Guest Post: Helena Echlin on How to Write (& Rewrite) a Tale of Suspense

By Helena Echlin
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Cynsations Note: 


Happy Halloween! 


Yesterday we heard from Gillian French about techniques for building suspense. 


Today Helena Echlin shares her take on giving your readers goosebumps. 


And if you looking for even more ways to scare your readers, check out this post from April Henry, one of the post popular Cynsations posts ever.


And now, Helena.


One rainy Friday the 13th a few years ago, I met up for a drink with fellow novelist Malena Watrous, and complained about how hard it was to get any writing done, since we both had jobs and young children.

We recalled how we’d devoured books as kids and teens, and we wanted to write as a suspenseful story that would captivate readers in the same way. If I worked on a story like that, I was sure I’d find the time and energy to write it, whatever it took.

Malena confided her idea: a girl wakes up and finds her older sister missing from their shared bedroom. The only people who can help the girl save her sister are the mean girls at school. I was hooked. Fueled by more cocktails, we plotted out the entire story that night.

We’d both published novels already and we both taught fiction-writing.

So, we naively figured, how hard could it be to dash off a suspenseful YA thriller in a few months?

After the angst-filled life of the solo writer, it was enormously fun to get together in a café every week and rough out the next few scenes. We’d each draft a scene on our own, squeezing in a writing session while watching the kids in swim class or at the end of a long day, and then we’d bat the scenes back and forth until we were happy.

We dashed off that first draft in a mere five months, convinced we had a bestseller on our hands. Then trusted readers looked over that draft and told us that our careers writing sensitive, nuanced, literary novels hadn’t prepared us to be thriller writers well as we thought.

Yes, the novel was gripping in places, but in parts it fell flat.

So we hunkered down and rewrote our book more times than I will ever admit.

When it comes to writing a thriller, it’s essential to start with a gripping concept, but you can do much to amp up the suspense in successive drafts.

Here’s what we learned about how to captivate your reader:

Keep raising the stakes. The protagonist’s desire is what drives the plot in any novel, but in a suspense novel, it’s not enough if all the protagonist wants is to renovate his house in Nova Scotia or breathe new life into a middle-aged marriage.

If you are writing a thriller, raise the stakes higher, and keep raising them. At first, our heroine Laurel wants to find her sister Ivy. Then she realizes she has to rescue Ivy from a kidnapper and she only has a week to do so.

Then she realizes that Ivy’s kidnapper is an ancient demon. Side benefit: if you’re a busy mom who worries about things like what will your kids take for lunch other than cream cheese sandwiches, it is incredibly relaxing to write about a girl who has much bigger problems.

Hide the truth in plain sight. Readers don’t like guessing the truth too soon. They want you to mislead them along with the protagonist. But they also like to feel that in retrospect there was a trail of clues.

Your job is to plant these clues without drawing attention to them. In one of our early drafts, our villain kept offering the girls fleur-de-sel-topped caramels. Their taste was “a dreamy combination of butterscotch pudding and salted popcorn and as soon as you had finished one, you wanted just one more.”

In successive drafts, it became clear that these caramels just screamed “demonic magic,” so we had to kill that darling.

Avoid “zombie character syndrome.”
My writing students are often so focused on what happens in a story that they forget to have their characters react to it. I call this “zombie character syndrome.”

In fact, interiority—what a character is thinking and feeling—is an important way to increase suspense. It draws the reader’s attention to an approaching threat and makes it sharp and specific.

If your character isn’t scared, then your reader won’t be either. In our first draft, Laurel always “gulped” or “swallowed” when she was terrified (or sometimes had a “lump” in her chest or throat).
What a cliché. In successive drafts, we found more complex and vivid ways to show her reactions.

Book trailer for Sparked (Geek & Sundry, October 2017)



Slow down when it matters. It may seem that writing a fast-paced story means that things have to happen in quick succession, but don’t rush through climactic moments.

The reader is desperate to know what happens next and at the same time, their pleasure lies in the anticipation rather than in finding out. So slow way down.

