Writing Suspense

James Patterson

Lesson time 10:22 min

The secret to suspense is...

James Patterson
Teaches Writing
James teaches you how to create characters, write dialogue, and keep readers turning the page.
Get Started


Obviously with mystery and suspense it's all about suspense. It's constant non-ending fireworks. It's an adventure that starts and it's going to hold you at the edge you see right to the end. It starts big, it gets even bigger. What happened. Who done it. And the more questions, the better. If there are three or four questions in the book, are these two going to get together? Are they going to separate? What is going to happen in this family if you set up family turmoil? Are we going to find the missing child? And it's got to be genuine. If feels like just somebody throwing in devices, if you feel the manipulation, you lose them there, too. If the reader's going, this is just crap. This is just the usual. Somebody's trying to manipulate me. People kind of want to be manipulated, but they want it done well. If you're going to write something in the genre of mystery suspense, I think you kind of got to be aware of what's out there. Not to imitate it, to avoid it. Because I mean one of things you can do, let's say you don't really write thrillers, but I know I can do it because I'm smart and whatever. But I never read any or have read four. There's a good chance you're going to write something that's already been written before. Or it's going to be very similar. And you're going to think it's great. And 15 years ago it might have been great. So I think it's really useful to know what's written. And not to write stuff like it, to totally avoid it. OK, I know what's happened in the past. What's a new twist on this? What's a new twist on a murder mystery or a series of robberies or whatever it is that you decide is going to be fascinating for people to read about. And fresh and new and you're going to bring some insights to it. And this is a new kind of puzzle. I mean look, The Da Vinci Code, all that-- what was fascinating about that was just the lengths that the writer went in terms of creating this unbelievably complex puzzle. And a lot of people just found that fascinating. And it definitely was unique. I mean I haven't read that kind of complexity in a puzzle, that I can't think of anyway. It's rare. So it felt very fresh to people. And one of things with suspense is, in my opinion, one of the biggest secrets of suspense, is setting up questions that the reader must have answered, must, must, must. There's just no way. And in my books I try to do a lot of those. When I did the first Michael Bennett, Step on a Crack, I mean you start thinking about everything that's going on early in that book. One, which I think is really a tremendous hook for a story, there's one of these state funerals where all these leaders come from all over the place and they're in Saint Patrick's Cathedral. And somebody holds up the cathedral. That to me-- I mean imagine that happening in real life. ...

Set out to write a best-selling book

James Patterson, the author of 19 consecutive No. 1 New York Times bestsellers, reveals his tricks of the trade. In his first online writing class, he guides you from the start to the finish of your book.


Students give MasterClass an average rating of 4.7 out of 5 stars.

Very funny, and he grabs your attention right from the start. Great opener!

Made me think about different approaches. Given me confidence. Revealed some insights. Presented different tools/aspects clearly. Made it fun. Relaxed, witty, conversational teaching style.

This class has given me the confidence to follow my gut with my writing.

Nothing gets me motivated like this first class, makes me feel like I can really push to make my life long dream come true!


Ian C.

"People want to be manipulated … but they want to be manipulated well!" :) Love the tips - thanks James

William C.

How do you get a lvl 1 character to get the skills to be a competent believable hero without the story becoming some ‘80s montage?

Gordon H.

The notion that nobody is safe really appeals to me. I have always wanted to see a movie for instance where most of the main characters are knocked off the moment they do anything remotely stupid or silly (like staring at a wall of water instead of running, or delay their escape to say 'I love you'). I think it would make a great read if a writer could develop a novel where the reader simply doesn't know who will die next, and most character do end up dying. That leaves open the possibility of a completely unique ending.


I literally thought no character is safe, and the synergy when Mr Patterson said the same, had a quiet explosion go off in my head.

Shayne O.

Mine is a memoir but as it is set in current day Middle East and has more than it`s fair share of unreal real life suspenseful moments, so for me it was a most useful lesson. I do enjoy writing a suspenseful scene but so far they are of a quite semi-morbid almost otherworldly nature which has been kind of fun and not I`d have instinctively have thought my self perceived natural genre to be.

Margot B.

Although my writing is fictionalized memoir on the theme of women's self-actualization, this lesson helped me to understand the important role of suspense in any genre. This lesson adds another important dimension to my writing. Thank you.

robert S.

The first time I listened to this lesson was 18 months ago or longer. Since then I've published two books but listening to this lesson today for the second time it resonates so much louder. The points of the lesson drive home like arrows. Thanks for a great program developed by the people of Masterclass and all the Artists involved.

Mike L.

"I could hear him screaming. I didn’t know his name, but I felt like I knew him better than I had ever known anyone. "There’s something about listening to someone scream, with enough agony to penetrate brick, that lets the listener into a deep part of their soul. My cell was supposed to be silent, a solitary wall from the world. Time has no meaning, when you are alone. So at first I had just waited through the endless silence. Until the screaming. When it first started, it was as if the hell I lived in finally gained a voice. It was so painful, and made me feel so alone. I sat in stunned painful pondering. I thought about the source of the screams. That was a friend. The enemy of my enemy is my friend. So my pain changed. I was no longer caught up in my pain. I just hoped that my friend would be okay. The tears that fell to the dusty dungeon floor were mine, but they no longer belonged to me, they were for a friend...." Title TBD, but I'd love some constructive feedback on this excerpt.

jorge isaac

How do you build suspense in a historical novel? I know it is not your genre, but it does not seem that different from your approach. Can you comment?

Jeremy A.

"Hey you! Irishman!" The trio of silhouettes, nowhere to be seen a moment ago, stood at the entrance to the alleyway. Even in the dim light, Ben could make out objects in their clenched hands. One held the neck of a half transparent, liquid-filled bottle: liquor, most likely. The other two gripped straight, protruding shapes that tapered into sharp points. Ben suspected the objects' edges possessed blades capable of cleaving through more than just air. He glanced at Julia. "Who are they?" "Regulars at the saloon, I think." "We don't like you bein' here!" growled one of the silhouettes. "And we don't like you talkin' to our women!" Ben looked back in the other direction. Dead end. "Do you have a gun?" He whispered to Julia. "No. You?" Ben shook his head. He looked down at his walking stick, then at the advancing forms. His fingers tightened on the rounded handle. Could he handle himself? Perhaps, but what about Julia? She had no armament, not even a parasol. Sweat tickled his brow and temples as he considered what to do.