The Author as Terrorist #4: Keep Them Guessing

Effective terrorists manage to keep their victims in constant uncertainty.  Will the next attack be a car bomb at the mall, sarin gas in the subway, or anthrax in the mail?  Their victims live in constant tension, knowing that they could be hit at any moment from any direction.  Suspense writers need to be able to do the same thing to our victims, er, readers.

This is the hardest rule to implement, but also the most necessary.  In one sense, it’s impossible:  Before readers even pick up your book, they know that your hero(es) are almost certain to prevail in the end.  If terrorists are plotting to assassinate the president, they’re very likely to fail.  If a serial murderer is stalking a quiet college campus, the main character’s daughter probably will be safe in the end.

The trick is to keep surprising readers along the way.  For example, in The Day of the Jackal Frederick Forsyth tells the story of a fictional attempt to kill Charles de Gaulle.  Since de Gaulle was not actually assassinated, we know right off the bat how the story will end.  But we don’t know why it will end that way.  Forsyth does a magnificent job of keeping us off-balance throughout.  He creates twist after twist as the brilliant assassin, the Jackal, and French intelligence agents play a lethal game of hide-and-seek.  Even though we know who will win, we’re enthralled by the game.

There are plenty of good ways to create plot twists.  Forsyth does it by making both the Jackal and his pursuers smarter than we are; we can’t see their actions coming, but they make perfect sense in retrospect.  Unfortunately, that only works if you’re as smart as Forsyth.  An easier technique is to throw in a critical fact known to the characters (or some of them anyway), but not the reader.  For instance, your FBI agent protagonist could inexplicably destroy evidence that would put a mob boss away for life.  Why?  Because the agent and the mobster—but not the reader—know that the agent’s illegitimate son works for a mob-owned business and would be killed if the mobster went to jail.

You can also put your characters into unpredictable situations and see how they respond:  What happens when your blue-collar American detective has to find a killer who disappeared into the high reaches Brazil’s aristocracy?  Does he take a crash course in Portuguese and get himself a menial job at the estate of one of the killer’s relatives?  Does he find a Brazilian cop who knows the dirty laundry of his country’s privileged class and would like nothing better than to see one of them brought to justice?  Or maybe instead of a cop, the detective finds a well-connected drug dealer with whom he makes a Faustian bargain?

One caution:  Not all plot twists are your friends.  Two in particular should be used sparingly if at all.  The first is the Character Lobotomy, in which the author dramatically drops a character’s IQ in order to make the character do something inexplicably stupid to move the plot along.  The most common (but by no means only) example is the Talking Killer scene found near the end of most James Bond movies and Harry Potter books.  The villain has the hero trapped and need only kill him to be certain of victory, but the villain doesn’t do it!  Instead, he says in effect, “Shut up, you worm, and let me explain the plot to you before your improbable escape!”

The second treacherous plot twist is the Convenient Coincidence:  the scene where the heroine arrives in the split second between the end of the Talking Killer’s speech and the moment he murders the hero, for example.  Or the key inscription that can be read only because a character happens to be fluent in Medieval Urdu.  Or the Bible in the protagonist’s vest pocket that stops what by all rights should be a fatal bullet.  Again, it’s best to avoid these.

The problem with both Character Lobotomies and Convenient Coincidences, of course, is that they make your story less believable.  The minute readers stop believing your story, you’ve lost them.  The spell is broken.  They sit back from the edges of their seats, roll their eyes, chuckle, and toss your book onto a coffee table or into the dreaded library donation box.  Not a pretty mental picture, is it?  Don’t let it happen to you.

198 comments

  1. So many writers today don’t take pride in their work the way you obviously do. Thank you for your dedication to excellent writing and creating this wonderful content. It’s as if you read my mind.

  2. If more people that write articles really concerned themselves with writing great content like you, more readers would be interested in their writings. Thank you for caring about your content.

  3. I simply couldn’t leave your site before suggesting that I extremely loved the usual info an individual supply in your visitors? Is gonna be again steadily to investigate cross-check new posts

  4. The content that I typically read online is nothing like what you have written in this article. Your work is obviously very well-researched, outlined and written. Please continue to write this kind of unique content.

  5. It’s seldom that I make it through material on this subject, but I was drawn into this article. Your wording and well-made points made it easy to read for me.

  6. Your passion for this topic shines throughout this article. I appreciate your writing as your insight has made me think a lot about your views.

  7. Excellent read, I just passed this onto a colleague who was doing a little research on that. And he actually bought me lunch because I found it for him smile So let me rephrase that: Thanks for lunch!

  8. Downloaden.ws and Mamiesquier

  9. Your work is very inspiring and entertaining to read. I hope you continue things like this, they are very good. This is really great writing.

  10. You are obviously very good at gathering data and writing it in clear terms for your readers. I like your unique take on this topic and I agree with you on a lot of it.

  11. You’ve done an excellent job expressing your thoughts in this article. I concur with a lot of your thoughts and appreciate your vast knowledge and forward thinking. Thank you for sharing your ideas with us.

  12. This article is definitely praise-worthy. It’s well researched information with excellent grammar. It’s easy to become involved in this content and hard to take a break from reading it. I am looking forward to more.

