Every thriller depends on suspense. Without it, it’s just another tale. Like most things, suspense is both an art and a science. The science can be learned, but the art takes talent and practice – and the best suspense writers have both. To be honest, part of the art is learning when to ignore the science, but you have to know both first.
All thrillers have a uniform goal: mess with the readers’ sleep patterns! Up all night, calling in sick to work, nearly exasperated at the inability to put a bookmark in it and get anything else done. Those are the signs of a thriller done well.
So how do you do it?
Step 1 – Begin in the middle. Okay, you can begin at the beginning. But when you hit chapter three, go back and erase chapter one and probably chapter two as well. Open with the strangest line you have (“The bird asked him how his day went”) or the one that would make the least sense if taken out of context (“The boy crawled along the ceiling”). These require explanation . . . and the reader will have to follow along to find out.
Step 2 – Cut out background information. (Why did she shoot her boss?) Don’t give in to the temptation to put it there. You can add it later. (A lover’s spat? Blackmail? Corporate espionage?) The wait makes the reading intriguing and keeps the pages turning. This step is nearly the opposite of the next step, and they need to be used in concert. The art comes in deciding which to use when.
Step 3 – Set up your punches. Think about a sitcom (follow me on this one for a minute . . .) The best sitcom jokes are the ones that build throughout the show, so that by the time the punchline comes around, you have all the pieces you need. Key ideas and occurrences should never be followed by an explanation – just like in a joke. If an explanation is needed beforehand, cut it into tiny pieces and disperse it throughout the prior info.
Step 4 – Don’t explain. Trust your readers to get it. You can only go for a certain audience – and the best thrillers assume the audience is smart enough to catch on. (A man walks into a bar . . . and says ‘ouch’. Because it’s a bar, like a beam, not like where you drink – Yup, I lost you at ‘because’.) A good beta-reader will let you know if you need more info.
Step 4b – Assume the reader isn’t a specialist. This harkens back to steps 4 and 3. You do need to explain anything that’s not in the general knowledge pool. Dice it into tiny pieces and sprinkle them liberally into the text, so that when the student shows up late for his LSAT, the reader already knows that he won’t be let in, and that the next test isn’t until February, thus keeping him out of law school this year.
Step 5 – Tie it up. But please, not too neatly. If I read another thriller where the killer explains himself to a victim while the good guys get into place, I’m going to . . . (sorry. I read yet another one of those at 10am this morning.) Please! I beseech you: Don’t do it! (Step 4 also applies to characters!)
So bring on the edge-of-your-seat, roller-coaster, can’t-put-it-down-even-though-it’s-four-AM stories! I can’t wait . . .
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It’s A.J.’s world. A strange place where patterns jump out and catch the eye, very little is missed, and most of it can be recalled with a deep breath. It’s different from the world the rest of us inhabit. But the rest of us can see it – when we read. In this world, the smell of Florida takes three weeks to fully leave the senses, and the air in Dallas is so thick that the planes “sink” to the runways rather than actually landing.For A.J., texture reigns supreme. Whether it’s air or blood or virus, it can be felt and smelled. School is a privilege and two science degrees (a BA and MS) are mere pats on the back compared to the prize of knowledge. Teaching is something done for fun (and the illusion of a regular paycheck) and is rewarding at all levels, grade school through college. No stranger to awards and national recognition for outstanding work as a teacher, trainer and curriculum writer, like most true teachers, the real joy for A.J. is in the “oh!” - the moment when the student sees the connection and it all makes sense.
A.J. Scudiere has lived in Florida and Los Angeles among a handful of other places. Recent whims have brought the dark writer to Tennessee, where home is a deceptively normal looking neighborhood just outside Nashville.
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