When I asked author Tina Athaide how she made her debut novel so suspenseful, she gave me a mini-course on how to ramp up tension in fiction! Today’s post is threefold:
(1) author interview,
(2) thoughts on how to build suspense, and
(3) book giveaway!
We’ll start with the interview, but first I want to invite readers to Hop to the end of this post to enter to win a copy of Orange for the Sunsets. Then come back to read what Tina has to say about writing such an exciting book. It’s a great read! Deadline to enter the giveaway: May 26, 2020.
I can’t recommend this book enough. Set in 1972, Orange for the Sunsets is the story of twelve year-old Asha and her friend Yesofu struggling to hold onto their friendship during Idi Amin’s rise to power in Uganda. I fell in love with these characters.
A. B. Westrick: Tina, welcome to my blog!
Tina Athaide: Thank you for inviting me to participate on your blog. This story is close to my heart and I am so glad you enjoyed it.
ABW: I really did. And I want to start by talking about the alternating points of view (POVs). You go back and forth between Asha and Yesofu—between an Asian-Indian girl and a Ugandan boy. You made the POV changes clear via each chapter’s heading. Perfect!
Because your heritage is Asian Indian, I assume that you identified more with Asha than with Yesofu, therefore writing her chapters was easier for you than were Yesofu’s chapters. But am I wrong? How did you approach the way you crafted the two points of view?
TA: When I decided to change the structure of the book to alternating POVs, I had to make sure that each chapter and character had its own distinct voice. Asha was easier to write in early drafts because I shared her background and had connections to her emotional experiences. Once I completed additional research about the experiences of African Ugandans during the expulsion order, it was much easier to write Yesofu’s chapters.
In crafting these characters to make sure they had their own individual voices, I completed a lot of journals and sketching. I have an Asha journal and a Yesofu journal with illustrations of how I imagined the characters and lots of doodles and notes about them. This included how they responded to people and events, their own gratitude pages, and dislikes/likes. I also found it helpful to create journal entries and have them respond to something from the story, like Asha writing about her trip to town with her father or Yesfou being selected to be team captain.
ABW: Separate character journals. Great idea!
TA: When I found the voices of Asha and Yesofu blending, I would pull out my character journals and read them with a cup of tea or glass of wine, and cake. In my new book, the story is told from the POV of one character, and I just created her journal.
I find this to be a wonderful tool.
ABW: Sold! I’m going to try character journals.
Now I want to ask about research and presentation. You mentioned needing to research African Ugandans. I imagine you had to research a lot because the characters deal with differences in class, economic opportunities, and oppression—all presented in ways that young readers can appreciate. (Some of the issues reminded me of racism and the struggle for civil rights in America.)
I believe the history of Uganda during the expulsion order included more violence than you revealed. You alluded to the violence rather than showing it in scene. How did you decide what to keep in and what to leave out?
TA: This is such a wonderful question. It was important to me as a writer and educator that this story didn’t shy away from difficult topics like violence, social injustice, and racism. For this story to be honest and real, I wanted to share details of what was occurring during that time, but kept in mind that it would be interpreted from the point of view of two children—Asha and Yesofu. I also considered the age group of my readers. I didn’t want the violence of that political period to take over the story because ultimately it is Asha and Yesofu that readers connect with when they read my book.
ABW: Gotcha. The story made me curious about the history, and I liked seeing the timeline in the afterword, but while reading the novel, I was definitely connecting with the characters.
Before we get to your tips for building suspense, I want to ask about your next novel. Will it also reflect your family’s Indian heritage—will it be another #OwnVoices story? (I particularly liked the way you discussed #OwnVoices in your April 11, 2019 post.) I know that you’ve now lived for many years in Canada and California, and I wonder how your life in North America has influenced your writing. What is the setting for the novel you’re working on now, and what nationality are the characters?
TA: I am working on another MG novel, which is also first hand story telling and will reflect my Indian heritage. This one is told in free verse, at least for right now, in the initial first draft phase. In this story, I am exploring the immigrant experience.
ABW: Excellent. I look forward to reading it!
