Bad to Worse to Impending Disaster: Escalating tension creates suspense


We all know that suspense builds as danger approaches. Expanding on that concept, a suspenseful story puts characters that the reader cares about in jeopardy. It makes for a great scene or, even better, a page-turning chapter.

Now, to create suspense in the novel as a whole, the author must gradually turn-up the heat. There’s an arc that leads the plot upwards on the Bad to Worse to Impending Disaster escalator. So, if the Princess is abducted in Act 1 (Bad), then the hero must risk his life to save her in Act 2 (Worse), until finally the entire Kingdom may fall if they don’t return in time in Act 3 (Impending Disaster). If the tension doesn’t escalate, the book will run out of steam.



Tension doesn’t always have to be bloody life or death scenarios though. Depending on the genre, suspense can just as easily build through emotional, romantic or economic threats. The shy romantic hero doesn’t have the courage to profess his true feelings to the love of his life in Act 1 (Bad), then just as he’s about to tell her, a new suitor comes on the scene in Act 2 (Worse), until finally, in Act 3, the girl and the new suitor are about to get married and the romantic hero will lose her forever (Impending Disaster).




Regardless of the genre, the reader must feel that the Protagonist is headed toward something terrible. Impending Disaster is just a page or two away. That’s tension.


canstockphoto2235123So, in a murder mystery, when should the corpse be found? The quick answer is “as soon as possible.” However, there are two rules you must respect:

  1. The murder must occur within the first 3 chapters.

Anyone who picks up a murder mystery is expecting, well, a murder to occur. Until that happens, the reader is just sort of left in suspended animation, waiting for something to happen. I’ve read a lot of mysteries where the actual murder took place before the book began, and the corpse is found in chapter one. I’ve also read books where the first two or three chapters are setting-up suspects and motivations, then the murder occurs. Personally, I like to start off with the murder occurring in chapter one, then introduce the sleuth in chapter two.

  1. The murderer must be present within the first 3 chapters.

You’re not playing fair if the character who committed the murder is introduced too late in the book to be a viable suspect. He (or she) should be present from the very beginning. A strong mystery writer will introduce the character, but not draw attention to him.

Really, you can’t go wrong as long as a body is found that kicks-off the investigation within the first three chapters. The murder and the questions that follow are what hook your reader. Obviously, you want to do that as quickly as possible.


The murder must always be believable

canstockphoto1131704I just finished reading a mystery novel in which a wife was pushed over the side of a cliff while trying to reconcile with her estranged husband. The husband was the obvious suspect, but in the end it turned out to be her jealous, wheelchair-bound sister who actually committed the crime. I can’t even begin to tell you how much this frustrated me.

The crime must always be believable. If not, the entire story unravels and bags of burning dog poop should be left on the author’s doorstep. And, in this case, the resolution to the mystery borders on criminally ridiculous. How would the jealous, wheelchair-bound sister get up to the mountain cliff in the first place? And even if she could somehow get there, how could she knock her sister over without the estranged husband seeing it? And how did she not leave tire marks behind?

The author was making the least likely character turn-out to be the murderer, and I’ll admit I didn’t guess the ending. But that reveal left a lot of questions on the table. While the motive made sense — jealousy — the means and opportunity aren’t plausible. The physics of the murder don’t make sense.

So, the lesson here is, all the little details of the murder (the how, where, and why) have to come together cohesively. It’s the missing puzzle piece that must fit perfectly to complete the puzzle.  Your reader will feel cheated if the crime is not something that could really happen.

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Rules for Writing a Mystery Novel

canstockphoto9200023Like any good game, there are rules to writing a good mystery. The author challenges the reader to solve the crime before the detective. The reader expects there to be clues leading to the correct answer, and trusts that everything will come together in the end.  So, for the author to play fair, these rules must be followed.

Rules to Writing a Good Murder Mystery:

  1. The crime must be a murder. Burglary, kidnapping, extortion and the like make for great thrillers, but only murder makes a mystery worth solving. Personally, I like to begin with the murder, then introduce the sleuth and start the investigation. However, there’s nothing wrong with having the murder occur before the story begins, or introduce the sleuth, victim and suspects, then have the murder occur.
  2. The murder must be believable. In other words, the motive, means and opportunity all make sense, and the culprit must be physically and emotionally capable of committing the murderer.
  3. Introduce both the detective and the murderer early on, preferably within the first three chapters.
  4. The detective must solve the mystery using only rational and scientific methods that, if observant, the reader could equally solve the mystery with the same information.
  5. Provide at least three genuine clues that point to the murderer’s identity. These clues don’t have to jump off the page, and probably shouldn’t, but they have to exist, none the less.
  6. Wait as long as possible to reveal the culprit, ultimately in the penultimate or final chapter.

