Wanda Dyson

Wanda Dyson's been called a "natural" and a "master of pacing," but her fans know that whether it's police thrillers, suspense, or bringing a true story to life, Wanda knows how to take them on a journey they'll never forget. Wanda is a multipublished suspense author, currently writing for Random House/Waterbrook. Her one attempt at a nonfiction book was picked for an exclusive release on Oprah. Wanda lives in Western Maryland on a 125 acre farm with a menagerie of animals and when she's not writing critically acclaimed suspense, or away at conferences, you can find her zipping across the fields on a 4-wheeler with Maya, her German Shepherd, or plodding along at a more leisurely pace on her horse, Nanza. With the release of her newest hit, Judgment Day, Wanda is heading back to the keyboard to start on her next high-octane thriller, The Vigilante. In addition to writing full time, she is also the appointment coordinator for the CCWC, Greater Philadelphia Christian Writers, and ACFW Writers conferences. Visit her Website at www.WandaDyson.com.

High-Octane Suspense

High 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, anyway.

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 love that?

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.

Not 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.

Remember 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 good.

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 thriller?

1. Start your story immediately before the inciting incident that will shift the balance of your main character’s life.
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.


Judgment Day