Gene Grossman, author of the popular 15-book series of Peter Sharp Legal Mysteries feels that Suspense is an important element to any book in the mystery genre, and is setting forth his thoughts on the matter for all prospective authors to read.

He covers Suspense and many other topics in his book How to Write A Mystery Novel, detailed below the text on the his page, along with links to his complete series.

There are definitely several essentials in any mystery novel, and one extra that can add some spice… and unlike a film, it's not necessarily sex, nudity or violence - it's suspense. In addition to good creation of plot, characters, main antagonist and dialogue, suspense can be the extra hook.

Alfred Hitchcock did a great job of it in the movies, but it can also be done in literature, in a less visual manner, because the author must set the scene before the reader can visualize it as he or she reads the book. Hitchcock defined suspense as the mood generated when the audience can see danger that the characters in the film cannot see.

In a film, suspense can easily be generated when the audience can see that bad guy standing behind a door, his arm up in the air holding a blackjack, as the hero slowly enters the room - completely unaware that he's going to get conked on the head… and a competent film composer will add a 'somethin's gonna happen' musical cue to heighten the mood.

The director might make the hero stop for a second just before entering 'blackjack range,' to answer his cell phone and tell the caller that he's got everything under control, and is just about to enter the room to find some clue - while at the same time, the bad guy smirks at the hero's cluelessness. Then the hero steps another inch or two and looks around, giving the audience a chance to uncontrollably shout out to him "watch out - behind the door!"

This doesn't mean that a clock has to actually be 'ticking,' it's just a generic descriptive word that pertains to the classic spy movies where the hero must disarm some explosive device as movie audience sees a close-up of the digital read-out on a bomb quickly counting down to explosion time.

Hitchcock wasn't the first guy to recognize the importance of suspense: according to Greek philosopher Aristotle in his book Poetics, suspense is an important building block of literature. In very broad terms, it consists of having some real danger looming - and a ray of hope.

Here are a few of the most common forms used in old movies that I'm sure you've seen over and over again:

  • Doctors rushing to find a cure for the stricken victim [Hugh Laurie and his team in House];
  • Detective who just figured out who the killer is, rushing to save his female partner, who is out on a date with the bad guy - or save the next unsuspecting innocent victim;
  • Cavalry riding to save the circled wagon train being attacked by Indians;
  • Death-sentence convict in the 'chair,' waiting for the governor to call with a reprieve;
  • Hero rushing to rescue heroine that mustached villain has tied to the railroad tracks;
  • Rescuers desperately searching for the victim who has been:
    • Kidnapped and in danger of being killed
    • Buried alive and running out of oxygen
    • Trapped down a well with no means of escape
  • Of course, no successful outcome to any drawn-out movie suspense situation is worth its salt unless when it finally ends, it is accompanied by some triumphant music - the type that will encourage the audience to cheer the wonderful conclusion to the situation.

    Here are a few of the most common forms used in old movies that I'm sure you've seen over and over again:Unfortunately, with today's existing technology, we can't play music for the book reader [I'm sure that Amazon or Apple will come up with it soon], so we have to do our best by describing the reactions of people when the bomb is defused, or the wagon train, kid, hero, heroine, or whatever, is finally rescued and the threat is over.

    I remember one old movie starring Doris Day [Julie] in which she was put into the situation of being required to land an airliner, after something disabled the pilot. She must rely only on the instructions received over the radio from ground control. This is a great suspense shtick for a movie, and has been used quite often, but doesn't work that well in book form.

    Other similar types of plots have involved situations where normal people are put into positions that are dangerous, and it looks doubtful they will survive the challenges presented.

    This type of suspense usually befalls the person who is asked to do something risky:

  • Foreign-language-speaking person sent behind enemy lines;
  • Acquaintance of the bad guy being asked to 'wear a wire';
  • The wrong person being questioned by bad guys (mistaken identity routine);
  • Anne Frank, hiding in the attic, from Nazis;
  • Cary Grant in Arsenic and Old Lace, learning about the bodies in the basement
  • One suspenseful situation that gripped me the most was watching a group of men casually strolling down a small road. That sounds pretty innocent unless you've watched the movie up to that point and know that this is taking place during World War II, and these men are Allied soldiers trying to escape a German prison camp. They are wearing hand-made copies of German uniforms and are attempting to escape the camp by casually walking out through the front gate.

