Sunday, February 19, 2023

On The Edge of Your Seat

How to create suspense in crime fiction

Zoë Sharp


A few tips for crime fiction, which I was asked to provide for a writing event recently. They were sparked by the question of what you do to keep your reader on the edge of their seat, turning the pages as fast as they can manage.


And, having written these tips down, it seemed a shame not to share them here. Your own pearls of wisdom gratefully received!


Write the jacket copy first.

When I am putting together the idea for a crime thriller or mystery, the first thing I usually do is write my own jacket copy. Sometimes also called the flap copy, this is the brief outline of the type you’d find on the back of a paperback, or the inside flap of a hardback. (Occasionally, people refer to this as the blurb, but to me those are the quotes on the cover.)


Writing your own jacket copy forces you to focus on the theme of the book, and the conflict at its heart. The stronger the idea, generally, the more simply it can be expressed. I try to hone and modify the jacket copy as I go along. It helps to remind me what I set out to achieve in the beginning.


It may well not make it onto the finished cover, but it’s more for your own benefit than anyone else’s. It also comes in very handy during the writing process, when somebody asks, “So, what’s your latest book about?” if you have a short, snappy and intriguing bit of copy to quote from. Always leave ’em wanting more.


Keep a summary as you go.

Regardless of whether you plot carefully before you begin, or you write by the seat of your pants, I’d always advise keeping a summary as you go along. When I’ve finished a chapter or scene, I jot down the main points and the gist of the dialogue, together with any story threads I’ve laid in that I’ll need to remember to tie up later. After once managing to include a nine-day week in an early book, I also mark time changes—Day 3, late morning, rain, for example. And I keep a note of how closely the opening of this scene follows the end of the last one.


Doing all this not only allows me to keep track of the timescale of my book, but also when I need to interweave different things happening in different places at the same time without my head exploding. In the latest book, I have time jumps as well as quick location changes. This leads to lots of opportunities for things to go Horribly Wrong.


But the biggest help in having a summary comes at the editing stage. In the case of the last book, the editor and I could work out most of the structural alterations on the 33-page summary, without having to wade through 300 pages of typescript. It made everyone’s life so much easier.


What’s in a name?

I have always found names hugely important in establishing character in the shortest time with the least effort. A William is a different person toWill, or a Billy. Just as an Elizabeth is a different person toLiz, or a Betty. In my last book, I had two women called Virginia and Pauline. One was the local lady of the manor, while the other was the cleaner at the pub. It probably would have worked to reverse the names, but not without some kind of explanation, I feel.


When I start to make notes for a new book, I usually jot an alphabet across the page, with a mark above a letter for a character with a first name beginning with that letter, and a mark below for last names beginning with that letter.


This lets me see, at a glance, if I’ve accidentally given characters names that are too similar, and which letters of the alphabet are free to use for new or minor characters. I also keep a cast list in my notes, which I add to as new people arrive. An added bonus is that, when I’m in contact with the producer of the audiobook, I already have a complete character list to hand, which I can go through to make notes for accents, etc.


Make every character count.

Unlike writing for TV, where scripted dialogue for minor characters ups the production cost, in the pages of a book everyone has a chance to speak. I try to make every character into a real person rather than a cipher for the plot. Several characters in my latest book have only one scene, but I try to make it count, and to make them memorable—a female truck driver called Big Frankie; a housebound elderly Russian émigré who uses the BBC Radio 3 classical playlist to pinpoint times and dates; an expert witness cheerfully discussing murder over lunch. They all deserve the best I can give them.


Dressing and driving.

Likewise, the clothes your character wears can say a lot about them very quickly. Are they cheap or expensive? Are they too tight, or hanging off, and what does that tell you about that person’s recent circumstances? Are they suitable for the occasion, or hopelessly under or over-dressed? Raymond Chandler opened The Big Sleep by describing PI Philip Marlowe down to the motif on his socks. Normally, I don’t feel the urge to go quite that far.


Likewise, the kind of car the character drives—and the way they drive it—is indicative of who they are, or who they want to be perceived to be. A particular character in the last book appeared in one scene trying to keep a low profile, so he arrived in a battered old Japanese saloon car. Later, when he was aiming to intimidate, he turned up in a Bentley. This raised immediate questions about how he earned enough money to afford it. (Or, these days, to afford to fill it with fuel.)


Use all your senses.

We tend to describe what we can see and hear when we write, but not always what we can feel or smell. I had one of my main protagonists wake sweating in the early hours of the morning because he was plagued by nightmares, for example, not because it’s high summer. Indeed, that book took place in winter, with cold temperatures to match. In another scene, a handful of bay leaves scattered onto a wood-burning stove released the scent of their perfumed oil into a room to create a warm and comforting air.


Get into a scene late, get out of it early.

My final tip for writing a crime novel would be to get into a scene as late as you can, and get out of it early. Sometimes it’s tempting to work your way into a scene by showing your characters travelling and arriving. Unless that journey serves a purpose, it’s almost always better to begin with them already in a location, talking to someone they need information from—sometimes even in mid-conversation. I love to hit the ground running with my stories, and grab the reader right from the start.


