Surprises and Suspense: SCBWI Highlights

Karen Cushman spoke to us about the importance of courting surprises in our writing. One of her best tips is “Don’t fear surprise, welcome it.” Sometimes we have no idea why something comes unbidden. But it’s okay to stray from our outline. She advised that we “ask the questions we don’t know the answers to.”

What I appreciated about her talk was that she made a point of saying that we “are not channeling someone” nor is there “a muse at work.” We as writers do it unwittingly. Sometimes we leave clues in our own writing about what will happen. We just have to look for them. We prepare ourselves for the surprises.

Jay Asher is one of my favorite workshop teachers at the entire conference. He conveyed so much useful knowledge while constantly engaging the audience. If you get the chance to hear him speak, GO!

He really made us think about how to inject suspense into any type of book. One of the key takeaways was the importance of ANTICIPATION. The reader is waiting for something to happen, something that is supposed to happen, and eventually it has to happen to satisfy the reader.

He mentioned how with Twilight the back cover created anticipation about the vampire discovery. The first 10 pages of the book are all about the weather and setting, but it makes it the perfect place for a vampire, which the reader know to anticipate because of the back cover.

In terms of how to inject suspense at the end of a chapter, he advised that writers can: cut the action early, hint at the story to come, or have multiple narrators so the chapter end is a bit of a story cliffhanger.

My favorite quote? “It’s our fault, but their problem when a reader is up all night reading our book.”

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16 Responses to Surprises and Suspense: SCBWI Highlights

  1. Elliot says:

    Definitely building those hints of what is to come is a great tip. For me it is something I don’t think of in the first instance, and have to remind myself to do it, but it is one of the most important things.

  2. Carrie Rubin says:

    It can be tricky to build suspense. I find myself wondering if what I’ve written is truly suspenseful, or if instead the reader will say, “Enough already–get to the good stuff.”

  3. Cat Forsley says:

    Hey Miss K
    It’s been forever
    love love and thanks that award a long time ago
    this one has no rules ๐Ÿ™‚ YAY
    just fun and love xoxoxo
    best always xo

  4. jmmcdowell says:

    It’s sometimes hard for me to tell if what I’ve written comes across as a hint or a dead giveaway. That’s one area where I need good test reader inputs!

    • Laying breadcrumbs is tough. Sometimes you can come out and say something and then let the reader anticipate it. Let them wait for the big reveal between the characters but allow them to be in on it the whole time. ๐Ÿ™‚ Betas definitely help.

  5. 4amWriter says:

    Yes, setting up a mystery is very tough to do. I think I’m either too obvious or not obvious enough. But I can’t resist having those mysterious characters with shady motivations–so I keep plugging away and hopefully spin something that meets the right balance.

    Interesting about Karen Cushman’s take on the muse. That one I have to ponder, because I feel like I have a creative self that is apart from my logical self. While I need both to pull together a story it is my creative self that I would refer to as my ‘muse’ (or other less glamorous names if she’s not helpful). And my muse is what I rely on to bring the story to life. But I still think it’s me at work. I’m simply using a different part of my brain and my heart.

    • It’s funny because as I rework my manuscript I struggle with laying the groundwork vs. being redundant. I think it’s really really tough. Kinda like flirting. Show a little interest but don’t show exactly how interested you are. ๐Ÿ˜› I guess it’s something we master over time.

      I think your muse is very different from what she was talking about. She meant muse in the sense of something independent and outside of us that we are dependent on and cannot write without, but have zero control over. I don’t believe in the muse in that sense. I like your idea of the muse as the creative part of you and I think she would like that definition because it is part of you. She seemed to want to remind us that our stories come from us. ๐Ÿ™‚

  6. “Don’t fear surprise.” I love that, and the point about not being afraid to ask questions we don’t have answers to. I’m loaded with those as I write, so it’s affirming to hear a professional say, “Go for it!”

    Asher sounds wise and dynamic, too. That last quote should be tweeted around the Twitter-verse and stitched on writers’ pillows. ๐Ÿ˜‰

    Thanks for sharing SCBWI with us, Kourtney. You rock!

    • Cushman was a fantastic and uplifting way to start the morning. ๐Ÿ™‚ It’s always the nagging questions that improve the book. ๐Ÿ™‚

      I thought Asher gave the best workshop of the weekend. I love love loved that quote too! Made me smile and think of all the authors who kept me up at night.

      Glad to pass along the highlights. It was a powerhouse of a conference. Might be my last conference for a while as I head into revisions for the fall/winter. ๐Ÿ™‚ But what a way to end the conference year!

  7. Yes, “courting surprises” is very important…and so are catchy phrases (like “courting surprises”), when writing a blog post ๐Ÿ™‚ Nice job, as always, Kourtney!

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