Thursday, July 18, 2013

The Gasp Factor

Hi. Jill Elizabeth Nelson here.

When was the last time you were reading along in a suspense novel, and SUDDENLY something happened that stole your breath, widened your eyes, and sent your heart rate soaring? Hopefully, you enjoy this experience any time you read a suspense novel. It’s a phenomenon that should happen not once, but over and over when you savor your fav genre—suspense.

So what are these Gasp Factors, and how do we authors strive to make them happen? Those are two distinct questions, and I’ll attempt to address each one.

What I refer to as the Gasp Factor is an event that occurs in a story that incorporates the following elements:

1.                  It is shocking. By shocking, I don’t mean simply horrific with blood and gore and grossness. That can occur, as it does in real life, but horrificness (See? I coined a new word.) in itself does not create momentum in a story the way a true Gasp Factor should do. No, the shock element is found in the dire affect on the heroine. Does she lose something (or someone) irreplaceable? Is her life and her outlook on reality forever changed? Is she confronted with a seeming unsolvable problem that renders her world dark and scary?

2.                  It is unexpected. If the writer has done her job right, the Gasp Factor will involve a twist that you didn’t see coming. However, once the event occurs, you will believe the event because it snaps seamlessly into the plot picture and fits with characterization already present in the story.

3.                  It ratchets up the stakes and tightens the tension. As soon as the shocking event occurs, the heroine is placed in a position where she must fight for her life—either physically or emotionally or both—and perhaps even her sanity, on a whole new level of difficulty.

How do we suspense writers incorporate these Gasp Factors into our stories?

We must build toward each one subtly enough to preserve the surprise for the reader even while creating the plot and characterization infrastructure that will support the shocking nature of the event. Sound like a challenge? It is and it isn’t.

It is a challenge, requiring lots of practice, including trial and error, in order to develop the ability to deftly handle story rhythm and momentum. This is one of the reasons it takes a long time for a new writer to be ready for publication.

However, the writing process is not strictly cerebral, especially when the skill set is in place and honed. At that point, the intuitive nature of the creative process can really shine. What do I mean by that? Simply that strong characters can and do take on “a life of their own” and dictate events that seemingly take the author herself by surprise.

I’m letting you in on a bit of a trade secret here. ;-) When a story is pouring through our fingers onto the page, it’s no unusual occurrence that The Gasp Factor overtakes us. Our breath is stolen, our eyes widen, and our hearts go kapump in our chests as our characters do something or are confronted with something we hadn’t seen coming. But once the event has occurred, we recognize its validity and rejoice that our readers will get to experience the thrill of this heart-pounding twist as they devour our books.  

Okay, now it’s your turn to participate. Share with us a memorable Gasp Factor experience in a suspense novel you particularly enjoyed. One commenter will win a copy of my most recent release, Betrayal on the Border.

 About the Book:

Former army communications specialist Maddie Jerrard may not remember the details of the deadly mission on the Texas-Mexico border, but she knows one thing. She's not the one responsible for the massive ambush that left only her and investigative journalist Chris Mason alive. The culprit must be the only other survivor—Chris. Yet with suspicion—and danger—targeting Maddie and Chris, and a killer on their trail, partnering up is the only solution. But as Maddie and Chris get closer to uncovering the truth, they'll have to trust each other to make it through alive.

About the Author:

Award-winning author and writing teacher, Jill Elizabeth Nelson, writes what she likes to read—tales of adventure seasoned with romance, humor, and faith. Jill is a popular speaker for conferences, writers groups, library associations, civic and church groups. She delights to bring the “Ahah! Moment” to students as they make new skills their own. Her handbook for writers, Rivet Your Readers with Deep Point of View, is now available at Visit Jill on the web at: or look her up on Facebook: or Twitter:!/JillElizNelson. Her latest release is Betrayal on the Border from Love Inspired Romantic Suspense. 


  1. Gasp factor: Well, I recently read Dani Pettrey's Shattered and there were a couple of times I gasped. I don't want to give the story away, but there was a situation that Piper found herself in danger from being assaulted in a back room at a party. Another gasp factor in this story involved an avalanche.
    I enjoyed your article and definitely appreciate when an author can take me by surprise and make me gasp!
    Brittany McEuen

  2. Haven't read any suspense novels recently - but would like to read this one, thanks for the opportunity to win one of your books!


  3. The "Treasure Seekers" series by Dana Mentink had some great Gasp Factors in it :).

  4. My e-mail address is jump5er[at]hotmail[dot]com


  5. Thanks, all of you, for chiming in. Sounds like I need to read Dani and Dana's books. Thanks for the tips!

    Congratulations to Brittany. You are the winner of a signed copy of my latest release, Betrayal on the Border!