    The suspense builds with each step they take, as you can see the expressions on their faces and also those on the faces of the real uniformed German soldiers they slowly pass by. If you can put yourself in the same situation, you might understand the control they must execute as they approach the gate, to keep themselves from breaking out into a mad dash to freedom, all the time knowing that at any second they could all be shot in the back by suspicious guards up in the tower.

    In one of the comedic screenplays I wrote, in order to qualify for a large inheritance, a man must become married by 6:15 PM of a certain day. He is aware of that fact, and makes every effort to find a suitable mate and have the wedding ceremony on the last day of the deadline period… at 12 noon, on a tropical Hawaiian-type island. But - unknownst to the groom, his late benefactor's Will was written and signed in New York, in a completely different time zone, which means that if the wedding is delayed one second past 12:15PM (Island time), it will occur too late, because the governing time is that of where the Will was written.

    As you would expect, one slapstick thing after another takes place around 11:30AM on the island, but the clueless groom isn't worried, thinking that he has until 6:15 that evening to tie the knot… but the audience knows about the 'ticking clock,' and they're sitting on the edge of their seats hoping that the groom gets his act together in time to beat the New York time deadline… and every time he says something like "what's the problem? We've got another six hours…" the audience wants to shout out to the screen "no you don't!"

    As shown in the above wedding example, suspense doesn't necessarily have to depend on life-or-death, because the bottom line is that Hitchcock was correct: all you need is for any position of peril that the audience is aware of, but that the character/s in the book or movie have no idea of - and then you have suspense, and it's really good to insert a little of it into your book, even if it's a comedy.

    In my 15 Peter Sharp Legal Mystery series, the main device for building suspense is a ticking clock: the upcoming trial date, with attorney Peter Sharp having no idea how to put on any effective defense for his client - always hoping that little Suzi, his 12-year-old computer-genius legal ward, comes up with a last-minute solution to the crime.

    In my book How to Write a Mystery Novel, I cover suspense and also discuss topics like creating and naming the characters, the 'unwritten rules' about crime-solving, plus answers to the most asked questions about creating a mystery and its logical solution. It is the perfect book if you enjoy reading mysteries - especially if once in a while you feel that the solution is so obvious that you say to yourself, "I believe I could write one of these."

    There's a good possibility that you probably can, but it's nice to have a real pro give you a private tutoring session, pointing out things to do and things to avoid, along with plenty of tips that can make your job a lot easier… so I strongly suggest you not only read every mystery you can get your hands on, but also read How to Write a Mystery Novel, now available in print eBook and audiobook, to give you a behind-the-scenes look at the creation of a crime series.

    Back to the Mystery page

    How To Write a Mystery Novel
    How To Write a Mystery Novel
    Behind the Scenes: Creating a Crime Series
    By Gene Grossman

    Gene Grossman created the popular 15-book series of Peter Sharp Legal Mysteries, each one with a crime that stumps the authorities and defense attorney Peter Sharp.

    Fortunately, Peter has a 12-year-old legal ward named Suzi, who just happens to be a computer whiz, with a mind that works a lot faster than the adults involved in each case, so she usually solves the crime and lets Peter take the credit.

    If you enjoy reading mysteries and want to try your hand at creating one - or a series - on your own, you will find this book a valuable aid, because it reveals Gene's thought processes as he created the books, and provides you with valuable information that will help you with your own writing efforts.

    Also included are some 'insider' tips on printing, marketing, distribution, and much, much more.

    As an extra bonus, the book also contains the first chapters from many of the Peter Sharp Legal Mysteries (detailed below), so you can have some idea of how to 'grab' a reader's attention while they're browsing in a bookstore.

       READ the
    1st 2 chapters
    Paperback    Kindle    Non-Kindle AudioBook

    More Magic Lamp Productions Websites & Products

    bullet Learn Celestial Navagation bullet How To Write a Mystery Novel

    bullet Author Producer Gene Grossman bullet Learn How To Sail Better

    bullet Know Your Legal Rights DVDs bullet Build A Website bullet FAQ

    bullet Locked-Room Mysteries bullet Deposition Preparation bullet Bankruptcy

    bullet Learn Coastal Piloting bullet Learn Boat Handling bullet  Wedding Planning DVD

    bullet Digital Downloads bullet Learning Sign Language DVDs bullet  USCG DVDs  

    bullet Real Estate Appraisal bullet Buying Foreclosures bullet Magic Lamp Press

    Serving the public from Venice, California since 1979  
    All book orders are processed and shipped by’s CreateSpace division