Chapter 13 of 22 from James Patterson

Writing Suspense


The secret to suspense is...

Topics include: Know your genre • Intrigue your reader • Keep raising the stakes • Keep the reader guessing • Don’t reveal too much too soon

The secret to suspense is...

Topics include: Know your genre • Intrigue your reader • Keep raising the stakes • Keep the reader guessing • Don’t reveal too much too soon

James Patterson

James Patterson Teaches Writing

James teaches you how to create characters, write dialogue, and keep readers turning the page.

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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 for the very first time. In this course, he guides you through every part of the book writing process.

22 lessons totaling 3+ hours of video from James covering everything from starting your outline to getting published.

Each video lesson is paired with notes, reading materials, and assignments to make sure you get the most out of your class.

Submit your rough drafts and assignments for feedback from other students taking the class (and possibly James himself!).


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

Mr. Patterson gave me an inside look on how to create a fast-paced novel from beginning idea to first draft (and perhaps 10th). His humor and wisdom made this an enjoyable learning experience.

Mr. P, Thanks a million. That's another million seller for you. I've taught journalism, so I know the difficulties in getting things across. For you it's obviously fun. It's not easy to share that experience. But I felt that enthusiasm.I trust others did too. me? I'm on my ninth book (two principal main characters) with a small but loyal readership, a long long way from being rich or famous.

Most of what James has imparted to us is actually common sense, if you think about it. The point is, it's him saying it. That makes it more believable and gives it some real weight. Eternally grateful.

Thank you, Mr. Patterson. This was an excellent experience and the first time I've enjoyed having homework.



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.


Ack! I'm reading "Step on a Crack" right now. I'm afraid he's going to give away one of those "must have answered" questions.

Joy J.

"The ambulance slid a little distance on the ice past my wrecked vehicle. All of its lights were flashing brilliantly against the blackness of the snowy night. I could hear the muffled sounds of a voice speaking to me, but I couldn't understand what it was saying. My chest was hard pressed to the deflated airbag. My face buried deeply into the steering wheel. I couldn't see at all out of the eye that was against it, and the one I had left was all shadows. I knew my car was dashboard deep into the light pole. I knew it, because I had aimed for it... " - My short story, The Choice. What do you guys think?

Katie P.

I called Sam to inform her what I’d learned. We agreed to meet at the park-and-ride off Highway 41, so we could drive to Little Chute and the Seven Seas Tattoo Shoppe. We stopped along the way, grabbed some sandwiches from Quiznos, and ate as we made our way to the Fox Valley Area. As I drove, Sam continually glanced in the side-view mirror. She lowered the sun visor, adjusting it so she could see the cars trailing us in the vanity mirror. “What’s going on?” I asked. “Did you notice an SUV following you when you stopped at the tattoo shops?” “No. Why?” “There’s been an SUV behind us ever since we left Quiznos. A black Ford Escape. It’s five or six cars back.” I stared into the rearview mirror and drifted out of my lane. Sam grabbed the steering wheel, righting us. “Jesus, just drive. I’ll keep my eye on him.” Sam returned to watching the Escape in her vanity mirror. It sped up and flew past us, going twenty-miles-an-hour over the speed limit. The driver was hunched over the wheel, his head turned away from me, staring out the driver side window. The SUV was moving so fast, and the driver rode much higher than us, it was impossible to tell who it might be. I’d leaned forward, trying to catch a glimpse of the driver, inadvertently blocking Sam's view. She reached across my chest and threw me back against my seat, but by that time the SUV was ten feet ahead of us. Sam stole a glance at the license number, but it was caked with mud, much like the rest of the SUV. The only letters barely visible were the first and last, an M and an R. We watched the SUV until it sped from view. “Was he following us?” "Uh-huh." After a few seconds, she added, "Interesting." “What? What’s interesting?” Sam ignored my question. When she gets deep into her thoughts, it’d be easier prying the secrets out of the Sphinx. She didn’t say another word until we reached the Seven Seas Tattoo Shoppe. It was located in a two-story brick building on Main Street. A guy, in his late twenties to early thirties, was hanging pictures of tattoos on his wall to the left of his counter. His face and arms covered in colorful ink. His hands so deeply stained it appeared as if they’d been tattooed. He looked up when the bell rang. He seemed baffled to see two strangers enter his shop. “Hi, we’re looking for the owner,” Sam said. “That’s me. Justin Case. Everybody calls me JJ.” “JJ?” I asked. “Shouldn’t it be JC?” He gave me a blank stare as if what I’d asked made absolutely no sense. When I gaped back at him, he turned to Sam. “I generally don't take walk-ins, but someone just canceled.” “That’s great,” Sam said. “Can you do something like this for me?” He walked over and stopped in front of Sam. He leaned back. His rear-end and hands rested on the edge of the wooden counter. She held the picture up to his face. He flinched. It wasn’t much, but it was there. “I could probably do something similar, but not an exact match,” he said. “Is this for your boyfriend here?” Sam laughed. “No, it’s for me.” JJ asked me, “You want one, too?” “Yeah. We’re in lust with the same woman.” Not sure if I was yanking his chain, he asked, “Are you serious?” “As death.” He grew more uncomfortable by the second. “I can set up an appointment for both of you next week.” “I thought you said you have an opening?” Sam said. “Yeah, but something this intricate will take more time than I have right now.” He made a show of looking at his watch. “I have a client in two hours. This will take twice that long.” He spun his appointment book, so he could better read it, and said, “How does next Wednesday work for you?” He glanced at Sam warily. Sam scrunched up her face. “I was hoping to have this done today. Tomorrow at the latest. So more than two hours, huh?” He said, “It’s pretty intricate.” “Is that how long it took to do this one?” Sam moved the picture within six inches of his face. “No. … What I mean…meant…is…is that’s not mine.” “Even if it’s done in henna?” JJ slid away from Sam, and stood in front me. “Listen, as you probably guessed by now,” Sam said, “I don’t want the freakin’ tattoo. Neither does Ace. What I want is information.” “And what I want is for you two to leave!” “All we need is a name.” JJ glanced around the room to make sure no one had snuck in while we were talking. He shook his head vehemently. “You’ve got to go.” “Who’re you afraid of?” I asked. “No one. I just don’t appreciate the way you guys came in here, that’s all. Now, do I have to call the cops?” “Go ahead. You may want to talk to Detective Callas. He’d be interested in hearing what you have to say.” He shook his head more violently. “I don’t know anything.” I felt something plunge into my side, knocking the air out of me. I fell to the ground as the storefront window shattered. I heard a muffled crack. JJ’s face exploded. His body toppled over in slow motion. Sam groaned as I hit the floor.


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. ...