It was early on a Sunday morning, and the house was quiet. It’s my favorite time to read so I wandered downstairs to my bookshelves to hunt up a book. I have more than 500 books, many I haven’t read. Twenty minutes later, I was still hunting. (It’s not unlike trying to find something to wear!) What was I looking for? Voice, character sympathy, an intriguing plot, and the most important element: WHY.
This is the last—and the most important—trick to writing a suspense.
W – Why – Why should they read your book? So it’s fun? So it’s romantic, so your character has overcome some dangers and saved the world. The key to a great suspense is that it more than just a romance, more than just a thriller. A great book says something about life, about God, about the human experience that the reader can resonate with.
A great book makes us think, long after we put it down. A great book might even change us.
Yes, even a suspense. Why were Tom Clancy books so popular? They posed a “What if?” that made us sit up and panic, our hearts in our throats. Really, was a terrorist attack right around the corner? (Sum of all Fears) Or, did we really narrowly miss WWIII? (The Hunt for Red October)
How about the Vince Flynn thrillers? Or the John Grisham books that make us think about issues in our legal system? A great suspense can confront global issues . . . or personal ones. How about the Harlan Coben books? He’s made a career out of asking scary “what if” questions about everyday people. What if you came home and discovered your wife missing? What if someone from your past showed up to threaten you? Scare questions that can make a person think about how they live their life.
A story that resonates is a story that gets under our skin and asks questions that don’t leave us alone. How do you do this?
Ask yourself, What will my reader learn from this story?
Then ask, What truth am I telling? A great suspense embeds not only a story question but also a universal truth into a reader. For example, Harlan Coben has convinced us that yes, your past will come back to haunt you. Tom Clancy has embedded the idea that there are always evil forces at work in the world. It’s these truths that linger with the reader and keeps us up long after they put the book down.
What is the universal truth of Dante’s Peak? Even in the midst of trauma and trial, two people can find true love. Bird on a Wire? True love is worth waiting—and fighting—for.
In my book Expect the Sunrise, it’s that each day is a new day with God, even when there are terrorists chasing you across Alaska.
The answer is the trick that will sell you story.