Never Leave Them Laughing: Learning How to Build Suspense from a Master

The book club has just discussed IN THE GARDEN OF BEASTS by Erik Larson, an account of the American ambassador to Germany and his daughter during the rise of Hitler. All agreed that the true story of William and Martha Dodd was a compelling and suspenseful read. The gathering storm in Berlin and the degree to which observers were and were not aware of what was going on is absorbing stuff.

But we know Larson’s work and he is a master of suspense. He could write about a duck pond and we would be unable to stop reading. This time, we made some observations about how he does it. For one thing, he builds in lots of teases, hints that compel the reader to turn the page. He sprinkles these throughout but almost always includes them at the end of chapters when readers might be tempted to put the book down. Here are some examples:

Theirs would prove to be a journey laden with incident that would provide the first challenge to Martha’s rosy view of the new Germany.

Forces opposed to Dodd began to coalesce.

Now a special “witness” was scheduled to appear.

As Dodd was about to find out, in a milieu as supercharged as Berlin, where every public action of a diplomat accrued exaggerated symbolic weight, even a mere bit of conversational sparring across a banquet table could become the stuff of minor legend.

As would soon become apparent, Germany was not yet willing to let the matter drop.

In light of what was about to happen a few years hence, Dodd’s crowing about his own driving prowess can only raise a chill.

Each of these hints makes the reader want to know: What happened to challenge Martha’s rosy view of Germany? What forces coalesced against Dodd and what did they do? Who was the special witness? What exactly was Dodd about to find out? How would Germany’s unwillingness to let the matter drop become apparent? And what chilling driving event is in Dodd’s future?

Larson also cuts between stories, alternating William with Martha, so the reader is forced to read through a passage about William, for instance, to get back to what changed Martha’s view of Germany. These passages get shorter and shorter as the book progresses so the cuts are quicker and quicker like the action in a movie speeding up.

Larson may be a suspense natural but we suspect he also works at it. Here is one of his blog entries from last year in which he compares his daughter’s reading habits to his own:

She’s the kind of reader I never was in high school. She just finished reading BELOVED by Toni Morrison, which she read of her own volition, and what book did I just finish? BLACK SUNDAY, by Thomas Harris, who is best known as the author SILENCE OF THE LAMBS. In my defense I’d just like to say that BLACK SUNDAY is one crackler of a thriller…

Larson not only writes suspense, he reads it.