Now let’s turn to some techniques you used to craft the story. I found Orange for the Sunsets exciting. The deeper I got into the novel, the faster I was turning pages. But no spoilers here! I won’t say exactly what had me on the edge of my seat, but I can tell readers this: President Idi Amin created an urgent situation by telling Indians to get out of Uganda, but Tina didn’t leave it there. She made sure that Asha’s and Yesofu’s actions heightened the suspense.
So my question is: was your first draft as exciting as the published version? Or did you carefully—intentionally—ratchet up the suspense while you were working on revisions? (I’m assuming, of course, that you made a number of revisions along the way!)
How to Build Suspense
TA: Yes, lots of revision! Suspense is key to any story and something I worked on throughout the development of this book. The first draft of Orange for the Sunsets was nothing like the final version with the exception of the two main characters and general plot—the expulsion of Asian Indians from Uganda. This book went through 6-7 large story revisions, including a final one that changed the entire structure of the book from a single point-of-view (POV) to duel POVs of Asha and Yesofu. But, that is what makes the revision process such fun… seeing how your story and characters evolve.
Suspense keeps the reader turning the pages—that feeling of, I just have to read a few more pages before I put the book down. Building suspense involves withholding information and raising key questions that pique readers’ curiosity.
During my revision process, I critically analyzed the five areas below to ramp up the tension and suspense in my novel, and I’d encourage all writers to do the same.
Every novel needs conflict, and I look for ways to create situations where my characters have internal and external conflict. This can be conflict with the atmosphere, like Asha and the government (Idi Amin), conflict with the environment or a situation (Asha in the well, or Yesofu with his social status), and/or conflict in relationships (Yesofu and Akello, or Asha and Yesofu).
2. What’s at stake?
If you want the story to be suspenseful and want readers to keep turning pages, the stakes have to be high. Examples of high stakes in my book include whether or not to leave Uganda, Asha’s friendship with Yesofu, and Akello choosing to betray his best friend.
When it comes to building suspense, the pace of your novel is another important component. If your plot unfolds too slowly, you lessen the suspense. Similarly, if you resolve everything too quickly, you don’t build a momentum that keeps readers reading.
It is extremely important when creating suspense to provide readers with clues and foreshadowing that teases them about what is to come. Then, so you don’t give everything away, you throw them off with an unexpected plot point or pinch point.
For example (Spoiler Alert!), at the very end of my book, I lulled the reader into a false sense of closure, thinking that the family would leave Uganda, but then threw in something unexpected (Asha visits Yesofu and comes face to face with the antagonist).
5. Mood and Tone
The atmosphere of your story affects how readers respond to your book. In scene after scene in Orange for the Sunsets, readers experience the changes in Uganda: more and more people leave the country, and the military presence increases.
No matter what type of story you are telling, suspense is a valuable tool for keeping a reader’s attention and interest.
ABW: So, do you outline your stories? Would an outline help me make my plots exciting rather than merely… plodding?
TA: This is a big question: plodding vs. plotting.
Yes, I’m an outliner now, but early in my writing career, I was a plodder. I meandered around and things happened to my characters. Since then I have found a happy middle ground between the two. I use a seven plot plan to create a general outline, and I complete it in the order below.
- Final Outcome (how the protagonist will change)
- Inciting incident
- Plot Turn No. 1
- Plot Turn No. 2
- Plot Turn No. 3
I also divide my story into three acts and have a timeline I follow for each act. This is especially useful to navigate my muddy middle where my story and characters are sometimes derailed.
I used these tools when I wrote the final draft of Orange for the Sunsets and am using them for my next book, and honestly, I like being a little bit of a plodder within the skeleton of an outline.
ABW: Wow. All of this is great, Tina. Just plain great! Much to think about, and very helpful. (I’m going to head back to the drawing board—to my work-in-progress—and see where the conflict and pacing seem to be working, and where I’m falling short.)
Thank you again for doing this interview, Tina!
TA: Thanks for inviting me!
Readers who want to know more can find Tina on her website, facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. If you visit, be sure to say so in the Rafflecopter below! Every entry is a chance to win a copy of Orange for the Sunsets. You can come back each day and enter again! Deadline to enter: Tuesday, May 26, 2020.