The University of Iowa

The Propulsive Plot: Strategies for Building Suspense in the Novel

Weeklong July 19 to July 24 2020

Every novel should be, in some sense, a thriller—but there’s no doubt that readers and publishers endlessly crave stories that have luscious dark centers oozing with crime and intrigue. In this workshop, we’ll consider novels of suspense by authors as varied as Otessa Mossfegh, Gillian Flynn, Walter Moseley, Ian McEwan, Toni Morrison, and John LeCarre. By reading excerpts and dissecting structure and style, we’ll identify the essential components of suspense and gain a deep understanding of how to build a mystery. We will also discuss how character informs plot, how to play with unreliable narrators and multiple points of view, and how to reimagine genre forms in fresh ways that steer clear of cliché. You’ll leave the workshop with an arsenal of strategies for plotting a surprising and satisfying narrative with a distinctive voice and social lens. Our sessions together will benefit writers working on literary or commercial novels, at any stage of development, from a vague notion to a towering stack of pages. Together, we’ll give each other feedback and encouragement on premises, outlines, and first chapters.


In this workshop, we will generate new writing through exercises and assignments; critique writing you bring from home; provide feedback on writing you produce in our week.