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Death of a Murder Mystery Novel

canstockphoto8528152The Librarian stepped around the corner of the bookshelf and froze. She raised her hands to her cheeks and screamed. Still, she couldn’t look away. Beaten, battered and ripped apart, it lay in pieces at her feet.

Clearly, the book was dead.

When the police arrived, the librarian pointed them to the gruesome scene. Two detectives approached the book, lying open on its spine. Its cover spread eagle. Black ink spilled off its earmarked pages and pooled on the carpet.

“Another discarded book,” Detective Barnes said, leaning down on one knee to get a closer look at the corpse.

“Like yesterday’s garbage.” The other detective, Noble, took a pen from his jacket and used it to close the book cover. “It was a mystery novel.”

Together, Barnes and Noble stood and walked toward the librarian. She cowered near the checkout counter, trembling.

“You hear about this kind of thing happening,” she said, looking up at Detective Barnes. “You just never think you’ll actually witness this kind of horror.”

“Just tell us what happened.” Barnes slipped a hand inside his jacket and pulled out a pen and note pad. He nodded toward the Librarian. She took a deep breath and looked back in the direction of the crime scene.

“Several people started the book.” Her voice was barely a whisper, as if she was frightened of what she might say. “Some would read a few chapters, others just a few pages, but the outcome was always the same: The readers would just lose interest, shut the book, and discard it.”

“And do you know why?”

She closed her eyes, scrunched her face. “The book was a murder mystery, but after a hundred pages, there was still no victim. No murder. No crime scene.”

“You mean the murder in the book didn’t occur within the first three chapters?”

“That is correct. And nobody knows exactly when the murder did occur because…” She stopped suddenly, sighed, and brought a hand to her face. It looked as if she might faint. “Because every reader gave up on the book before the mystery began.”

“Well, that’s crazy.” Barnes shut his note pad with a huff and dropped his pen. “The crime and the ensuing questions are what hook the reader. As with any fiction, but especially in a murder mystery, you want to do that as quickly as possible.”

Standing beside him, Noble nodded. “Mystery readers pick up a book for the blood, and they want it sooner, rather than later. They won’t wait a hundred pages for something to happen.”

The Librarian reached for Barnes, grasping his forearm and squeezed. “Wait,” she said. “It gets worse.”

The Detective shuddered. “You mean?”

“Yes.” The Librarian shrank back toward the edge of the counter and gripped it to support her weight. Her legs were wobbly. Her face flushed. Looking down at her feet, she spoke slowly, deliberately. “The beginning chapters were just pages of set-up and back story.”

Both detectives looked away in shame. There were some cases that were so ghastly, so incomprehensible, that it made their stomachs turn. Detective Barnes’ eyes burned, and he squinted to hold back the tears. “Readers are just sort of left in suspended animation, waiting for the murder to occur so they can participate in solving it.  It’s the whole point of a murder mystery.”

“We’ve seen it a hundred times,” Noble said. “That book lived dangerously. It broke all the rules. It was bound to get discarded like that.”


SuspectEvery suspect is hiding a secret. Let me repeat for emphasis: EVERY SUSPECT IS HIDING A SECRET. It’s just that only one of them is hiding THE secret. The others don’t want your hero uncovering that they’ve stolen family heirlooms, was responsible for the happy couple’s break-up, dealing drugs, burned down the school building, pirating cable TV. Part of the fun of reading a murder mystery is unraveling the sordid lives of the suspect line-up.

So what makes a good suspect?

If ultimately the murderer is proven to have motive, means and opportunity, a viable suspect should have one or two of these attributes, but not all three. The obvious suspect will have “motive.” (She stood up in a crowded theater and announced her vow to make sure that the victim wouldn’t live to see the light of another day just hours before the murder occurred.) The suspect with “means” just happens to own the murder weapon, and the one with “opportunity” was at the wrong place at the wrong time. However, upon investigation, everyone of these attributes point to something else entirely – something that’s probably scandalous and juicy.

So how many suspects should be standing in the line-up?

That can be a little tricky. There’s got to be enough suspects to ensure that the murderer’s identity is a surprise, but not so many that the poor, confused reader can’t keep up. Three is the minimum (see above) but, if the story calls for it, that line-up can stretch to four or five.

Show me a good suspect, and I’ll show you a good liar.

At least one, if not all, should be lying through his teeth. He is feeding the sleuth (and the reader) false information that leads them looking in the wrong direction. Obviously he’s lying to keep a secret hidden, but could also be protecting a reputation or a family member. Protection makes a believable motive for deception. And, when his lie is revealed, it makes a great twist in the book and places this suspect in the spotlight.

