A suspense story is unlike any other fiction. The plot entices, the characters connect, but that unique sense of intrigue comes from something illogical, almost magic: the art of the reveal.
Magicians also create intrigue and for centuries have developed techniques for building suspense into their acts. They tantalize our curiosity with illusions passed down through generations. Mystery authors like myself can learn a lot about suspense from them. In Christopher Nolan's 2006 film, The Prestige, screenwriters put forth three fictional parts to a good magic trick. I use them in crafting my reveal:
The Pledge: When opening an illusion, the magician presents an ordinary object. The audience gets to wonder what the trickster might do with it.
In a mystery, the author first builds an ordinary connection between the main character and the reader. Whether the protagonist is a powerful queen or an aspiring artist, I give her an ordinary trait my reader can connect with. Like the magician's pledge, this connection builds suspense. The reader can't help but wonder what's going to happen to her.
The Turn: The magician now takes that object and does something extraordinary with it. Illogical, unbelievable, the turn must amaze the audience.
In the same way, the inciting incident of a mystery has to leave the reader intrigued. After being exposed to so many books and films, the average reader expects the unexpected so my mystery has to turn the corner to extraordinary.
The Prestige: This is the trickiest, most dangerous part of any illusion. The magician must elevate his illusion to a climax, then restore that ordinary object, the original pledge.
Like any showman, the mystery author has to utilize his full arsenal of tricks to pull off the prestige. Our pledged character must somehow restore normalcy–a sense of safety or justice–by making it ordinary again. The solution to the mystery is called “the reveal”, but I still pull out an illusionist's trunk of magic techniques to craft my reveal like a prestige:
Architecture (e.g., trap doors, false locks, etc.): Just as the magician's assistant helps the masquerade by working the secret architecture backstage, my characters all have their own roles to play outside of the main storyline. Most mysteries work with first person or limited third person POV for this very reason. Any character not present in the current scene is up to something–building an architecture of illusion.
Sleight of Hand: In the same way a magician uses quick movements or distractions to pull off a deception, I use fast twists and red herrings to distract the reader.
Smoke and Mirrors: By hiding important clues within irrelevent action, I can create a feeling of intrigue. Secondary, mirror characters can both highlight and build friction with the protagonist and antagonist.
Humor: Laughter takes a person out of their logical mindset. Anything's possible in a joke.
At the end, the Aha! comes when the reader delights in the fact that she didn't figure out the puzzle, but now can see my carefully laid clues before her. She didn't really want to solve the mystery too early. She wanted to be fooled, fairly.
"The audience knows the truth: the world is simple. It's miserable, solid all the way through. But if you could fool them, even for a second, then you can make them wonder, and then you... then you got to see something really special... it was the look on their faces... " -- from The Prestige, 2006
Lucie Smoker's imagination grew up in a Little House on the Prairie and at 221B Baker Street. Her best friends were her little sister Minnie, The Hardy Boys, and The Count of Monte Cristo. Like them, she followed a path of adventure, sometimes intrigue, but then she fell in love and finally found home down a long, empty road. Lucie loves to connect with readers through Twitter, Facebook, and Goodreads. Her debut mystery, Distortion, is available worldwide in paperback, or electronically in Kindle, and Nook from Buzz Books USA.