Writers On Writing / Mastering suspense with JP Pomare

We spoke with “master of the Australian psychological thriller” JP Pomare, ahead of his course Online: Plotting and Suspense.

You have been called a “master of the Australian psychological thriller”. What drew you to this genre?

I have always had a really deep interest in psychology and true crime, so I was probably going to always end up writing psychological thrillers. I think when I decided to write my first novel I didn’t know what shape it was going to take, I just wrote a story that interested me. I’ve always been fascinated by why good people seemingly normal people do bad things. Most people I’m sure are curious about the grey areas of moral permissibility, certainly when it comes to crime. So questions like, is it ever okay to kill someone? How far would you go to protect your family? Is it okay to hurt one person if it means you’re saving two others? These questions when put to readers in fiction make them think of how they would react in these fraught and psychologically stressful situations and that for me is the power of the psychological thriller.

Why did you become a writer? How did you get to where you are today?

I have always been a big fan of storytelling and the narrative arts, and so from a relatively young age I had the fantasy of becoming a writer but I didn’t take active steps in that direction until I was in my early twenties. I just kept honing my craft, writing short stories and reading good books until I thought my prose was good enough to take a bite at something longer and so I turned my attention to writing novels. I queried an agent, got offers for my first manuscript and didn’t look back — I know that makes it sound much easier than it was, there were long years, lots of rejection and soul searching along the way but the most important thing was I didn’t give up, and I put the craft and my development as a writer first.

You’re about to teach an online course with Writing NSW that’s all about plotting and suspense. Can you tell us some of the key techniques you use in your craft to build and manipulate suspense?

Well there are one or two things I find help to maintain narrative tension. The first thing I do is to make sure there are always unanswered questions, at least one or two smaller ones and one really big one. When you ask a question of the reader on the page, you’re giving them a reason to continue reading. So an example of a big question would be ‘Will character A find the person responsible for killing his father?’ That’s a big question that may take the entire novel to answer. Along the way the author must be asking smaller questions like ‘Can character A trust his mother in-law?’ or ‘Who left his father a threatening voicemail?’ etc. When one question is answered another must be asked. The other technique I try to focus on is finishing a scene before the dramatic tension is fully resolved. This isn’t just about cliffhangers, it’s about knowing the best possible entry point and exit for both scenes and chapters. This will give the story pace and makes editing much easier later on.


JP Pomare’s first novel, Call Me Evie, was critically acclaimed and won the Ngaio Marsh Award for Best First Novel. His following books, In The Clearing, and Tell Me Lies, were also critically acclaimed bestsellers. His work has been published in journals including MeanjinKill Your DarlingsTakahe and Mascara Literary Review. He has hosted the On Writing podcast since 2015 featuring bestselling authors from around the globe. His latest novel is The Last Guests.

Join JP Pomare for Online: Plotting and Suspense, 15 September to 21 September. Enrol here >>

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