good suspense authors have one thing in
common: They exploit the familiar. The best writers take things we’re
sure about and alter our confidence in them: that the family dog is
friendly, that all vampires are bad, that no one would dare pick a
fight with Jesus. A number of best-selling writers are adept at this
form of literary manipulation.
While growing up, most of us had
a dog—a floppy-eared, drooling mutt
that became a member of the family. We smile when we think of him. And
Stephen King knows that. So what did he do? He took Cujo—little boy’s
best friend—and turned him into a man-eating monster. He played on our
sense of familiar and successfully changed our perception of the family
Before Stephanie Meyer
introduced us to the Cullens, vampires were
always the enemy. And yet, with a flick of the pen, she made us like
them—root for them, even. She took a familiar subject and shifted our
perception to match her own. Can vampires still be the bad guys? Sure.
Are they always the bad guy? Not anymore.
Until Dan Brown got snarky with
Jesus, the idea of a novel that
tried to unravel the tenets of Christianity seemed implausible.
Unthinkable even. And yet he took a familiar painting—The Last
by Leonardo da Vinci—and had the masses questioning what they believed.
There was certainly a thunderous revolt at the ideas he presented (with
good reason), but he was nonetheless successful in exploiting a
familiar object to his own advantage.
Whether we agree with the
content of those novels, or the author’s
worldview, we cannot dispute that the tactic works. And for a suspense
author, it is a valuable tool. Authors can use two ways to exploit the
familiar: ask questions, or alter behavior. Stephen King allowed Cujo
to get rabies and become a crazed mongrel. Stephanie Meyer created a
coven of vampires that go to extraordinary lengths to protect humans
instead of kill them. Dan Brown peppered us with questions about the
deity of Christ.
The point in exploiting the
familiar is to change the reader’s mind.
Sometimes the familiar object is the crux of the story, and sometimes
it’s just a means to get there. Regardless, the author uses it to make
us consider things the way they do.
So how does it work, exactly?
When the premise of a story is based
on a familiar idea (or person or object), the reader is instantly at
ease. We know what the story is about. Or we think we do, at any rate.
With my first novel, eye of the god, I took a
object—the Hope Diamond—and wove a story around its legendary curse.
Most people have heard of the jewel, it is the most viewed museum
object in the world, after all (boasting more visitors than the Mona
each year—an astounding thirteen million, in fact). And most people are
aware that it has a colorful history. According to legend, the Hope
Diamond was once the eye of a Hindu idol named Rama Sita. When it was
in the seventeenth century, it is said
that the idol cursed all those who would possess it. A quick glance at
its owners, including Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, give the
appearance that there is indeed something to the tale. A familiar
object with a familiar curse. It was ripe for the picking—and once
But I didn’t just want to tell
the story of a big, blue, cursed rock. I wanted to make it deeper, more
intriguing and significant
than simply a diamond owned by some of history’s most notorious
figures. I wanted to make the tale of the Hope Diamond relevant to my
culture, and my faith.
So I started asking questions.
What do all these “cursed” owners
have in common? Why would anyone become obsessed with a diamond? Is
there really a curse? If so, is it self-inflicted? Where does greed
play into the story? I asked questions and I altered the perception of
a diamond that is familiar to a large number of people. When all was
said and done, and the dust finally settled over the last great
adventure of the Hope Diamond, I questioned if the “curse” that has
haunted its legacy was nothing more than the greed of evil men who
bring destruction upon themselves. No god chiseled from stone can
direct the fates of men, nor can it change the course of His-story.
author’s faith—or lack thereof—ultimately determines where they lead
readers after exploiting the familiar. For those who follow Jesus, it’s
a heavy responsibility. We aren’t just telling stories, we are
retelling The Story. And as we introduce a sense of
to those who read our words, we have a great opportunity to lead them
back to the most familiar thing of all: Jesus.