Both Gut & Brain: The Top Suspense Group Speaks Out

“Suspense,” says novelist and screenwriter Stephen Gallagher, “is the engine of any good tale, in any genre.”  Susupense is the question asked, the answer delayed, and all the anticipation in between.  To find out more about suspense—what it is and how to create it—I got in touch with the masters: the members of Top Suspense Group..

The Top Suspense Group is an organization of writers from across the genres whom have joined up to make it easier for readers to find high quality e-books.  These are award-winning writers like Max Allan Collins, Bill Crider, Ed Gorman, Vicki Hendricks, and Lee Goldberg.

Through the Group’s site you can find a selection of e-books, reprints and originals, in a variety of formats.  The group’s first anthology Top Suspense: 13 Classic Stories is due out tomorrow (April 1st) and it includes stories from most of the group’s members.

While we’re waiting for the release, six members of the group were kind enough to answer a few questions on what they all do so well—create and sustain suspense—in their fiction.  Today they answer the question—what is suspense?—and tomorrow they advise us on how to use suspense in our fiction.


Stephen Gallagher is a novelist, screenwriter, and director.  He is the author of fourteen novels, including Red, Red Robin and The Spirit Box.

Ed Gorman is best known for his crime and mystery fiction, but has written in just about every genre under a variety of names. His many novels include Black River Falls and Blood Moon.

Libby Fischer Hellmann is a broadcast journalist and novelist.  Her seven thrillers include Doubleback and the recent Set the Night on Fire.

Vicki Hendricks writes noir novels, including Miami Purity and Sky Blues.  Her work is the best thing to happen to the Florida crime literature since Charles Willeford.

Harry Shannon is an actor, recording artist, counselor, and novelist.  His books include Daemon and One of the Wicked.

Dave Zeltserman writes crime, mystery, and horror novels.  His books include 21 Tales and Blood Crimes.


What is SUSPENSE in terms of fiction?

Dave Zeltserman: Suspense is what keeps the reader needing to turn the page to find out what’s going to happen next. It doesn’t matter whether the story involves a couple whose relationship may be falling apart or a hero in deadly peril, if we’ve made it impossible for the reader to put down the book then as writers we’ve done our job in creating a strong sense of suspense.

Stephen Gallagher: Suspense is the engine of any good tale, in any genre; it’s the question that gives us no peace until we know the answer, the pattern that leaves us restless until we see it completed.

Ed Gorman: You begin with a character whose dilemma you’re interested in following. This can be the traditional hero/heroine of most popular fiction or the anti-hero as in the novels of Richard Stark (Donald E. Westlake). Then you present the character with the dilemma.

A few of my favorite suspense writers are–Cornell Woolrich who creates a spellbinding sense of not only mystery but doom in a savage and deceitful world–Ruth Rendell who usually gives us a normal world only to quickly demonstrate that the seeming normality is a dark charade–Harlan Coben who has made the traditional mystery novel all his own with excitingly complicated plots that put ordinary people in extraordinary situations.

In other words suspense comes in many forms, the purest of which is probably found in the films of Alfred Hitchcock. He believed in letting the audience in on the real situation as a means of scaring them. He always said that if you showed a bomb planted beneath a theater seat then you’ve got the audience hooked. Who put it there? When will it go off? Look at Psycho and Frenzy. We’re in on just about everything from the start and so we know that something terrible is going to happen–and keep on happening. To me that’s the essence of suspense.

Libby Hellmann: Suspense is not so much what is happening, as what may happen. It’s about anticipation, often anticipating the worst. It’s about creating an uncertain situation in which the outcome is in doubt. It’s asking a question not immediately answered, raising a concern not immediately addressed, posing a threat not immediately resolved.

Notice that immediately is the key word. Suspense depends on stretching time—delaying answers as long as possible. The longer the writer can stretch and delay, the longer information is parceled out in bits, the more suspense there is. As 24 does.

Suspense is not limited to crime fiction. Any story with a secret, tension, or unresolved conflict is ripe for the kind of unbearable, exquisite suspense so many of us love. Consider some of the greatest classics in English literature: To Kill A Mockingbird; Moby Dick; Wuthering Heights, The Great Gatsby. All use suspense to heighten interest and emotion. Contemporary authors as well, including Jodi Picoult, Margaret Atwood, and many more, incorporate suspense in their novels.

Harry Shannon: For me suspense requires a likeable character, someone we can relate to, who is abruptly thrust into difficult circumstances. Both realistic violence and/or the threat of violence are omnipresent. And after that, as Michael Connelly says, “Things just get worse.” I love a good, fast-paced thriller with sprinkles of mystery, sexuality, and dry humor. Shake and bake and serve the meal steaming hot.

Vicki Hendricks: Suspense is what keeps the reader up till 4 AM, regardless that the alarm will go off at 6. In simple terms, I see it as pleasurable tension, caused by the creation of emotion and curiosity. Tension occurs when the reader is engaged on both the levels of gut and brain, which means that feeling developed previously for the character will make the reader to care what happens and experience the emotions of the fictional figure. Beyond that, curiosity is aroused when the brain is stimulated, and the reader wants to know how the situation will resolve logically. Amazingly, by conjuring up the images brought to us through print, the human mind and heart can empathize to the point of a racing pulse or the urge to check locked windows and doors. This is what we writers hope for!


Jeremy L. C. Jones is a freelance writer, editor, and teacher.  He is the staff Interviewer for Clarkesworld Magazine and a frequent contributor to Kobold Quarterly.  He teaches at Wofford College and Montessori Academy in Spartanburg, SC.  He is also the director of Shared Worlds, a creative writing and world-building camp for teenagers that he and Jeff VanderMeer designed in 2006.

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