  13. Opposing views are a great way to write such an interesting informative article. Your word choices and dictation have made this such an enjoyable article to read, producing quite a thought process along the way.

  14. This type of content is normally dull and boring to me, but you have managed to make it very interesting. This is not boring information.

  15. Informative articles can be boring, but you have turned that concept around. This is very interesting and the content is simply amazing. I love it. Keep up the great work.

  16. You are simply amazing! I have never read articles on this subject matter that made so much sense. Your points are right on and solid as a rock! Thank you.

  17. I would be interested in more content like this from you. I think a lot like you on this subject and your perspective is interesting. Will there be more soon?

  18. Hi vey nice interesting blog im from i found this on bing i found this blog very interesting good luck with it i will return to this blog soon

  19. This article must be devoted to us thinkers because it made me think. The viewpoints you have shared are thoroughly thought out and unique. It’s easy to grasp this information.

  20. This is a terrific article. You make sense with your views and I agree with you on many. Some information got me thinking. That’s a sign of a great article.

  21. It’s not uncommon for an article with this much information to become confusing, but your content is clear. I can relate to many of the points contained in this material.

  22. This reading material is obviously written by a gifted writer. I not only agree with the points made, I also like the format. Thank you.

  23. You really make it seem so easy with your presentation but I find this topic to be really something which I think I would never understand. It seems too complicated and very broad for me. I am looking forward for your next post, I will try to get the hang of it!

  24. If more people that write articles really concerned themselves with writing great content like you, more readers would be interested in their writings. Thank you for caring about your content.

  25. This is totally impressive content. I like how you portrayed your viewpoints and I agree with a lot of these points. Your article incites thought in the reader and keeps their interest throughout the material.

  26. This article confirms that there are prize worthy-writers out there willing and able to take the time to research their articles and share them with others. Thank you for sharing.

  27. This article is full of excellent informative content. The points you make are interesting and original, and I agree on many of them. Thank you for writing on this topic.

  28. After much searching, I’ve found the information I needed. I’ve marked this site for future reference and will be back.

  29. I know there’s more to writing informational articles like this than typing some words. I get that you did a lot of work on this content. I think it’s impressive.

  30. I am truly amazed at how well you have laid out this information.
    It’s easy to comprehend and read as well as informative.
    It’s so well-worded that I can’t dispute the valid points you make.
    seo services

  31. “Good info, many thank you to the author. It is incomprehensible to me now, but in general, the particular usefulness and importance is overpowering. Thanks again and good luck!”

  32. “I would like to thank you for the efforts you have made in writing this post. This has been an inspiration for me. I’ve passed this on to a friend of mine.”

  33. “Good info, many thank you to the author. It is incomprehensible to me now, but in general, the particular usefulness and importance is overpowering. Thanks again and good luck!

  34. You really give the right information that I am looking for.
    I found this blog post through Google and I love your contents here.
    Thanks for sharing such informative articles and I will make sure visit some other blog post on your websites to read more.
    Best Buy coupons

  35. I am very much thankful to the author for this wonderful article. It was an amazing experience to me to be here.

  36. I got this blog through Google and i totally agree with the post. It is an effective post to read.

  37. This is the best example of an effective post. Even i invited my friends to read this wonderful article.

  38. Very nice post. I just stumbled upon your blog and wanted to say that I’ve truly enjoyed surfing around your blog posts. In any case I will be subscribing to your rss feed and I hope you write again very soon!

  39. Hello there! This post could not be written any better!
    Reading this post reminds me of my previous room mate!

    He always kept chatting about this. I will forward this
    page to him. Fairly certain he will have a good read.

    Many thanks for sharing!

  40. I’m not sure why but this web site is loading very slow for me. Is anyone else having this issue or is it a issue on my end? I’ll check back later and
    see if the problem still exists.

  41. Excеllent post. I used to be checkіng сonstantly thiѕ weblog and I am imprеsѕed!
    Extremely useful infoгmatіon ѕpeсificаlly the гemаіning paгt 🙂 I care for such infοrmatіon a lot.
    I was lookіng for thiѕ paгticulаr infoгmation for a long time.
    Thаnk you and good luck.

  42. You created some decent points there. I looked on-line for any issue and found most people should go
    because well because with the internet site.

  43. Hello! I recognize this is quite off topic however I was wondering if you knew where I could figure
    out a captcha plugin for my comment form Im using the same
    blog platform because yours and Im having trouble finding
    one Thanks a ton!

  44. Fine, i’ve got to assert that the producing skills not which
    unhealthy, yet i can also you’ll actually improve ones own publishing knowledge. Implementing reduced thoughts to mention the actual. You’ll check out search results just for making skills schooling website and applications.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. roofers austin - Useful Links... I saw this really great post today, I would like to share it with you all....
  2. Buy A Camera - Nighttime post... Read before bed!...
  3. Ink Coupons - Happy Sautrday... Check out this posting from our good friends...
  4. Back Surgery - Check this great posting out..... ...Really good read!...
  5. Buy Stair Lifts - Hi,... There are actually a lot of details like that to take into consideration. That may be a great…
  6. Computer Coupons - Sunday Posting Of Day:... ..Great read to start Sunday off...
.