It’s more psychologically realistic too: if a character’s adrenaline is peaking, their attention is hyper-focused and he or she will notice every detail.

At one point, a psychopath with a hunting rifle threatens Laurel and her friends while she cowers behind a log. In revision, we added in the song of a particular bird, “like the snip of scissor blades,” and have her numbly notice a pill bug on a blade of grass.

Surprise yourself. If you’re writing a tightly constructed novel with lots of twists and turns, you’re probably going to need an outline, unless you’re Stephen King. But don’t stick to it.

Often, the best ideas come from your subconscious, when you are least expecting it. Be open to those ideas and be prepared to change your story or rewrite it entirely if necessary. Remember: if you know what’s going to happen when you are writing it, so will the reader.

When we thought we were finally done, Malena had a plot epiphany at the DMV that meant we had to embark on yet one more draft. But now, when readers say they had “no idea what was coming next” or comment on the “hairpin twists and turns,” it was totally worth it.


Cynsations Notes

Malena and Helena

Helena Echlin, a native of the U.K., is the author of the novel Gone (Random House UK, 2002) and for five years wrote “Table Manners,” an etiquette advice column for Chow, the online food and drink magazine.

She has also written for the Guardian, The Times, and The Sunday Telegraph in the U.K., and Yoga Journal and The San Francisco Chronicle in the U.S.. She lives in Berkeley and teaches fiction-writing online for Stanford.

Malena Watrous co-authored Sparked. Malena also wrote the novel If You Follow Me (Harper Perennial, 2010).

She was a Stegner Fellow at Stanford and helped to found the Online Writers’ Certificate, Stanford’s two-year online novel-writing program.

She teaches fiction-writing for Stanford as well as working on her own fiction, and has written for numerous publications, including The New York Times. She lives in San Francisco.

Guest Post: Gillian French on Hooking Readers: How to Build Suspense

By Gillian French
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Cynsations Note: 


What scares you? Snakes? Spiders? Bigfoot? It’s different for everyone. Likewise, authors use different approaches for building suspense. 


Our Halloween treat for you is a glimpse at techniques from two YA authors for upping the stakes. 


We suspect this is a topic you want to know more about, because the most popular Cynsations posts of all time is April Henry’s guest post on adding tension.

So,without further ado, Gillian French offers a plan to give your readers chills.


And tomorrow Helena Eichlin will present a different route.

Readers want to be hooked.

We’re addicted to the rush of finding a story we want to live in, characters we want to bring along everywhere—the laundromat, the commute, lunchbreaks. Broken down to its basic components, any un-put-downable story has suspense at its core. Not just footsteps-coming-up-the-stairs goosebumps, but a genuine investment in how things are going to turn out for our protagonist, and, ideally, the more peripheral characters in the book as well.

You recognize compelling suspense when you read it—but as a writer, how do you craft this vital element and keep your audience turning pages until the wee hours?

Read on for three methods I swear by:

Strong Character Motivation: This is your most important job as a storyteller: making readers care about your characters. The swiftest way to do that is to figure out what each character wants, an easily relatable standpoint. We all have something we’re working toward, something that matters to us, whether it’s being a loving mom or a world-class bungee jumper.

See also April Henry on Just Add Tension.

In my YA paranormal thriller, The Door to January (Islandport Press, 2017), protagonist Natalie wants to find out why she’s experiencing a reoccurring nightmare about an abandoned farmhouse in her former hometown. The stakes are high right out of the gate—her peace of mind and sanity are in jeopardy—making it easy for readers to invest in her pursuit of the truth. As the action unfolds and more danger is revealed, Natalie’s journey grows more perilous, and, with some luck, a page-turner is born.

Even antagonistic characters need motivation. No matter how loathsome you want readers to find your villain, he or she needs to exist in your book as more than an awfulness-producing machine.

As uncomfortable as it may be, cast yourself in that role; we’ve all had our unlovely moments, times when we’ve done things we regret. The difference is, when this character does something awful, they rarely regret it. You may be surprised by how freeing that is, and how much fun you can have playing devil’s advocate.

