Bryn Chancellor's riveting and suspenseful debut novel, Sycamore, is about a woman named Jess who disappears in a small town in Arizona. Eighteen years later, human bones are discovered in a dry streambed near the town's college campus. Are they Jess's remains? Chancellor employs multiple perspectives and shifting time periods to reveal what happened to Jess. Chancellor shares what exactly makes suspense work.
When I started writing Sycamore, I stumbled into a mystery (Bones? What the—?) that I had no idea how to solve and had to work backward to discover what the heck happened. This isn’t uncommon for me. In every story, I’m feeling my way through the dark terrain, lost and lurching, trying to get my feet under me. When I reach the end of a draft, I’m panting, scraped up, bruised in tender places. Despite years of studying craft, fiction writing remains a baffling endeavor. What strange alchemy: we writers conjure something in our imaginations, somehow wrestle it into words and sentences, and then readers, as if bewitched, translate it into their own imagined versions, which they believe.
When I’m puzzling over writing, I go small—to the word. The OED tells us suspense is, in part, “a state of mental uncertainty, with expectation of or desire for decision, and usually some apprehension or anxiety; the condition of waiting, esp. of being kept waiting, for an expected decision, assurance, or issue.” As writers, then, our task is to create those sensations—uncertainty, expectation, desire, apprehension, anxiety, waiting—in readers. Through mere words and sentences. That somehow they will translate and believe.
All novels and stories, no matter the subject or genre, contain in their DNA some element of suspense. Plot means what happens. Readers are uncertain at the beginning—what will happen?—but expect they will find out, and so they wait.
But that’s not enough. What about desire, apprehension, and anxiety?
I think of the opening of Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin, in part because it depicts literal suspense: Phillip Petit’s famed tightrope walk between the twin towers of the World Trade Center in 1974, the moment before he steps onto the wire. In the scene, onlookers stand riveted, suspended in time, as they watch a person suspended on the edge of a building; readers, too, holds their breath as the thrilling scene unfolds.
The urgency of the situation—the man on the building and the question of whether or not he’ll fall—is only part of what creates suspense. Many other elements—the bird’s eye point of view, the hyper-detailing that magnifies New York and its people, the dark humor, the lyrical language and slowed time—deepen the reader’s apprehension and anxiety. And desire: by the time I reach the line “Out he went,” I never want to set this book down again. I feel its pull in my body, a shiver: I believe. And I turn the page.
For heightened suspense, we want readers to do more than just expect and wait; we want them to worry about what happens—or, in Aristotle’s terms from The Poetics, we want to evoke pity and fear. Such anxiety stems not just from what happens, but to whom it happens, and where and when it happens, and what changes when and if it happens, and how it’s told along the way. No matter how exciting the plot-turns and revelations, readers must be invested on multiple levels: with characters, setting, style, point of view, and voice. In other words, all those other complicated, hair-pulling parts of making a story.
Sycamore has a whopping thirteen points of view, a cast of small-town characters who revolve around a key figure: Jess Winters, a teenager who disappeared one night eighteen years earlier. Beside the problem of managing the number of voices, the bigger question plaguing me was how to make these individual characters matter to the reader as I moved toward solving the mystery. Yes, they were entwined with Jess’s story, but I needed to know their own concerns and desires and fears beyond her. Jess especially needed this attention. Her absence makes her larger than life, but I also had to convey who she was to herself before she mattered to those missing her. If I didn’t dig deeper, I risked creating suspense based merely on trope—the missing girl—which might feel at best shallow, at worst manipulative.
Sycamore has been called “atmospheric,” a word that for me entwines mood and setting. Sycamore takes place in the Arizona high desert where I grew up, a peculiar and tense landscape—a place of contradictions, both tough and fragile, a ferocious beauty. In the book, you’ll find sinkholes, jagged outcrops, spiny bushes, desert washes, intense heat, summer storms, and wide flat skies. I didn’t sprinkle these details in, thinking, Ha! This’ll add suspense! Instead, I had to make readers see the specific landscape as well as keep the story moving. I had to ask, How is the character acting in/reacting to that space, and why? Is she, in Janet Burroway’s terms from Writing Fiction, in harmony or in conflict with it? How am I engaging the senses—can the reader smell the sluggish river or feel the shards of the slag heap? Setting and description are not filler; they amplify tension and character and keep the reader in the grip of the story.
Suspense, as we unspool our plots, comes from the interplay of the known and unknown, the desire for answers coupled with the pleasure of waiting. Thus, pacing toward the climax/revelation matters. We want to give clues and suggestions with careful touches, letting the reader piece together facts and connections. At the same time, we’re also laying in clues that readers won’t recognize until the climactic turn. One of the greatest joys as a reader in the moment of truth is the utter surprise that simultaneously makes exact sense, because we finally recognize what we had missed but had been clearly there. Misdirection and hiding in plain sight: the magician’s tools, and yes, this move feels like a bit of magic—but not a cheat. The resolution must stem from the terms established throughout the story. Having my editors and trusted readers gauge this pacing for me was invaluable; even in a late version, a reader suggested I was tipping my hand too soon—and she was right. I rearranged the chapter to suspend the information just a bit longer.
I keep thinking of how the definition of suspense also eerily evokes the writing process: uncertainty, expectation, desire, apprehension or anxiety, the condition of waiting. Those qualities propel me as I try to decipher and construct the fragments of a story I want to tell. The enigmatic work of making a story—suspended in imagination with only words to find your way—never fails to mesmerize me. Not to mention the mystery of what a story becomes in readers’ minds. Imaginations entwined, that strange alchemy. Can I keep them under the story’s spell long enough to transport them—even transform them? Can I make them believe this is gold?