I won’t lie to you, today’s post is inspired by three really amazing books that are hitting the stands today:
GATED by Amy Christine Parker, about a girl who grows up in a cult and finds herself dangerously at odds with the leader as the “end times” approach. A debut YA thriller from Random House Children’s.
TERMINATED by Rachel Caine, about a woman kept “alive” by a crazy dangerous drug that various groups want to control and engineer for deadly fun and profit. The really amazing conclusion to the Revivalist series from Roc Books.
BITING BAD by Chloe Neill, about a woman who was turned into a vampire against her will and now stands Sentinel for her people, which means putting herself between the Master of her House and any danger that comes his way. In this installment of the Chicagoland Vampires series from NAL, this means anti-vampire riots erupting across Chicago and a splinter group with potential ties straight to City Hall.
I bet you can guess what all of these books have in common. Hint: it’s in the very title of this post. That’s right, no one is ever truly safe. This is the essence of suspense and at its heart what keeps readers turning pages, missing appointments and sometimes subway stops. (I speak from experience.) In order for tension to exist, we must fear for characters for whom we’ve come to care. In romance, we might be fearing for the hero and heroine’s hearts rather their bodies (although not at all necessarily). In science fiction, fantasy and thrillers, we’re probably fearing for their very lives. And not just their lives, but that of those around them should a plot fail to be foiled or a mission not succeed. The point is that as a writer, you have to do a few things here:
1- Give us a character with whom we identify so that you’re essentially putting us in their shoes. Their life or death is ours. Our stomachs should clench and we should flinch along with them. (Much as I do when watching gymnasts, as if tightening my muscles and contorting myself helps them in any way.) We need someone to care for and that character or those characters need something personally at stake—their lives or the lives of people they love, their freedom, even their good name in the case of false accusation. There has to be an internal conflict driving the characters which affects how they react to the external conflict, the main plot.
2- Make us believe—really believe—that anything is possible. We can’t know the outcome. We can’t feel safe. We can’t think even for a second that because someone is a series character, for example, they can’t be horribly damaged or even die. Think Joss Whedon. I can’t imagine that any right-thinking person hasn’t seen Buffy the Vampire Slayer (series, not film) at this point, but I won’t offer spoilers except to say that the creator wasn’t afraid to kill anyone. And you might never see it coming. You might sit staring at the screen for moments after something unthinkable had happened trying to unthink it. “Oh no, he didn’t.” “He couldn’t have.” “It must be a trick.” No, lords and ladies. No trick. And that was only part of the genius. The other half was in creating something so powerful that fans were willing to trust him and continue watching even when we’d been so badly betrayed by the doing of that which could not possibly be done.
3- Don’t be afraid to throw in a game-changer. No, I’m going to go one step further—throw in a game-changer. That’s an order. Don’t let the character or the readers get too comfortable. Throw in something we never saw coming to make us wonder how on earth you’re going to pull it off or how your character is going to survive. All the best writers have wondered this themselves when they haven’t pulled their punches, but have set their heroes and heroines against odds that seem insurmountable. They’ll tear their hair out or sit jabbering in the corner or bite their spouse’s head off until suddenly…EUREKA! Authors don’t write themselves into corners so much as blind alleys.
Number three, in fact, is one of the things I love best about writing—when we as authors surprise ourselves. Writing is an adventure, a constant sense of discovery. Even plotters often don’t know that a character is going to do or say a particular thing which changes everything along the line. We just have to go with it. Writing is a choose-your-own-adventure with limitless possibilities for every line written, and we’ve got to choose our path, which might sometimes be a challenge to our own sanity, but the fact is that if we’re not discomforting ourselves, we’re not discomforting the reader, and that’s what it’s all about. Want some examples? Follow along with these ladies listed above. Or with CRUX by Ramez Naam, a wonderful novel that comes out a little later this month, sequel to the very successful science fiction thriller NEXUS. I promise you won’t be disappointed.