You know, for a little while now, I’ve been pondering something. I’ve heard a lot of people refer to certain stories as “slow burns.” Heck, I even called my friend/colleague Pat Bertram’s book Madame ZeeZee’s Nightmare a slow burn mystery when I reviewed it on Amazon (and I highly recommend you read it, BTW). But what exactly makes a story a “slow burn?” Sadly, searching in Google didn’t pull up a lot of information, and I needed a short break from working on Rose (which is going great, BTW), so I thought I’d share my observations on the matter.

So what is a slow burn story? Well, to put it simply, it’s a story that doesn’t try to rush itself or keep escalating things as the story goes on. Instead, the story takes its time getting to the story’s resolution, using an intriguing set up, good characters and character development, and little bumps in the excitement levels to keep readers invested in the story. A good example of a slow burn would be a romance that, instead of having the characters hook up within the first half of the story and then showing them struggle to stay together, or having the characters finally confess and kiss at the end of the story after a number of travails, the story takes its time establishing these characters, the development of their relationship, and then showing the hook up, all without any big drama or too huge plot twists.

Getting an idea for them yet? And you’re probably familiar with a lot of these stories, even if you don’t know it. Many of these slow burn stories are pretty calm for up to the first two-thirds, with little intervals during that time that ramp up the excitement for a brief period, before they have an explosive final third (not always but often). A good example of this is The Shining, both the book and the movie. Unlike other King stories like It, where things are big and scary from the very beginning, The Shining takes its time building things up. It lays the groundwork, showing us these very real characters and their struggles, the isolation they feel, and the true nature of the Overlook. On that final one, King really takes his time. We get brief glimpses of the truth of the hotel, and each glimpse gets nastier every time, but it’s not until the final third that things really hit a head and things become truly exciting.

Another facet I’ve noticed about slow burns (the ones I’ve come across, anyway) is that there’s a sort of reluctance on the parts of the characters. In The Shining, none of the three main characters want to be in the hotel, but they all have to be so they can survive as a family, and it’s with a certain reluctance that the characters, especially Jack, acknowledge that there’s something seriously wrong with the hotel they can’t handle and that they have to get the hell out of Dodge. Dracula is often described as a slow burn, especially in the novel and in the Nosferatu adaptations, and without a doubt the characters are reluctant to be in the machinations of a centuries-old vampire. And in Pat’s novel Madame ZeeZee, the first-person narrator is very much reluctant at first to look into the strange events that occur at the titular character’s dance studio. It’s only as things progress that she finds herself really looking into things.

So that’s slow burns for you. But how do you write them? If I had to guess, I’d think it would have to do with moderation, specifically moderating the amount of excitement in the story. With most other stories, the norm is to build the excitement until the climax of the story when things get really explosive. But with a slow burn, it’s more like you’re doing a mostly flat Richter scale graph with only slight bumps here and there until the very end when things get super exciting (if you decide to write the story that way, that is). Doing that might take some practice, however, so I would recommend doing that practice and just allowing yourself to get good at them. Don’t get upset if you’re not good at it at first; we all start somewhere, don’t we?

In the meantime, if you’d like to read some good slow burns to get a good idea for them, here are some of the ones I’d recommend: The Shining by Stephen King; See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt (see my review of that novel here); HEX by Thomas Olde Heuvelt (see my review of that here); Final Girls by Riley Sager (see my review for that here); and of course Madame ZeeZee’s Nightmare by Pat Bertram, which I reviewed on Amazon. All of them are excellent slow burns, and I can’t recommend them enough. Definitely check them out if you’re curious.

What observations have you made about slow burn stories?

Which slow burns have you read recently? Would you recommend them?

  1. Pat Bertram says:

    Interesting summary of slow burn. Thanks for the mention of Madame ZeeZee’s Nightmare!

  2. Catherine Larkin says:

    I used to read a lot of King when I was younger. After a while, I started disliking his books– based on the same thing you mentioned, that “The Shining” was a great book, but I thought “Christine,” “Pet Semetary” and other books (pre-accident King) were juvenile and not worth my time. It was one bad book after another bad book and I finally gave up. You can only take so many vomit jokes. While reading a book called “Floating Dragon” though, I thought “now this is the stuff” and I noticed that there was a co-writer named Peter Straub. I read Julia, Ghost Story, Shadowland, If You Could See Me Now. That’s when I switched from King to Straub. I stopped reading his books too after a while, favoring non-fiction for many years, but now, I am re-investing in Straub and plan on reading all the books I missed and re-reading the books I already read.

    Straub is a master of the slow burn. Most of his books often come off as suburban problem novels– divorces, adults who drink, money problems, affairs between unhappy people, or coming of age novels about things that happened years ago. They tend to mix the mystery genre with horror. Although the books “seem” to be about the above mentioned, in reality, they are about horrific beasts from alternate universes or criminals who are actually possessed by real demons. (They are basically all “The Shining.” Read Koko if you want to see a master of the slow burn at work. At the 50% mark, the evil entity pops out for a quick murder (he’s done it several times before but you never see him, so he is like “jaws.”) and at the 75% mark, the real fun starts, but the main character is so convinced that he is wrong– the ghoul from hell is just a regular person he thinks.

    So anyway, thanks for exploring “slow burn” novels.

  3. fiddlestix says:

    Thank you for the explanation. I really wish there was a different term for it though. a “slow burn” just sounds instantly off-putting to me.

  4. hrkemp01 says:

    This is an interesting article. Thank you for the explanation. For some time now I have been searching for a term to explain my own novels. I have published 2 novels, both of which can be labeled mystery suspense thrillers, or political conspiracy thrillers, but they don’t fit neatly. Instead of the US definition of political thrillers, my novels do not have FBI or CIA agents, there are no gun shootouts or car chases. Unlike UK political thrillers, my main characters are not politicians (although they do appear in the story). I call them Australian thrillers, and think they fit your definition of ‘slow burn’. They involve a reluctant, ordinary person (amateur sleuth), who uncovers a sinister plot and then is compelled to act.
    Do you have any examples of slow burn ‘thrillers’ (rather than horror)?
    Have you come across any other terms for ‘slow burn’?
    Thanks again for sharing your perspective.

    • The closest I can think of are the two Agatha Christie novels I’ve read, Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile. They’re mysteries that take their time, so I would call them slow burns. Other than those, however, all I can come up with is horror titles and some true crime (though those aren’t fictional, so they may not match up with what you’re looking for). Sorry I can’t be of more help.

    • Also Madame ZeeZee’s Nightmare, by the way. That one counts as well.

      • hrkemp01 says:

        Thank you. I’ll check out Madame ZeeZee’s nightmare. I haven’t heard of it so it’s a good tip.

  5. hrkemp01 says:

    I think of my novels, Deadly Secrets and Lethal Legacy, as slow burn. They conform to the characteristics you outline, the focus on good characters and character development development, an explosive finish after a gentle build up, and a reluctant heroine. I enjoy reading slow burns. Unfortunately, I think the reviews now focus on speed, revering fast paced stories. It’s a shame, because the slow burn is such an immersive read. Thanks for your analysis.

    • I think it depends a lot on the genre and how the story is presented. I’ve come across some slow burns in horror that have become quite beloved, like Hereditary. A lot of it also depends on the readers in question.

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