This week’s Word of the Week is bystanderism, which is the phenomenon where we do not help someone we’ve come across who apparently needs help. We may be less likely to help when there are other people present—passive bystanders—who we may feel should do so. We may tell ourselves, If they’re not helping, perhaps we’re mistaken and nothing is wrong. So, the more people around who could help, the less likely that any will help.



In March, Zoë Sharp will be one of the Derbyshire authors taking part in Author Assemble. “This is a literary event, showcasing the work of authors who are local to the High Peak or who have supported and worked with the Buxton Crescent Heritage Trust. The aim is to bring writers from a variety of genres together under one roof, to shine a light on the former use of the Assembly Rooms as Buxton’s town library from 1972 to 1992—a time which many local residents remember fondly. We aim to give authors the opportunity to share their work with new audiences, gives talks about their writing and of course sell their products. Attendees will also be introduced to the work of the Buxton Crescent Heritage Trust and enjoy some time inside the splendour of the Crescent’s Assembly Rooms.” Time and date: Friday, March 17 2023, 10:00 – 17:00 at The Assembly Rooms, The Crescent, Buxton, SK17 6BH. Speakers, signing, and stalls. More details to follow.


In April, Zoë Sharp will be appearing with Caro Ramsay and Sarah Ward at Ceredigion Museum in Aberystwyth as part of the Gŵyl Crime Cymru Festival. Their panel will be Event 6: Trade Secrets, 10:15 – 11:15 on Saturday, April 22 2023. “Writing a long series, has its own difficulties, as does writing under two names in two different directions. How do you keep track? What are the things you know from your other lives that you bring to your writing? Learn a few trade secrets from three of the best. Panellists: Caro Ramsay, Zoë Sharp. Chair: Sarah Ward. Close Up Reader: Nigel Williams.”



  1. Zoë, I follow much the same approach as you, though not in your organized manner. For example, I do not write the jacket copy first, but I do focus intently on my opening paragraph(s) and through that process find hints on the direction my characters want the plot go. Also, I don't do summaries until I have a firmer fix on where everything (and everyone) is headed.

    I sure wish I could make it to your appearance with Caro and Sarah. I'm sure it will be a BLAST.

    1. Thanks, Jeff. What an interesting process you have. I often think, though, that there are as many different ways of writing as there are writers!

      I'm very much looking forward to seeing both Caro and Sarah in Wales, and I may sneak in a visit to Portmeirion while I'm on the west coast...

  2. Zoë, what a perfect masterclass of a post. There are so many things here that are great reminders for me as well as things I try to emphasize with my screenwriting students, as much of this applies to scripts as well. And most of my students never believe me when I tell them how vital it is that character names don't start with the same letter. If it's all right, I will quote you this week, as perhaps they will listen to a more august source!

    1. Thank you so much for the kind words, Wendall! As well as names starting with the same letter, I try to avoid names that have the same number of letters, or a similar suffix or prefix, just to make them really discrete. No good if you're setting your book in somewhere like Iceland, however!

      Lol on the 'august source' but I hope it comes in useful.

  3. Great piece Zoe. If I were a writer I’d follow you all the way. But I only translate. ;-(

    1. Thank you, Henrik! You have my admiration -- translation is a highly skilled art form in itself.

  4. what is a Close Up Reader?
    I would love to visit Wales one day.
    One of my pet peeves is authors who give names with the same beginning letters: Peter, Pauline,Priscilla in one book…

    1. To be honest, Marcia, I was hoping you might be able to tell me what a Close Up Reader was! But, as Nigel Williams was listed as such on the programme page, I thought it only polite to include his name, and I look forward to finding out his role when I get to the event.

      I did once come across a book where every character's name began with the same letter. The book was set in a country I had yet to visit at the time I read it, so I wondered if it was a cultural thing, but then the author had included an ex-pat American character, and his name began with the same letter, too!

      Wales is a beautiful country. I haven't been since the start of lockdown and I can't wait to go back.

  5. Great post, Zoë. Good advice is rare and hard to come by (as opposed to bad advice, which sprouts from every crack and cranny). (And, no, I wasn't referring to you, Jeff.)

    1. Thank you, EvKa. I take that as compliment indeed. And some of the most memorable advice I've ever received was from Jeff, several years ago in Iceland.

    2. Marvelous, Zoe. For me, the thing you do, absolutely marvelously, is create a main character who seems so real, and though flawed likable , that when you put her in a tight spot, I can’t wait to find out how she gets out of it, and as the tension grows to worry and speed ahead to make sure that she isn’t going to get badly injured! That anxiety for an imaginary person, I think, makes for the best thrillers. AA

    3. Yeah, sure you weren't EvKa. I believe you, I'm somewhat of a liar myself. :)

  6. Thank you so much, Annamaria. From a fellow writer that is praise indeed, and I'm honoured.

    1. In the words of Sergeant Joe Friday of “Dragnet” – one of the first, perhaps the very first famous TV detective – “Just the facts, ma’am.”