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You’ll never guess whodunit in this mystery, and there’s a really lame reason why…

What’s wrong with this short story?

canstockphoto15371783Gwen worked late every Thursday night, preparing reports and assorted charts for a standing Friday morning meeting. Her family was on their own for dinner that night, but they were used to it. This had been Gwen’s schedule ever since she got the promotion. Her husband generally brought home take-out for their son, as Dad didn’t like to cook and J.R. was too young to be trusted with the stove and oven.

This Thursday was different though. Gwen worked even later than usual and the office building seemed deathly still. Near ten o’clock, she glanced at the clock and realized she was alone in the building. Like she always did, she called her house to let her family know that she was about to leave.

“J.R. is already in bed,” her husband said through the phone.

Gwen hung-up, grabbed her purse and headed for the elevator. When she made it to the ground floor, she left the building and locked the entrance doors behind her. She stepped into the parking lot, took her keys from her purse and headed in the direction of her car. She never saw the figure who rushed up behind or the knife that cut her throat.”

The story goes on to describe how Gwen is wrapped in black garbage bags and dumped in the lake. Her husband is the obvious suspect, but the reader knows it can’t be him because she was just on the phone with him before the murder. There are other suspects too. A co-worker is angry that Gwen was promoted over him (although if she has to work late making copies and that’s considered a promotion, I can’t even begin to imagine how mind numbing this co-worker’s job must be.) Then there’s her best friend who, it turns out, has been secretly in love with the husband and is harboring a deep resentment toward Gwen. So if the husband didn’t do it, then obviously one of the others did.

But you’ll never guess who turns out to be the culprit.

J.R. rushed into the kitchen just as the Detective placed handcuffs on his angry father. Dad looked back at him with swollen, red eyes. J.R. brushed the mud off the knees of his pants then approached them. A uniformed police officer held him back.

“Don’t worry,” his Dad said to him as he struggled with his arms bound behind his back. “Trust Daddy. I didn’t hurt your mother.”

J.R. didn’t answer. He listened as the Detective read Dad his rights, then pushed him slightly toward the front door. The Detective led his father out of the house and into the waiting squad car. J.R. watched all this silently, without any emotion. Then when the police had left, and the house was quiet again, he returned to the backyard where he had been playing earlier.

His sandbox was waiting, and he piled into it, scooting dirt from one framed side to the other. He dug a hole in the middle of the sand pile, uncovering something shiny. Something sharp. J.R. picked up the kitchen knife. It still had his mother’s dried blood on it.

“Damn,” he said, perhaps to himself, perhaps to voices only he could hear. “Now Dad’s not going to be home on Thursday nights either.”

So what’s wrong with this mystery? Where do I begin?

Right off the bat, it’s hard to imagine the police leaving this kid behind at home when his father was just arrested and his mother was murdered. Also, you never, ever jump in the head of the murderer like that. But… before I start getting hate mail for spoiling someone’s story, let me confess.

This murder mystery, titled “Child’s Play,” was written by me 20 years ago when I was a Sophomore in high school. I was quite proud of it back then. Today, I think it’s a great example of what not to do.

“Child’s Play” breaks a lot of rules, and I’m not talking about the chronic point of view shifts – which I just didn’t get back then. It commits one of the most egregious and inexcusable offenses in mystery writing: The murderer couldn’t possibly have been capable of committing the crime.

If you put any thought into it, J.R. could not have carried out the murder that was set-up in the opening paragraphs. Obviously, he is young – very young – as he still plays in a sandbox and is not trusted to use the stove and oven. So how did he get to the office building parking lot? He certainly didn’t drive. And the narrative presents the murderer as being close to, if not the same, size as Gwen. So either J.R. is a really big kid or Gwen was a very small woman.

Though most readers may not have guessed the murderer’s identity – unless the title gave it away – they must still believe the motivation. The murderer can’t just be physically capable of committing the murder, he must also be emotionally capable. J.R. may possibly hear voices. He’s clearly psychopathic. But is Mom not being home on Thursday nights really a motive for murder?

Finally, it breaks one more rule. Since I didn’t publish the story in its entirety, you’ll just have to trust me on this one. The story goes to great lengths to set up the red herrings – the father, the jealous best friend, the disgruntled co-worker. However, J.R. is only mentioned in passing. Aside from jumping into his head to witness his father carted off to jail and then racing to his sandbox to play with the murder weapon, the reader never gets to know the kid. This can’t happen in a murder mystery.

The murderer must turn out to be a character with, more or less, a prominent part in the story. The reader must be familiar with the character and somewhat interested in him. Otherwise the author isn’t playing fair and risks turning off readers.

Like I said, I was chest-thumping proud of this story way back when. I believe it was even published in a high school short story anthology. It wasn’t the first mystery I’d written, and without trying and making those early mistakes, I wouldn’t be where I am today. It’s got some great albeit unintentional lessons in it. Maybe I’ll pull out another old story and make an example out of it too.