Timing Is Everything: Knowing when to ratchet up the suspense in your book can be tricky. Randomly dropping in action-packed or frightening scenes just because you’re worried that you’ll lose your reader can be indicative of larger structural problems or issues with character development, and probably won’t be effective.

Have faith that your audience will hang in there during the quieter sections of the book; that said, every scene must have a purpose, even if it’s a conversation between two characters over coffee. A plot needs to work as a machine with multiple moving parts, churning towards one conclusion. Easy to say, not so easy to do.

Simply put, the “big” scenes should feel natural because the pages that came before built the foundation to support them.

  • If you find that your plot sags in places, try charting out a simple chapter outline, highlighting gripping, standout scenes. If you see uneven gaps between them, you may want to consider restructuring to make the action feel more measured.
Franklin Treat House, a reportedly haunted mansion in Frankfort, Maine
near Gillian’s hometown. “I’ve heard stories about it since I was a kid.”

Tap into Your Senses: We’ve all felt anticipation and fear; the key is, remembering the finer details of those experiences and breaking it down on the page to get the strongest reaction from your reader.

  • Think of a time when you were genuinely afraid—what effect did it have on your body, how you perceived your surroundings? Was any one sense heightened, a normally mundane smell like stale coffee, or a background noise like passing traffic or a ticking clock? 
  • If it was a person you were afraid of, what was it about their body language or attitude that lingers in your memory? This is your chance to dig into an uncomfortable memory and make it work for you. Brainstorm everything about that moment, then see which details really stand out.

Also, contrasts in sensory perception can go a long way toward disquieting your readers. In The Door to January, during the first confrontation between Natalie and Jason, a boy who bullied and terrorized her when they were younger, I drew the focus in tight, contrasting the brightness of Jason’s words—“Hey, there, sunshine”—with the flat, cold expression in his eyes, trying to put both Natalie and the reader off-balance, not sure what he might do next.

We’re all engineered to seek level ground, to find certainty, and readers will fly through pages to find out when or if the characters achieve that.

Reading and writing suspense are the perfect way to experience nail-biting moments from the safety of your favorite chair. The more you finetune your craft, the stronger your grip on your audience will be—and you may be surprised when they thank you for the ride of their life.

Cynsational Notes


Kirkus Reviews called The Door to January (Islandport Press, 2017), “Chilling and suspenseful, this paranormal thriller with a touch of romance will keep readers on the edges of their seats.”

Growing up in rural Maine led Gillian French to believe that the mystery of the past is all around. She uses her surroundings as a setting for the dark stories that often have a creepy twist.

While she’s never seen a ghost, she’s pretty sure she’s heard ghostly footsteps in the night.

Gillian’s short fiction has appeared in various publications and anthologies. Her first YA novel, Grit (HarperCollins, 2017) received starred reviews from both Kirkus Reviews and Booklist.

Her next novel,  The Lies They Tell (HarperCollins) is scheduled for publication in May 2018.

She holds a degree in English from the University of Maine and is perpetually at work on her next novel.

Guest Post: T.A. Maclagan on Spy Novel Covers & They Call Me Alexandra Gastone

By T.A. Maclagan
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

From the promotional copy of They Call Me Alexandra Gastone by T.A. Maclagan (Full Fathom Five Digital, 2015):

When your life is a lie, how do you know what’s real?


Alexandra Gastone has a simple plan: graduate high school, get into Princeton, work for the CIA, and serve her great nation.


She was told the plan back when her name was Milena Rokva, back before the real Alexandra and her family were killed in a car crash.


Milena was trained to be a sleeper agent by Perun, a clandestine organization from her true homeland of Olissa. There, Milena learned everything she needed to infiltrate the life of CIA analyst Albert Gastone, Alexandra’s grandfather, and the ranks of America’s top intelligence agency.


For seven years, “Alexandra” has been on standby and life’s been good. Grandpa Albert loves her, and her strategically chosen boyfriend, Grant, is amazing.


But things are about to change. Perun no longer needs her at the CIA in five years’ time. They need her active now.


Between her cover as a high school girl—juggling a homecoming dance, history reports, and an increasingly suspicious boyfriend—and her mission in this high-stakes spy game, the boundaries of her two lives are beginning to blur.


