The Uncertainty Found in Suspense Writing

Photo of Professor Amin Ahmad teaching

One of the main goals for a creative writer is to keep the reader interested.  There are different ways to do this, and in Professor Amin Ahmad's Intro to the Writing of Fiction – "Writing the Unspeakable"-- class, his students learn different strategies by studying the work of contemporary authors. The course is designed for students who want to master the craft of creative writing.

I don’t believe that writers are little geniuses who sit alone in rooms and wait for inspirations—I really think that writers need a trusted community to read their bad first drafts and to constantly get feedback that helps them to improve. Even before I taught undergraduates, I taught first graders, adults, and senior citizens. And each time, I found that the group was much ‘smarter’ than individual writers. – Professor Amin Ahmad

In "Writing the Unspeakable," students learn the ‘tools’ of creative writing: How to choose an effective point-of-view, how to structure time in a story, how to create believable characters and build the world around them. While many beginning writers believe solely in inspiration, the goal of Professor Ahmad’s class is to teach students that writing is a craft, with many technical aspects, and that learning these craft tools is essential to developing their own voices as storytellers:

I think Professor Ahmad does a fantastic job introducing structural pillars of writing through interesting readings and light-hearted discussions. His personality further adds to the engaging nature of the course.- Jason Bao, ‘25

My favorite writing exercise in the class was when we were tasked with telling a story from an unconventional perspective. Professor Ahmad gave us a list of (Point-of-Views) POVs to choose from—ranging from bridges to pets to houses—and then had us write a 5–7-page short story using one of them. I decided to write my story from the perspective of a gorilla living in a corrupt zoo, employing flashbacks and other techniques we had discussed in class to maximize the effectiveness of the POV. We then had the opportunity to workshop what we wrote, and the detailed feedback I got from both Professor Ahmad and my peers will be incredibly helpful when I get the chance to revise the story at the end of the semester. I think that the class does a great job of encouraging us to think like writers, challenging students to dive deep into the craft of stories to identify what makes them successful.  – Hollis Epstein, ‘25

Suspense Diagram
Diagram of how “suspense” can factor into a story.

One topic studied in “Writing the Unspeakable” this semester was how suspense is used as the narrative engine of a story.  Professor Ahmad shared a diagram illustrating how a missing event in the story can capture the reader’s attention, and lead to an active reading experience. (Think of a murder mystery which starts with a body being found—the reader keeps reading till the murder’s identity is revealed, usually towards the end of the story.)

During one class session, Ahmad divided his students into small groups to discuss how suspense was used in three stories that the class had read. Each group analyzed their story and then lead a discussion on how suspense was created in the story. One group discussed the first three chapters of Miracle Creek by author Angie Kim, a friend of Professor Ahmad, Zoomed in as a special guest speaker during the latter part of the class to discuss the challenges she faced while writing Miracle Creek. Her visit allowed the students to ask detailed questions on the novel’s structure, how she researched it, and what her ‘messy’ writing process looked like. She also provided career advice to beginning writers and talked about negotiating the publishing process. This was a rare occasion for students to have a conversation with an author about the craft underlying her writing, as well as the business of publishing.

In one aside, Ms. Kim, a former business consultant and a lawyer, talked about how creative writing fits in with more conventional careers.

What future courses can Duke students look forward to taking with Professor Ahmad?

I hope to teach this class a few more times, but there is always a lifespan to a class. Beyond a certain time period, the material gets stale for the instructor, and so it needs to be re-thought. But the general things I am saying about fiction here, I will continue to teach in different contexts! For example, I’m really interested in creating a class called “Cinematic Storytelling” to look at how movies and TV and written fiction intersect. – Professor Amin Ahmad