The Author as Terrorist: How to Think Like a Suspense Writer (#1)

I love a good suspense novel–the kind that grabs you with the first line, slowly tightens its grip for 400 pages, and doesn’t let go until the very end. I’ve also written suspense since I was in high school, and now I even get paid for it.So when CAN invited me to join this blog, it was only natural to do a series of posts on suspense writing. The series is titled The Author as Terrorist because … well, keep reading and I’ll explain.

We’ve all read—or at least started to read—thrillers that failed to thrill. They never catch fire or lose our attention after twenty pages. Before you know it they’ve been tossed in the box of books we’re donating to the next library book sale. And those are the ones that got published; hundreds of thousands of suspense novels die every year in the slush piles of agents and editors, mourned only by their authors. What went wrong with these books? More important, what went right with books that did grab us?

Good suspense novels tend to have good writing, of course. We care about the characters, chuckle at the witty dialogue, and admire the vivid description—but any good novel should have all of that. What sets a good suspense novel apart?

The key to answering that question lies in one of the favorite axioms of writing guru Randy Ingermanson: The goal of all fiction writing is to create a powerful emotional response in the reader. A romance writer wants to inspire longing and love. A mystery writer strives for intense curiosity followed by satisfaction when the mystery is unraveled at last. A horror writer, of course, tries to horrify.

And a suspense writer should create suspense, right? Readers should genuinely think that something awful might happen to a character they really care about. Better still, readers should wonder what exactly might happen and to which character.

The best suspense writers tend to think like old-fashioned terrorists. Really. The main goal of most terrorists in the 1960s and 1970s was not to kill people or blow up buildings, but to create a pervasive atmosphere of fear and uncertainty that made it impossible for their fellow citizens to lead normal lives. That, of course, is exactly the effect we suspense writers want to have on our readers. We want to make them miss their bus stops, skip meals and stay up way past their bedtimes because they absolutely have to know what’s going to happen next.

Up next month in part #2: Starting with a Bang. It will appear on Friday, September 18.

Cross-posted at


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