Bob is a lawyer and a bestselling author. His first in the Tracy Crosswhite series was released November 1, 2014 by Thomas and Mercer and became a #1 bestselling title on Amazon, the New York Times and Wall Street Journal. .-Jim Born
I recently attended Left Coast Crime in Portland and was asked, “What makes a good legal thriller?”
I responded, “Take out the word ‘legal’. What makes a good thriller? In fact, take out the word thriller. What makes a good book?”
The answer, Tension.
Stephen King advocates tension on every page, which, of course, is easier said than done. It’s sort of like the writer’s proverb, “Show, don’t tell.” Really? Are you really going to write a 400 page novel without doing any telling? Not possible, in my humble opinion. If you try, you’ll have 400 pages of metaphors and similes, most not very good.
Tension is a tricky thing. Too often I read manuscripts in which the writer has interpreted tension to mean, action. So the writer ends up with a manuscript that is filled with action on every page. This can be as monotonous as the book that has no action at all. In other words, action without tension is boring. It’s also exhausting for the reader. They don’t have time to catch their breath. More importantly, they don’t have time to care about the character’s well-being. The reader expects the protagonist to survive. Where do you go after your protagonist has climbed along the outside of a moving plane, parachuted 5,000 feet using a blanket, and survived shark infested waters?
So here’s my tip for creating tension. It doesn’t start with the plot. It starts with the character. First, if the writer doesn’t take the time to create a living, breathing character on the page that the reader cares about, then all the action scenes in the world won’t matter because the reader isn’t invested in the character’s life. They don’t care.
Think of these two scenarios. A friend calls you up to tell you that a college friend you haven’t seen in thirty years passed away. You may feel some regret, some sorrow, some nostalgia, but probably not much pain. Now a friend calls you up and tells you that your college roommate and best friend passed away. That pain is real, deep and pervasive. Why? Because you have invested in that friend’s life. You know his or her spouse and kids. You have the same friends. You vacation together and know all of his or her quirks and wonderful qualities. You cared about that person. You have to make the reader care about your character in some way so that the reader cares whether your character survives the ordeal you will put them through. When you do that, then the action scenes create tension because the reader anxiously wants the protagonist to be okay and come out the side perhaps injured, but still alive.
Try something less morbid. You’re watching March Madness. Two basketball teams from schools you are not affiliated with are playing. How much do you care who wins or loses? Now you’re watching your alma mater in what is the biggest game in school history. You live and breathe Stanford Cardinal sports. Are you watching the game? Is your leg shaking? Are you biting your nails? Yelling at the referees? Why? Because you’re invested. You want the reader to be just as invested in your protagonist.
Second, make the character care about their own well-being. I call this giving the character self-regard. This is often overlooked by writers. Think about the books where the action hero really doesn’t seem to take note of the fact that he is doing dangerous things or that people out there are trying to kill him. He just goes from one bad situation to the next with seemingly little concern. If the character has no self-regard, then it’s hard for the reader to care. So give your character those quiet moments before the battle and then after the battle or before and after a particularly difficult conversation with someone to reflect on the dangers inherent in what they are about to do (physically and/or emotionally), or just survived.
It is in those moments that the reader gets the chance to care about the character and when that happens, you are primed to create a nail-biter of a novel.