Pull back the curtain and see how a suspense writer puts the thrills and chills together.


Hello dear readers,

When Mary Shelley first told the tale of Dr. Frankenstein and his monster, Victorian audiences were both horrified and fascinated. But, truth be told, there are hundreds of Dr. Frankensteins around you all the time, quietly bringing equally horrific–as well as innocent and sweet–creations to life.

The identity of these twisted Dr. Frankensteins? Elementary, my dear Watson. They are writers. You see, something strange happens when a writer crafts a story. In the beginning of the process, the characters of the story are exactly that–mere characters. We can push ’em around, make them do and say whatever we want, and basically have our way with them. It’s a great feeling of power. But it soon changes.

At some point, those characters come to life. They become real people, with opinions and motives and ideas that appear to be all their own. It’s not as easy to control them at that point. No matter their age, they are all willful teenagers, howling “You can’t make me!” or “I don’t wanna!” at the top of their lungs. And, the best part is–they will constantly surprise you.

In my first publishable novel, there is a mother named Audrey. I didn’t want her name to be Audrey, however, because her hair is auburn. So I changed it. At some point in the middle of the book, without my even noticing, Audrey changed it back. I didn’t realize it until I was in the midst of rewriting, and all I could do was smile, shake my head, and let Audrey keep her name…and her red hair. If she wanted it so badly, why not?

As a writer, I often feel like I’m taking dictation. I’m never sitting at my desk wondering what should happen next in the story. If I’m writing well, there’s someone sitting next to me–someone invisible to everyone else, but very real to me. And that person is saying, “Holli, let me tell you my story. This is what happened to me.” (My characters always spell my name right, wonder of wonders.)

If you’re not a writer, this may sound pretty weird. Or downright spooky. But if you are a writer, you know it’s a wonderful thing. When you relinquish control and let your characters live and exercise free will, it results in a much better story than you ever could have come up with on your own.

Ordinarily, I don’t outline. I’m one of those “plunge right in” writers, but I first started Dragonfly Summer four years ago. Now that I’m working on it again, I felt the need to outline the rest of the story to make sure everything that still needed to happen was squeezed in by the end of the book. I was only one hundred pages away from the end of the novel, but my characters still had a few surprises for me. For one thing, it turns out the bad guy isn’t really the bad guy. (Well, he’s still a little bad, but not as bad as I thought. Someone else is much, much worse!) As you can imagine, that’s a big reveal for this late in the game. It turns out that I was duped, right along with my poor, unsuspecting protagonist. Thankfully, I know just how she’s gonna feel.

When Stephen King wrote The Dark Half, a novel about a protagonist who seeks revenge on his creator for killing him, a lot of people thought it was unbelievable. But not us writers. What else would a protagonist do? Protagonists are people, too, after all, and people tend to get a little pissy when you try to kill them off.

How about you, dear readers? How have your creations most surprised you?

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  1. Elspeth Cross

    One of my characters up and died on me. That was inconvenient.

    Two characters merged into one woman who turned out to be more dangerous than the sum of her parts.

    One is highly intelligent but she likes to play it dumb all the time. I keep reminding her that her name isn’t “Buffy”.

    Overall, I’m mostly along for the ride.

  2. Story Teller

    Very cool, Elspeth! Have you ever tried explaining this kind of thing to non-writers?

  3. TS

    Does this mean that writers are slightly insane? (tongue in cheek)

    Glad to see that someone spells your name properly 😉

  4. Story Teller

    I think all creative people are slightly insane. Unless what we consider insanity is actually a sign of genius, and everyone *else* is insane. Food for thought….

    Welcome back from the land of beluga!

  5. Chris

    Great post! As a non-writer, I’ll have to take your word for it, but it sounds pretty cool to me. And a little scary…

  6. Story Teller

    Thanks for the kind words, Chris. See if you still think it’s cool when we have a whole bunch of new people living with us….

  7. Frank Powers

    I am way late to this post but it is very timely for me. In my latest reply to you on my blog, this is exactly the feeling I was trying to convey. I felt a little silly saying it. My characters often take my story in directions I had no idea it was headed. I know that it’s still me, but I also know for a fact that it isn’t me, it’s them.

    Great post, thank you.

    • Holli Moncrieff

      You never have to feel silly admitting this stuff to me, Frank. I never feel like these people are me. I just finished writing a book where I knew all along who was the killer, only to find out at the end that I was wrong. It really doesn’t feel like it’s me driving this bus. Glad I’m not the only one.

      Thanks for commenting! It’s never too late. Some of my best posts are from my first year of blogging, when my readership was still pretty low.


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