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Iowa Summer Writing Festival—The Propulsive Plot: Strategies for Building Suspense in the Novel with Debra Jo Immergut (March 16–April 13, 2021) is a Course

Iowa Summer Writing Festival—The Propulsive Plot: Strategies for Building Suspense in the Novel with Debra Jo Immergut (March 16–April 13, 2021)

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Full course description

The Propulsive Plot: Strategies for Building Suspense in the Novel with Debra Jo Immergut

(Five-Week Workshop)


Tuesdays on Zoom: March 16–April 13, 2021

5:00 p.m.–7:30 p.m. Central Time (6:00–8:30 Eastern; 3:00–5:30 Pacific; 4:00–6:30 Mountain)

Fee: $550

Course Description

Every novel should be, in some sense, a thriller–and there’s no doubt that publishers endlessly crave stories that compel readers to turn pages. In this course, we’ll identify the essential components of suspense and gain a deep understanding of how to build a mystery. Reading excerpts and dissecting structure and style, we’ll consider novels of suspense by authors as varied as Ottessa Moshfegh, Gillian Flynn, Walter Mosley, Ian McEwan, Toni Morrison, and John le Carré. 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. 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. 

Class structure and objectives:  Each weekly Zoom meeting will consist of a craft talk, discussion of the week’s readings, and in-class writing exercises centered on specific techniques for constructing a powerful, compulsively readable story. Participants will also have a chance to share work in both large and small groups, and will receive feedback from the instructor and from classmates on premises, outlines, and first pages. Class time will be augmented by writing assignments and readings to be done between meetings. Each writer will have a 30-minute conference about their novel with the instructor via Zoom or phone. Participants will finish the workshop with an arsenal of strategies for plotting a surprising and satisfying narrative with a distinctive voice and social lens, and with a strong sense of forward momentum for their novel projects.


Debra Jo Immergut is the author of You Again (Ecco/HarperCollins), chosen as a Best Thriller/Mystery Novel of 2020 by the New York Times, and The Captives (Ecco/HarperCollins), a 2019 Edgar Award finalist for Best Debut Novel by an American Author and published in over a dozen other countries. She has also published a collection of short fiction, Private Property (Random House). Her essays and stories have appeared in American Short Fiction, Narrative, and The New York Times, among others. She is a nominee for the 2021 Joyce Carol Oates Prize, and has received Michener and MacDowell fellowships and an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

She has taught at the University of Iowa, the Center for Fiction in Brooklyn, NY, and the summer writing program at Smith College, as well as in libraries and prisons, where she loves to help new writers find their voices.

Debra lives in western Massachusetts and is happy to be reconnecting (virtually, for now) with the program in Iowa City, where she met her husband and began her journey as a writer.

What students say about working with Debra:

I was super hesitant, having zero writing experience. Debra's class gave me confidence—so much so that I find myself thinking about writing every day and am looking at everyday life scenarios with a writer’s eye.

—Carri M. 

Debra gave us a safe space to explore ideas and prompts while offering generous reads of our work. I left with a list of books to read and an excitement to continue writing. I am eager to take any class that she teaches next!

—Amanda I.

Debra was a wonderful writing teacher. She created a workshop environment that fostered constructive feedback and discussion. I looked forward to the course every week, and still incorporate much of what I learned into my writing. —Nicole P. 

I am writing about my Marine Corp experiences. This work would not have started without Debra's workshops

—Michael S.

Registration & Fees

The fee for this course is $550. Payment in full is required to register.

Registration for this course opens Thursday, February 18, 2021.

Registrations are accepted on a first-come, first-served basis.

Class size is limited to 10.

Note: Your credit card payment will be processed by an external provider and will appear on your credit card statement as “UI Writing—Magid Center.” 

Cancellation Policy

A $100 cancellation fee will be applied to refunds for cancellations received by Tuesday, March 2, 2021. Thereafter, no refunds are available. 

Terms & Community Policy

The Iowa Summer Writing Festival is a community built on an assumption of shared enterprise, in the spirit of mutual respect. We reserve the right to a) revoke the registration of or b) dismiss from the program any person who disrupts the learning/working environment of others.

Participants in the Festival are subject to all University of Iowa policies governing conduct in our community, whether online or in person.



Contact the Iowa Summer Writing Festival: Phone: (319) 335-4160.

Our tiny staff is working remotely. If you phone and we miss you, please leave a message!