Nothing feels better than picking up a new suspense novel, settling into your favorite chair, and immersing yourself in another world. As a writer, I’ve read hundreds of suspense novels. I can still remember the feeling of gripping the book, speeding through the pages and not wanting to put it down until I find out what happens next. As I was learning to write, I really wanted to know what it was that could take my story to the next level. I began studying novels to find out what exactly it was that the author had done to make their book so memorable. I found three key elements which were present in each of these novels. I’ll be using several examples from the movie The Fugitive, starring Harrison Ford. (If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it.)
The first element is a likeable character, plus a noble action. This seems obvious that your readers should like your protagonist, but they also should see him/her doing something noble. It doesn’t have to be a huge action…just something nice. In The Fugitive, the opening scene has Harrison Ford and his wife attending a high class party. The viewers learn that he is a successful surgeon. He swoops in and rescues his wife from a boring conversation and they head home. The viewer warms to this character because he would rather spend time with his wife, than hobnob with his colleagues. On the way home he receives a call and he is needed in surgery to save a man’s life. His wife assures him it’s okay, that she’ll way up for him. Mission accomplished, the viewer (or reader) is on his side.
The second element is to let the tension build. Never let up. In the subsequent scenes, Ford’s character is tried and sentenced to death for a crime he didn’t commit. (Murdering his wife.) We know he’s innocent, and we’re cheering him on. Each scene in the movie layers the tension on, the trial, the conviction, the train wreck, his escape, and the first chase scenes. The result leaves your readers grasping the book, hoping everything will turn out okay for your character.
The final element is humor. Every now and then, your reader will need a little breather. The scene doesn’t have to be a long one. If well written, it can be as little as one line. In The Fugitive, Harrison Ford has been on the run for a while. He’s had several close encounters, but he’s been able to escape each time, and he’s beginning to put the pieces together to solve the mystery of who killed his wife. He’s rented a room in a sketchy neighborhood. All of a sudden, you hear police sirens, Ford looks out the window and he sees a team of police swarming the place. He begins pacing. There’s no way out of the house. Then we see that the landlady’s son is being arrested. She cries out, “My baby!” and one of the cops responds, “Your baby is a drug dealer.” After all the tension the scene created, this one line made the audience laugh. We had a moment to rest.
So whether you’re in the beginning stages, the muddy middle, or tying up the loose ends of your novel. When you’re in that final polishing stage, look back over and see if your novel contains these three elements.
Colleen Scott is a client of Linda S. Glaz. Her debut novel, Misconceptions releases on January 19, 2016. You can learn more about Colleen at her website, www.colleenscottfiction.com.