“This book will make your head spin. I was constantly on the edge of my seat.” — Electively Paige

Prey of Desire coverPrey of Desire‘ is featured on, a book review site. They wrote:

“*I received this book for review from the author, this in no way affects my thoughts as expressed in this review*

“I was so excited to read this book! I have been a big fan of Mr. Gatlin since, not very long ago actually, I read his amazing novella. So, when I found out he had another book out I jumped at the chance to read it! 

“A prologue opens this book and from the first page I was hooked. JC just has a way with words, let me tell you. This book will make your head spin. I was constantly on the edge of my seat. I could not put it down. You will have so many guesses as to how the book will end but you will not see the ending coming. I absolutely loved it. If you are a lover of fantastic action-packed thrillers that make you think, ones that really make your mind work over time, well this is the book for you. 

“I considered myself a fan of this author from the first few pages of The Designated Survivor but reading Prey of Desire cemented it. He has definitely gone on my auto-read list and I cannot wait to see what he has in store for us next! ” — Paige Boggs,

To read the full review, click here.

Life Lessons that make great character growth

canstockphoto13359765There’s a formula that a strong plot plus a strong character arc equals a great novel. Readers love character development because it adds weight to the story. Sure, the adventure is fun or the mystery is thrilling, but add a layer of personal growth for your sleuth and you leave the reader feeling that the book meant something.

There are many examples of character growth out there. These are a few ideas I had, especially for an amateur sleuth thrust into the middle of a murder mystery.

1. You can’t give up when the going gets tough. The story opens with a character who has spent her life running from her problems. She’s never dealt with adversity because she’s always taken the easy way out, especially when things get tough. But, as the story unfolds, she learns that there are some things worth fighting for, and must stick around to face her problems.

2. Being selfish and self-centered is not a healthy or socially acceptable way to live. You just know a character who begins a story as a self-absorbed prima donna is going to get spanked with a whole heap ‘a Karma. She may initially react inappropriately to the events unfolding around her, but by the end, she will find her place in the universe, and generally be a happier person for it.

3. Wearing a mask to impress others will ultimately hurt you. A character who spends the beginning of a story concentrating on everyone else’s perception of her, or who everyone else wants her to be, is headed in one direction: an embarrassing reveal of her true self. This character will ultimately learn not to fear the judgments of others. If she stops living to impress others – others will be impressed and inspired by how she deals with her imperfections.

4. There is no real relationship if you can’t first love yourself.  A character with low self-esteem, low self-confidence, and a genuine dislike of herself is probably beginning the story in a lonely place. Or she may be brokenhearted, with a history of lost loves and disappointments. Then she gets swept up in the events of the story and learns her true value. Real love probably isn’t far behind.

5. Micromanaging every little thing in life leads to failure. The character who begins a story needing to control everything in her life is about to have her entire world upended. The more she tightens her grip, the more out of control her life becomes. When the dust settles, she’ll have learned that she must relax and let life happen without the incessant worrying and micromanagement. She may even come to the realization that life was actually in perfect order all along, she just couldn’t see it or understand it.

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Eight Life Lessons: Ideas for Themes and Character Arcs

Does your sleuth have a quirk? He better have a history to back it up

canstockphoto11602983I just finished a manuscript in which a mystery is solved by an amateur sleuth who hates technology. It’s an interesting premise. Surprisingly though, the sleuth’s aversion to laptops, cell phones, iPods and treadmills had no impact on the story. It had nothing to do with the mystery or in any way helped him figure out the whodunit or capture the murderer. He just complained about technology.

After reading it, I asked the author why she gave the main character that quirk. She told me that she was trying to make the sleuth interesting, to give him a memorable personality trait. As it turns out, her writer’s group read her story and told her that the main character was too bland, and that she needed to spice him up. So she came up with that personality quirk and inserted some new dialog.

That got me to thinking: how do you make an offbeat quirk a natural part of a character’s personality?

Offbeat characteristics can be fun to write, but if not done correctly, they can be distracting to the reader. In the story I just read, it was clearly not an organic part of the narrative. It was tacked on and it felt like it. And to fix that story, two things need to happen. Number one, the sleuth’s extremely negative reaction to geeky coolness should — in some way — help him solve the murder. Number two is rooting the quirk within the character’s history.

For the most part, supporting characters can have odd, outrageous quirks without delving into that character’s pathos. The same can’t be said for main characters. Their back stories need to be more developed and should provide an explanation for the abnormal behavior. Cause and effect comes into play. You’ve got ask, “What experiences would produce that trait?”

If your sleuth is going to have a quirky personality trait, he better have a history to back it up.

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Quirky Character Traits