On Writing Suspense: A Q&A with Instructor Chris Mooney

January 15, 2014
Chris Mooney

©Vin Catania

Wrapping up his ninth novel, Chris Mooney is no stranger to writing suspense. He is an expert at crafting thrilling stories, which have garnered him awards and international bestseller acclaim. His book Remembering Sarah was nominated for an Edgar Award for best novel. His newest book, titled Fear the Dark, is the fifth novel in the Darby McCormick series. Mooney teaches writing classes at Harvard Extension School, including Intermediate Fiction Writing this spring. We asked him to discuss his craft in the following Q&A.

Some horror authors say that writing and reading this genre makes us saner, because we’re allowed to express our darkest fears and move past them. Do you think this applies to the thriller genre as well?

Story—any story, in any genre—gives us structure. And I think we all crave structure when it comes to life.

Some of us want to read stories about ordinary people going through ordinary problems and see how they deal with it. Some of us like to see the dark side of things—the reason why people act a certain way and do despicable acts. We want to see the bad guy get caught and punished. We want to see good people working hard to protect us.

Which part of the writing process comes easiest to you? Hardest?

Coming up with a story idea is usually the easiest part. The hardest part is actually making all the pieces fit together, which is critical in writing a thriller. If one piece is “off”—or if the reader doesn’t buy a certain character’s motivation—then the whole story can fall apart.

Because there’s more of a demand for me to produce a book a year, I’ve started to outline this year. Then I’ll pass the outline to my agent and editors and have them to take a look at it to get their feedback. After everything has been hashed over, then I’ll start to write it.

I’m hoping this process will cut down on revision. The last couple of years have been tough on revisions. Every author goes through this, of course, and every author comes up with their own system on how to combat it.

Many of the influential thriller writers out there—Stephen King, Dennis Lehane, John Connolly—have been around a while. And most of them are male. Gillian Flynn, author of Gone Girl, is one of the newer female thriller writers I’ve seen make bestseller status. Are there any others that are on your radar?

Male writers seem to dominate the genre, or maybe there are just more men writing thrillers than women. I don’t know. There are certainly female thriller writers out there who are extremely successful—Patricia Cornwell, Karin Slaughter, Laura Lippman, and Tess Gerritsen come to mind. I’ve been a huge fan of Gillian Flynn since she wrote Sharp Objects. She is an absolutely amazing writer. And I loved Gone Girl.

As for male writers, I’m a huge fan of Gregg Hurwitz, who, like Gillian Flynn and Stephen King, combines great writing with great stories. Gregg is an amazing talent. Stephen King, Thomas Harris, Dennis Lehane, and James Lee Burke have been major influences in my own writing.

I gather you’re working on your next Darby McCormick novel. How is it going?

I’ve passed in what I hope is the last draft. It’s called Fear the Dark. Darby is asked by her longtime friend Cooper, who now works at the FBI lab, to help him and the bureau investigate a series of killings in a place called Red Hill, Colorado.

It went through several revisions. Some books are more difficult to write than others. This was one of those times.

Every writer I know has a book that becomes an untamable beast, where either the plot or the characters elude the writer. So this one took a lot of extra work. Needless to say, I’m glad it’s behind me!

What would people be surprised to learn about you?

There’s this perception that authors, both men and women, who write thrillers must have some sort of psychological problem or issue in order to generate ideas for such dark stories.

So when people meet me having read one of my books, they’re often surprised that I look and act normal!

What do you enjoy most about teaching writing?
I love that moment when everything “clicks” for a student. When they finally put the pieces together and break through a block or reach a new level of understanding.

The only way writing can be taught, in my opinion, is by constantly failing. Every writer is different, so each writer’s learning process is different.

More about Chris Mooney and writing courses