Posted On May 13, 2016 by Print This Post

What Lies at the Heart of Suspense? by Katia Lief

Becke says: I love to read romance, but long before I discovered the romance genre, I fell in love with mysteries. In particular, I’m hooked on suspense and thrillers like those KATIA LIEF writes. 

I started out writing novels about people’s lives, paying little attention to genre, and earning my living with day jobs. Flash forward a decade, married with two children, when I decided to try my hand at commercial fiction— it turned out that those kids couldn’t be left alone in the house and they had to eat all the time and that much food cost serious money. (I think they call this realization Growing Up 101.) My hope, if the gamble paid off, was that I’d be able to do what I loved most, write novels, at the same time that I did the other thing I loved most, be around to pick up those hungry little cuties from school every day. (So what if I went crazy in the meantime? I wanted it all.) But first, I’d have to figure out what commercial fiction was, and exactly which genre to pursue.

Throughout my life as a writer I’ve always approached a new work with a task at its heart, ultimately teaching myself how to master things like character, plot, dialogue, and so on, by making that element the central focus of whatever I was working on. Yes, I studied fiction writing in college, and even earned an MFA in the subject. But it was through my own work that all the theory solidified into real mastery of the craft. Along the way I also became a teacher of fiction writing, as an adjunct professor at the New School for Social Research; everything I learned along the way I share with my students who, in turn, never fail to lead me to new understandings of our shared passion. Growing as a writer is a process that goes on and on, which means that, if you pay attention to what you’re doing, you’ll never get bored.

At the time that I launched myself toward the half-insane goal of earning a living by writing novels, I happened to be interested in how the element of suspense operated in fiction, so I sent myself on a mission to learn how to write a thriller.

I signed up for a day-long course in suspense writing, but on the given day one of my children got sick and I couldn’t go. Instead, I found a good book on the subject. Then I read a lot of thrillers and analyzed what worked (for me) and what didn’t. Every step of the way, I asked myself: What makes suspense tick? When I read, what makes me need to keep turning the page? And, conversely, what stops me from turning the page; when I get bored, why? Ultimately, I learned that a good thriller is also a good novel but with a difficult, time-sensitive problem at its core. A reader has to need to keep reading to find out what happens. She has to care about who it happens to. And the writing should be clear and clean and not get in her way.

Ultimately, in writing my first thriller, I fused my two worlds—as a writer and a mother—creating a story about a woman who is abducted while on vacation and is unable to protect her son when he too is targeted by her abductor. I sought to bring real emotion to real characters who were thrust into a terrifying situation. My first thriller (my third published novel), Five Days in Summer, sold at auction and went on to do well. A career was born.

 cover-five-days-final-USE THIS ONE

Since then, I’ve published many thrillers, as well as other fiction. In the end, I have come to understand that what works in the suspense genre is exactly the same as what works in every other genre, from literary fiction to thrillers to romance. In literary fiction, the music and power of the language is essential. In thrillers, you’ve got to have a ticking clock to move the story at a fast pace. In romance, love and desire fuel the story.

But in all kinds of fiction, what ultimately connects the reader to the story is that she cares about what might happen and who it happens to. Character, it turns out, is at the heart of suspense, and suspense is at the heart of every good story. It doesn’t have to be thriller-genre suspense per se, but the need to know the outcome for a character you care about…that is what captivates a reader’s imagination and keeps her turning pages.

I still write novels about people’s lives. Often these stories fall into the thriller genre, but sometimes they don’t, as with my latest—a novella, The Beautiful Years, a love triangle inspired by taking my youngest on college tours (yes, the eaters grew up). But the bottom line in any good story is exactly the same: If you care enough about a character, you’ll follow her to the ends of the earth on her journey, come what may.


When you read a novel or story, what matters most to you? What do you need to keep turning the page?

RACHAEL THOMAS joins us on Monday, May 16



Katia-photo by george s

Katia Lief is the author of several internationally bestselling crime novels. Her latest is The Money Kill, the fourth installment of her Karin Schaeffer series, published in 2013 by HarperCollins, and nominated for the Mary Higgins Clark Award. Most recently, her novella The Beautiful Years was published as a Kindle Single. She teaches fiction writing at The New School in Manhattan and lives with her family in Brooklyn.

Twitter: @KatiaLief
Instagram: katia.lief
Nominated for the 2014 Mary Higgins Clark and RT Reviewers Choice awards
The Money Kill-MHC award stamp
Former New York City police detectives-turned-Brooklyn private investigators Karin Schaeffer and her husband Mac survived when brutal terror invaded their lives more than once. Now the offer of thirty thousand dollars for one day’s work in London, followed by a family vacation in an exotic locale, seems too good to be true. And then they discover that it is.Putting Mac’s investigations into the alleged marital infidelities of billionaire Godfrey Millerhausen on hold, the family finds paradise in the sun-drenched Mediterranean island of Sardinia. But the holiday turns dark and terrible when the children vanish. Suddenly Karin and Mac must unravel a deadly web first spun when wronged wife Cathy Millerhausen walked into their world–as they discover firsthand the true evil of big money: how far it reaches, what it buys . . . who it kills.

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12 Responses to “What Lies at the Heart of Suspense? by Katia Lief”

  1. Katia – Thanks so much for this perfect-for-Friday-the-13th post! There’s bound to be some suspense today. I’m pretty sure my daughter’s black cat will be crossing my path, and I’ll be sure not to walk under any ladders.

    I love your books, Katia – what books or authors influenced your decision to write suspenseful thrillers? My first mystery loves were the Nancy Drew books and Agatha Christie.

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | May 13, 2016, 8:16 am
  2. Katia, thanks for your post. What book(s) would you recommend to sharpen suspense writing skills. Any online resources?

    Posted by Cia | May 13, 2016, 2:21 pm
  3. Hi Katia,

    I agree that timing is essential in suspense. It’s difficult to weave other necessary elements like character development, sensory, and locale into the plot and maintain the pace of the story. Great characters keep me turning the page even if the plot is a bit convoluted. I care enough about the character to want to know what happens next.

    Posted by Jennifer Tanner | May 13, 2016, 4:14 pm


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