The Author as Terrorist (#2): Starting with a Bang!

Last month, we started this series by talking about how old-school terrorists and suspense authors are the same in one important way: Like terrorists, we want to create uncertainty and tension that makes it impossible for our victims (er, readers) to focus on anything except what’s going to happen next in the world we’ve created. Now we’re going to start digging a little deeper to see what we writers can learn from the PLO and Baader-Meinhof gang.

A good terrorist introduces himself with something flashy and devastating, right? So does a good suspense writer.

Readers who pick up a suspense novel are looking for suspense. Give it to them, hard and fast. Sure, it’s important to introduce your characters, describe your setting and so on. But don’t let any of those things get in the way of putting readers on the edges of their seats.

Remember how Robert Ludlum started The Bourne Identity? Despite the title of the book, Ludlum didn’t begin by introducing Jason Bourne or even telling us his name. Instead, chapter one opens with a nameless man bursting onto the deck of a ship during a raging storm. He is shot from behind, topples over the side and vanishes into the churning sea. We have no idea who the man is, what he’s doing on the ship or why he was shot. None of that matters, though, because we’re already hooked. As long as Ludlum answers those questions eventually, we don’t mind. What we really care about is what happens next.

The Bourne Identity is an extreme example, but a fair one. Virtually all good suspense novels start with a bang. Someone is shot, a child vanishes, a life is shattered by a horrible secret. Go to your bookshelf and pull down your favorite suspense novel. Read the first five pages. I guarantee that you’ll see a bomb go off. Sometimes it’s literal, other times it’s emotional or psychological, but it’s unmistakably a major explosion. Now read the first five pages of your WIP. Does something big blow up?

There are lots of ways to set off a bomb early in your book. One popular technique is to start with a tension-creating prologue that helps set up the main storyline. For example, if you’re writing a crime drama in which one of your characters is a suspected serial murderer, begin with a short prologue describing one of the murders, but don’t identify the killer. If you’re working on a vampire novel, you can open with a young woman who feels an evil breeze blow across her soul as she’s walking down a deserted street. Whatever you’re going to do, though, do it fast. Never give your readers an excuse to put your book down. If you do, chances are that they won’t pick it up again.

Up next month in part #3: Crossing Lines. It will appear on Friday, October 16.

Cross-posted at


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