more ‘timid’ genres, such as women’s fiction or romance?

The novel’s plot revolves around a young ornithologist named Jo, who rents a house in rural Illinois to study nesting birds. Her solitary routine is interrupted when a girl approaches her from the woods. She calls herself Ursa and claims to be an alien who came to Earth to study humanity. Supposedly, she’ll go back to her home world once she’s witnessed five miracles here on Earth.

Jo suspects her to be a runaway child whose return to an abusive home might put her in further danger. With help from a reclusive neighbour, Gabe, Jo tries to find out more about Ursa’s past in order to help her.

Through these unusual circumstances, the three of them form an unbreakable bond while knowing that untangling the mystery around the girl’s identity — whoever she is — might not just destroy that bond, but may also result in other serious consequences for everyone involved.

Here are the top tips and tricks I learned about building suspense by reading this book.

1.         Build suspense on smaller scale

At the beginning of the novel, we instantly learn Jo has been through a lot. We also learn she has a medical condition, but we don’t find out what it is until some hundred pages in. 

Finding out what condition she has isn’t the main plot of the story. It isn’t even a subplot. The author could have simply told us Jo was a *spoiler alert* cancer survivor.

But instead, she kept us occupied with this information while developing the main plot. And she harvested on that sense of gratification when the reader’s educated guess proved correct.

It’s a good reminder that the ‘hook’—the main question the narrative revolves around—isn’t the only question worth posing.

The suspense should be built in layers, the hook being the top layer. Underneath that, a series of less important questions can be posed to build immediate suspense on a smaller scale.

2.        Give the reader smaller puzzles to work on, to prevent wearing out the suspense of the main question.

Vanderah poses a very compelling main question: who is Ursa and what will happen to her once her true origin — alien or human — is revealed?

But even a question this compelling wouldn’t hold the reader’s attention for 350 pages. So, Vanderah prolongs the suspense of the main plot line by creating compelling subplots: an unlikely friendship forming between Ursa and Jo, and Ursa and Gabe; a romantic subplot between Jo and Gabe whose pasts would affect these fragile, newly-formed bonds as well as their behaviors.

Balance is crucial here, because we should never forget what the story is really about.
Vanderah does this brilliantly. She throws in little reminders throughout the narrative (if only by referring to the child as an alien), which always bring the reader’s attention back to the main question.

3.        Build suspense by offering several different outcomes

Throughout the story, we are offered different possible answers to the question who might Ursa be (the hook). Is she really an alien? A changeling? Did she run away from home? Did someone abuse her? Was she left alone when a caregiver of hers had died?

All valid answers, which only amp up the reader’s curiosity about which one it really is. The author offers clues that make any and all of those options plausible. At this point, the reader is not only engaged by wanting to know the answer; he is also actively trying to figure out how all these clues fit in.

This is a tough task for writers: to write the story like it might have a different outcome, and offer clues that support that false outcome, but that still fit into the story and the outcome the writer had chosen. But, when executed successfully, it brings tons of suspense.

4.        Use internal conflict to build suspense

As I pointed out before, both Jo and Gabe have difficult pasts. Their internal conflicts are chosen carefully to bring additional friction to the external conflict. What this means is that their specific internal conflicts make it particularly difficult for these exact characters to get through their obstacles.

This leaves reader in a constant fear; will they have what it takes to achieve a happily ever after?

And this fear, this apprehension, is actually what suspense in a novel is all about.

5.        Use erratic behavior to build suspense

Unexpected erratic behavior can do wonders for building suspense. And by erratic, I don’t mean unusual in terms of ‘an average person’, but unusual for this specific character.

For instance, there’s a dialogue between the three protagonists that seems pretty casual. A certain question pushes Gabe’s buttons and he walks out.

Instead of simply telling us Gabe has issues with this subject, Vanderah had him react unexpectedly, which made the reader wonder why a seemingly dull conversation prompted his exaggerated reaction. And every question means suspense.

There are also a few scenes where Ursa acts out, which is out of character for her. We’re left wondering if she’s just being childish or tired or if there’s more to her unexpected behavior.

This goes to show that a sudden change in a protagonist’s behavior can go way longer than simply spoon-feeding a reader information we want them to know.

6.        Delay answers, but be tasteful

With a few quick brushes to the canvas early on, Vanderah insinuates we might get a romantic subplot underway. After awhile, we’re pretty confident both Gabe and Jo have fallen for each other, though there isn’t a word on the subject.

As a reader, you crave closure, so every delay keeps you in suspense if you’ll be getting that closure.

Still, there’s a fine line sometimes authors cross when delaying answers for too long, which can results in annoyance instead of suspense. 

The key is to delay as much as possible, but to respect the natural development of a situation. 

In my opinion, Vanderah found the perfect measure.

A final note: if you’re writing in one of more ‘timid’ genres, you can still create tons of suspense in your story. It’s just a matter of being careful about when and how to expose the reader to the information in order to create most suspense possible.


About the Author: Lidija Hilje
After working as a trial attorney for ten years, Lidija recently took a plunge into the writing universe. As a psychology enthusiast, she wrote several articles on Medium and was declared Top writer in the fields of Psychology, Personal development, and Self-awareness. She’s currently working on a contemporary women’s fiction novel.
She interacts with other writers and reading enthusiasts via her twitter account: @lidija_hilje