Guest Post: Author Laura McNeill’s 11 Tips For Writing Domestic Suspense

Center of Gravity 2It’s summer and domestic suspense is HOT! What makes me want a guest post about domestic suspense on WFW? Because many of these novels today feature women as their protagonists, and when you read Laura McNeill’s post, you’ll see how the advice transcends any strict genre lines you (we!) may have conjured up in our heads. I mean, who doesn’t want some suspense in any novel? If all the answers are right there, why bother turning the page?  My favorite bit of advice below is #7—Make Things Worse, because that’s the hardest part for me and I know how important it is.  Which piece of writing advice speaks to you? Please tell us in the comments! And most importantly, today is pub day for Laura’s CENTER OF GRAVITY!!! Congratulations, Laura!!

Amy xo

11 TIPS FOR WRITING DOMESTIC SUSPENSE  by Laura McNeill Center of Gravity 2A certain air of mystery and magic surrounds this whole writing business. Certainly, some authors are practically born into brilliance and fame, but for the rest of us mere mortals, there’s no secret formula, pixie dust, or wand that makes novels out of thin air. I still consider myself lucky. Story ideas simply arrive in my brain. Sometimes the notions trickle in; sometimes they swarm like hornets. For me, story ideas are the easy part. You can think about story ideas like presents. They arrive in lovely packages with ribbons and bows. On the surface, they look perfect; pristine. Peel back the scotch tape, remove the tissue paper, and you might find a diamond in the rough. Sometimes, all you get, though, is an ugly sweater from Aunt Mildred. The good news? There’s always another idea. And another. Until you land on “the one” — the idea you can’t let go of; the idea that speaks to you at night and draws you to your keyboard. That’s when the real work begins. For suspense authors, in particular, the next 80-90,000 words are tricky and challenging. After all, once writers have captured readers’ attention, it’s their job to keep readers off balance and guessing until the bitter end. Think about domestic suspense novels like a family road trip gone horribly wrong. You have your destination set, a GPS to guide the way, and a full tank of gas. The bags are packed, the kids are buckled in tight, and so far, they’re not fighting. Life is good, the sun is shining, and traffic is light. A few miles in, boom! A log truck overturns, there’s an earthquake, or better yet, an escaped convict runs out of the woods…straight into the path of your car. Life, as your characters know it, turns upside down in an instant. A good start, but how does an author keep readers up past midnight? Here are 11 suggestions for doing just that.

  1. Character – Create characters your readers care about. Make your protagonist likable and relatable; not perfect. Develop slightly heroic traits without being sappy. An underdog is fine, as is a James Bond-like character, as long as he (or she) has a few flaws.
  2. An Inciting Incident – In the beginning of the book, whatever the character is dreaming about, hoping for, or expects disappears in an instant. Gone is the protagonist’s comfort zone and familiar world. Enter a brand new set of problems to be solved.
  3. Conflict – The problems introduced can’t be a few bumps in the road. They are life-altering changes. The new situation disrupts your character’s world entirely, like being dropped into a new country where the character doesn’t speak the language (and oh yes, with snipers or serial killers around every corner)
  4. A Goal – Your character must have a goal, and there must be consequences for not reaching it. Think about Katniss Everdeen inThe Hunger Games. After volunteering as tribute to protect the life of her sister, Prim, Katniss must fight to the death. Before she leaves for the Capitol, Katniss promises she’ll try and win the Games, a seemingly insurmountable task.
  5. Doubt – Character flaws should cause moments of self-doubt. That doubt could be caused by a bad childhood, a secret, or a scary incident from the past. It could root from a beating or a bad relationship. In moments of great conflict or despair, those flaws and doubts will test your character’s strength and will.
  6. Dialogue – Keep it real. Dialogue should be current and authentic to the time period, location, and culture. Listen to how people speak. They don’t converse in complete sentences. They interrupt. They argue. They kiss and make up. They do not sit around, drink tea, and talk about the weather.
  7. Make things worse – Take away someone your character trusts. Cut off the character’s support system and have the main character feel and grieve that loss. Pile on the setbacks and problems, and you’ll ramp up tension with each new layer.
  8. Leave Early – Especially if you’re an author who writes stories with multiple points of view (POV), end a chapter’s action early. Make your reader wait through the next narrator’s chapter to find out “what happened.”
  9. Don’t Info Dump – Especially in the first fifty pages, leave out back story. There’s no need to share your character’s entire life history, down to the socks he wore in the third grade. It’s much more exciting to add details on a need-to-know basis for the reader. Maintain a little mystery and dole out information in tiny bites.
  10. Offer the unexpected – Stir curiosity by having a character react in a different manner than your reader might expect. Write in a twist. Surprise them with a new character. Provide a puzzle that needs a solution. Present a new dilemma prior to the climax, so that the character has a moment when he or she feels all is lost. This makes the conclusion so much sweeter.
  11. A satisfying ending – Allow your character to change and grow. Let your hero or heroine learn a lesson. It’s gratifying to have a character become smarter, stronger, and wiser, but, again, not perfect. A satisfying ending can leave a few loose ends.

Ready to try your hand at domestic suspense? Go ahead, find your story idea. Look among the presents, unwap with care, and check for ugly sweaters. If you happen to find a magic wand, let me know! I’ll be up; reading past midnight. Laura McNeillLaura adores hot coffee, good manners, the color pink, and novels that keep her reading past midnight. She believes in the beauty of words, paying it forward, and that nerds rule the world. Laura is a fan of balmy summer nights, fireflies, and pristine mountain lakes. She lives in Mobile, Alabama with her two sons. You can find Laura Tweeting @Lauramcneillbks and blogging at Order Center of Gravity on Amazon.


10 thoughts on “Guest Post: Author Laura McNeill’s 11 Tips For Writing Domestic Suspense

  1. Laura, I don’t know what pleases me more: the metaphor about swarming hornets or the one about unwrapping story ideas like Christmas presents. Both are so great, and there is LOTS of wonderful advice here. Thank you–and thanks, Amy, for another terrific interview!


  2. Great list and applicable to many genres. I am restructuring a straightforward autobiography I wrote for a client into a medical memoir and see how I might apply all these points to introduce more drama and tension into the story. Thanks!


  3. Amy – I cannot thank you enough for the opportunity to write this guest post. I had a great time putting it together and it was an excellent refresher course for me, as well! Appreciate your kindness re: my new release! Can’t wait for THE GOOD NEIGHBOR!!! xxx, Laura


  4. Pingback: Weekly Roundup of History, Archaeology and Writing Wisdom July 18-24 | Judith Starkston

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