octane? Does that mean more miles to the gallon? Or more words to the
page? Actually, it’s just a little more bang for the buck and a faster
read. If you like can’t-turn-the-page-fast-enough books, high octane
suspense is probably right up your alley. Or right up your readometer,
I fell in love with this kind of
writing from watching the movies I can’t get enough of : Die
Hard, True Lies, Diggstown, Speed, and Live Free or
Die Hard. I wanted to write books that would grab readers by
the throat and carry them along to the end—the same way these movies
did to me.
So what makes it “high octane”
suspense, anyway? Well, action, action, and more action tumbling over
itself with barely any time to breathe. And those moments of no action?
Lots of tension and foreshadowing of action to come.
Okay, so how do you go about
doing that? Well, I like to pick locations and occupations that are
somewhat high octane in and of themselves. In Judgment Day,
my protagonist is a cable news host/investigative reporter, and if one
business is truly high octane, it’s cable news. Staying on top of the
latest and greatest stories can be extremely stressful—throw in a
battle for ratings and you have a situation ripe for exploitation.
And whom do these cable news
shows love to go after? The rich, the powerful, the famous. What a
perfect pool of suspects to pull an antagonist from. Someone rich and
powerful enough to pull off some very deadly crimes—and get away with
it. Then toss in a couple of private investigators dedicated to
fighting for the underdog, a few victims who will pull on your
heartstrings, and you have the perfect mix for high octane.
Most novelists go to great
lengths to produce a protagonist whom everyone should love, identify
with, and care about. Not so in Judgment Day.
Suzanne Kidwell isn’t the least bit sympathetic, but the deeper she’s
drawn into the mess of her own making, the more the reader will care,
does care, and begins to root for her. It’s a fine line to create a
character who isn’t all that likeable and still have the reader root
for her, but none of us are perfect and we all have people in our lives
who don’t care much for us. And in Suzanne’s case, she also has to
overcome the reality that the only man she can turn to for help is a
man she once betrayed. Ouch.
But it creates just the right
elements for lots of tension, lots of action, and lots of fan mail
complaining about being up all night turning the pages. And who doesn’t
Once you have the right elements
in place, there is the matter of pacing. You want to keep the minutia
detail to a minimum. If it doesn’t move the plot forward, cut it. The
reader doesn’t want or need every little detail about a room, a person,
or the view. They want to know what’s going to happen next. So I don’t
use a lot of description for my characters or scenes. I give just
enough to provoke the reader to fill in the blanks any way he wants
while I concentrate on the plot.
One rule I learned and try to
keep to is this: In each page, scene, and chapter, the character must
do, learn, or have done to them something that will alter, improve, or
worsen the status and raise either tension or questions, or
prepare/foreshadow the worst that is right around the corner.
always easy, but if you think about that page, scene, or chapter long
enough, you’ll come pretty close. Keep in mind that writing suspense is
about more than guns blazing, dead bodies, or extraordinary deduction
skills. It’s about building tension in areas outside of the action
itself. Could you imagine picking up the morning paper and the headline
reading something like LOTS OF INTERESTING THINGS HAPPENED BUT WE
DIDN’T FEEL LIKE WORKING ON THEM SO CHECK BACK TOMORROW? Well, readers
don’t want to waste their money on books in which the author didn’t
feel like truly working at it.
the creepy music in
those horror movies? The pretty girl was just walking down the dark
hallway. Nothing else was happening. But the tension was building. You
build that tension in your stories a number of ways—tension in
relationships, within themselves, and in their environment. As my
mentor once said (well, actually she said it more than once), “Make ’em
suffer. Then make ’em suffer even more.” Conflict is to story what
sound is to music. It hooks our interest, holds our concentration, and
carries us through time without an awareness of the passage of time.
Conflict and tension is the music of your story. And if you listen to a
good symphony, it’s always changing: fast, slow, upbeat, soft, loud.
Make sure your story does the same.
Static is bad. Tension is good.
Cliché is bad. Conflict is good.
Predictable is bad. Surprise is
The substance of a story is the
gap that exists between what someone expects to happen and what
actually happens. Reading is not a passive exercise. As readers turn
the pages, their minds are engaged. They’re working out the clues,
figuring out which direction you’re going in and trying to get there
ahead of you with the right answers. What they want is to be surprised.
The Sixth Sense was
such a hit because “no one saw it coming.” That’s what readers want
from a good thriller—surprise! Never saw that coming!
So, want to write a high-octane
1. Start your story immediately
before the inciting incident that will shift the balance of your main
2. Build your plot so that each action leads to a reaction that
heightens the suspense.
3. Never let your character do something predictable and boring—give
them a tofu taco instead of that hamburger.
4. Take time to build compelling characters.
5. Stand your hero on the face of a cliff and throw rocks at him. When
you’re nice to your hero or heroine, you’re being bad to your story.
6. Build the conflict and keep it building to the very end.
7. Rewrite, rewrite, rewrite.