Guest Post: Suzanne Adair

Creating Tension Without Using Gratuitous Violence

A Hostage to Heritage was released earlier this week. It’s the second title in the Michael Stoddard American Revolution Thriller series and myahostagetoheritage fifth work of crime fiction set during the southern theater of the Revolutionary War. In a review for this book, one ARC reader wrote: “Although the setting is the Revolutionary War, blood and gore and battle scenes are not the means for ratcheting the tension in the story.” Blood, gore, and battle scenes aren’t how I generated tension in any of my books.

So why would I set a series of books in wartime and not follow Hollywood’s lead in making use of a whole palette of violence in every scene?

Despite all those facts and figures about wars that we were forced to learn and regurgitate on tests for history class, wars aren’t only about blood and gore and battle scenes. Wars are mostly about human beings and their tragedies. There’s plenty of tension in a story about loss.

The “Rouse House Massacre” was a little-known skirmish that occurred the first week of April 1781 near Wilmington, North Carolina. My fictionalization of it figures in a sub-plot of A Hostage to Heritage and culminates several characters’ story of loss.

During the historical incident, armed redcoats entered a tavern in the wee hours of the morning. About a dozen local rebel militiamen lay, drunk and asleep, on the floor. The leader among them, a man fond of galloping his horse through Wilmington and shooting his carbine at people, had recently attempted to assassinate the British garrison’s commanding officer. So the redcoats made a business call to the tavern that night, and they shot or bayoneted most of the drunks.

The account from a comrade of the slain men who entered the tavern shortly after the redcoats left rivals any 21st-century news report for its sensationalism:

Upon entering the house what a scene presented itself! The floor covered with dead bodies & almost swimming in blood, & battered brains smoking on the walls; In the fire place sat shivering over a few coals, an aged woman surrounded by several small children, who were clinging to her body, petrified with terror. We spoke to her, but she knew us not, tho familiar acquaintences; staring wildly around, and uttering a few incoherent sentences, she pointed at the dead bodies; reason had left its throne.

The eyewitness then ramps up the sensationalism by describing how he and men in his company tracked the departing British. Although they didn’t engage the soldiers, they relished evidence they found that a few redcoats left the scene bleeding. Some of the drunks had managed to defend themselves before they were cut down. This action is the angle that Hollywood would film.

But did you notice the woman and children in that scene? The eyewitness, intent on establishing his dead comrades’ courage and sacrifice in the face of assured redcoat devilry, glides right over the woman and children.

Who were they? How did they happen to be in that tavern in the middle of the night, in the midst of a fight? Why did no one protect them from that horror? Can you imagine their terror and trauma?

Their names were not recorded during the historical incident. In A Hostage to Heritage, I gave them identities, a tragic past, a reason to be in the tavern that night. Where they came from and the trauma that they underwent is the human element in war. They’re us, our portal into the past. Their losses are what forge the tension, not scene after scene of blood, gore, and battle.

When an author takes the time to create a connection between characters and the reader, then deals losses to those characters, it results in empathy for the characters. With that connection, there’s no need to fling a whole palette of violence at the reader for them to feel tension. But without that empathy, an author may as well follow Hollywood’s lead.


Award-winning novelist Suzanne Adair is a Florida native who lives in a two hundred-year-old city at the edge of the North Carolina Piedmont, named for an English explorer who was beheaded. Her suspense and thrillers transport readers to the Southern theater of the Revolutionary War, where she brings historic towns, battles, and people to life. She fuels her creativity with Revolutionary War reenacting and visits to historic sites. When she’s not writing, she enjoys cooking, dancing, hiking, and spending time with her family. A Hostage to Heritage, her second Michael Stoddard American Revolution thriller, was released April 2013.

Quarterly electronic newsletter:
Web site:

Book description:
A boy kidnapped for ransom. And a madman who didn’t bargain on Michael Stoddard’s tenacity.

Spring 1781. The American Revolution enters its seventh grueling year. In Wilmington, North Carolina, redcoat investigator Lieutenant Michael Stoddard expects to round up two miscreants before Lord Cornwallis’s army arrives for supplies. But his quarries’ trail crosses with that of a criminal who has abducted a high-profile English heir. Michael’s efforts to track down the boy plunge him into a twilight of terror from radical insurrectionists, whiskey smugglers, and snarled secrets out of his own past in Yorkshire.

19 thoughts on “Guest Post: Suzanne Adair”

  1. Great blog and yeah, I agree. For me, violence has to be necessary (though I’ve been known to sit through the gratuitous stuff, too). Adding in the human element, the things that make violence scary for one character or appealing to another or earth-shattering for yet another is what makes for great storytelling. Tension isn’t violence or even an argument. It’s escalating conflict between a protagonist and an antagonist, or between a protagonist and their thoughts and surroundings. Empathy, as you mentioned, is key.


  2. Mary, neither would many literary agents and NYC editors. It’s why my first three books set during the Rev War were originally published by a regional press, without the aid of an agent. In 2007, one agent told me that she didn’t think the Rev War period was sexy, and as a consequence, publishers didn’t want novels with such a setting. Interestingly, a number of novels with Rev War settings have been published from NYC houses since then, some with “headless woman” covers. Perhaps NYC has reconsidered the “sexy” part. 🙂


  3. Terri, you made a great point, that tension can be between a protagonist and his or her thoughts. Those excruciating sequences of deliberation such as, “Do I quit this job?” don’t have to involve another person. To keep them from being expository lumps, we have to show the tension and its effect on the protagonist’s body and mind.


  4. One thing you do so well in all your books Suzanne (for those people who have not yet enjoyed them) is take the “minor” characters in a scene and humanize them as a way not only of increasing a scene’s tension but also to afford deeper glimpses into the thoughts and morals of your main characters. In HOSTAGE for instance, how Dunstan Fairfax treats Spry is yet another sign of his disdain for men he feels beneath him; how Fairfax refers to Kate Duncan shows his enjoyment of setting other folks on edge. Small things, yet a way of showing–not telling–the morals or lack thereof of the protagonist. And you can feel the air crackle between Michael and Dunstan…


  5. Linda, characters may seem minor in a scene, but if the author has brought them to three-dimensional life, they need to interact in the scene. I read too much fiction in which the author focuses on a conversation between two characters and forgets that there are other characters present. When you make use of those other characters, even subtly, it is, as you’ve noted, a way to showcase aspects of the focus characters.

    Yes, the thunderstorm between Michael and Fairfax is definitely coming. 🙂


  6. Loved your blog post! I try to keep my novels PG-rated so it was a good reminder that you can make them exciting without resorting to the sensationalism of so many movies and thrillers.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s