Will she stay true to the country she barely remembers, or has her loyalty shattered along with her identity?

Find T.A. at Facebook, Tumblr & Twitter

As a book cover art aficionado (I have a Pinterest page of covers I fan girl over – yes, I’m that much of a book nerd), I headed into the cover design phase of my publishing journey with both excitement and trepidation.

I wanted a cover that I could love so badly, but knew that authors don’t usually get much input on cover design.

I was both surprised and thrilled, however, by how open Full Fathom Five was regarding the whole process. They asked me for my thoughts at the start, and then after each cover that came in, until we found the perfect one! It really felt like a journey we took as a team.

Yeah, I know how cheesy that sounds, but it’s true nonetheless.

My initial idea for the cover was a close-up face shot of Alexandra that emphasized her heterochromia (two different eye colors), but with the rest of her face being a bit hazy.

With the book’s title being what it is, I thought Alexandra needed to be staring out at the reader and as her heterochromia is a pivotal component of the book, I also felt that should be emphasized. I liked the idea of the rest of her face being a bit hazy because Alexandra struggles with her identity as the story unfolds and the haziness, I thought, could allude to that struggle. In addition to her face, I pictured a Washington D.C. skyline in the background, and a two-headed swan at the base of the cover (a symbol from the book).

As you can see from the final cover, which was the fourth iteration, some of my ideas made it onto the cover while others didn’t and thankfully so, because when I was thinking of cover design, I wasn’t necessarily thinking of book marketing.

With Full Fathom Five being generous about including me in the cover design process, I was able to learn quite a bit about what goes into making a successful cover. What I didn’t at first realize is that the cover should not only represent the book but also represent the genre.

For They Call Me Alexandra Gastone, that is spy fiction, in general, and YA spy fiction, in particular. This is something my original vision for the cover didn’t take into account. When someone looks at your cover, they should know what kind of book they are looking at.

With They Call Me Alexandra Gastone, I doubt anyone would think anything other than spy with the red and black color scheme and the riflescope. The red and black practically screams spy. Just look at these covers for popular spy novels…(photos of spy book covers).

The style of the cover is also in keeping with advertising for one of my favorite TV show, The Americans, which is also about sleeper agents living in the United States. My first drafts of They Call Me Alexandra Gastone were written before “The Americans” hit the airwaves but some of my later editing was definitely influenced by the dynamics of the relationships on the show.

So I find it fitting that there’s some resemblance between Alexandra’s cover and advertising for the show as I believe the book, despite being YA, could easily cross over into the adult market and would appeal to fans of the show.

As far as representing the YA spy genre, broadly speaking YA spy books fall into two subgenres, the “lighthearted adventure” subgenre, and the “darker, more serious, suspense” subgenre. These two subgenres have very different styles of covers.

Books like Ally Carter’s Gallagher Girls series (Hyperion), Robin Benway’s Also Known As series (Walker), and Jennifer Lynn BarnesThe Squad (Laurel Leaf) are all very popular YA spy books that fall into the “lighthearted adventure” category and as such they all have similarly styled covers.

Because They Call Me Alexandra Gastone doesn’t fit into this subgenre, it was important the cover didn’t, in any way, resemble this cover style. Instead, the cover for They Call Me Alexandra Gastone is much more in keeping with books like Elizabeth Wein’s Code Name Verity (Hyperion) and Lindsay Smith’s Sekret (Roaring Brook) from the “darker, more serious, suspense” subgenre—note the use of red on both covers.

After the cover designer nailed the color scheme and spy vibe, we faced one last hurdle. The model featured on the cover was used in every cover version we saw and looks very much like how I envisioned the character. That said, we were struggling a bit with her expression as the cover designer zoomed in for the third cover attempt. It looked too flat. That’s when the riflescope idea came into play. With the scope overlaid across her face, her expression morphed from flat to defiant.

As Alexandra is a kick butt kind of girl, this last minute addition to the cover, sealed the deal for me and gave me a cover I’m more than a little proud to have as the face of my debut!