Sunday, August 1, 2010

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.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

ACFW Conference Preview: Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Law (But Couldn’t Afford to Ask)

Ever wonder what all that legalese in a book contract means? Or when it’s okay to quote from someone else’s work—and when it’s not? Or how to research and write legal scenes like a professional? Or what to do if you find one of your books on a pirate website?

Cara Putman and I will be answering those questions and more at the 2010 ACFW Conference. We’ll be teaching two law-related workshops on Sunday, September 19: “Author Law 101” and “Legal Scenes Tricks & Traps.”

In Author Law 101, we’ll summarize what you need to know about the law as an author. First, we’ll give you a guided tour of a typical book contract and explain what the key terms mean and why they’re there. We’ll also outline the basic principles of copyright and libel law and give some practical tips on protecting yourself and staying out of dangerous areas. And if there’s extra time, we’ll tell some of our favorite lawyer jokes (e.g., What do you call it when a man-eating shark saves a drowning lawyer and carries him to shore? Professional courtesy).

Legal Scene Tricks & Traps will give you the tools to get your legal scenes right and illustrate some ways in which they often go wrong. We’ll open with a quick overview of how the legal world works: what the differences are between a civil and a criminal case, why some cases go to federal court and others to state court, and so on. Then we’ll go over some common examples of what I call Stupid Lawyer Tricks: things that lawyers often do in poorly researched movies or books, but that no competent lawyer would ever try in real life. We’ll also hand you a treasure trove of research tips and resources to bookmark for the next time you write a legal scene.

We’re looking forward to seeing you there!

Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Author as Terrorist #3: Crossing a Line

How do terrorists terrify? By being willing to commit disturbing acts that decent human beings would never consider. Aspiring suspense writer: Go thou and do likewise (at least in print).

It’s hard to create tension if your readers can sense that there are lines you won’t cross. Once they know that you won’t let anything really bad happen to “good” characters, most of the suspense drains out of what should be tense scenes. They know the sweet schoolteacher in the car crash will be okay, the deranged husband of the vulnerable young woman won’t actually kill her, and so on. How can you keep that from happening?

Fortunately, solving this problem is simple: Cross some lines. Kill the schoolteacher. Murder the innocent wife. While you’re at it, go ahead and kill the deranged husband too.

Are you crazy or just stupid? you ask. What kind of author would write a book like that? What kind of publisher would publish it? And what on Earth would readers think? I’m going to duck the first question and move straight to the others: The author is award-winning novelist James Scott Bell and the publisher is Center Street Books (the “traditional values” imprint of Hachette Book Group). In the first chapter—the first page![1]—of Bell’s Try Dying, a troubled man murders his wife and shoots himself on a highway overpass. His body falls onto the car of the nice schoolteacher, who dies. Readers loved it, and not a single review—or at least none that Google could find—complained about the opening.

Bell is a veteran storyteller and knows exactly what he’s doing. If a thug pulls a knife on a main character later in the book, we’re all on edge because we know there’s a real chance the character might be killed. Authors rarely kill main characters, of course, but they also almost never kill innocent and vulnerable women. Bell offed two of those on page one. Will he do the same thing to an important good guy? Maybe. We’re not really sure what he’s willing to do next, and that’s exactly how it should be.

One final note: Choose your lines carefully. You don't want to cross a line that will turn off publishers or readers in your target audience. For example, note that Bell's characters died on the first page of his book, before we really cared about either (though we come to care about both later as we learn more about them). When in doubt, run your scene or plot development past a professional editor or author who specializes in suspense.

[1] Remember last month's post about starting with a bang?

Up next month in part #4: Keep Them Guessing. It will appear on Friday, November 20.

Rick Acker is a suspense novelist whose books include Blood Brothers (4 stars, Romantic Times), Dead Man's Rule (4.5 stars, Romantic Times), and The Davis Detective Mysteries for tweens. His next book, When the Devil Whistles will be published by Abingdon in 2010. By day, he is a Deputy Attorney General in the California Department of Justice.

Friday, September 18, 2009

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

Rick on Maui (2) 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

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Story Creation

Story creation is (for me anyway) a lot like pearl creation for an oyster. It starts off with an irritating little idea in the back of my head that won't go away. If it doesn't get rejected during the process of adding layers to it, it eventually becomes a book. Here's how that layering process works:

Story summary. I try writing up a short informal synopsis of the plot. This is short--roughly 300-500 words. If I can't turn it into something that "sings," I know it's probably a dud and I drop it.

Partner review. Next I find out whether my idea sings to my wife and writing partner, Anette. Anette has a very good eye for stories that work--and those that don't. She's also perfectly willing to "speak the truth in love" when an idea doesn't quite make the cut, which is absolutely invaluable. But if she likes the story, I know I've got something worth taking to the next step.

Agent review. If Anette likes my idea, I turn the synopsis into something longer (ca. 1-2 thousand words) and more formal. I also do a little market research to make sure the story I'm proposing hasn't already been written. Then I send it to my agent. He'll let me know whether he thinks I've got a "big book" idea--one that's not just publishable, but has a "wow" element that will make it stand out from the rest of the market.

Proposal. The final layer (short of actually writing the book) is creating the proposal. If the story still looks like a "big book" after two or three sample chapters and a marketing analysis, my agent starts pitching it to publishing houses.

BTW, fewer than 1 in 10 ideas make it all the way through this process and wind up as proposals. But well over half of the proposals sell.

Cross-posted at

Saturday, August 29, 2009

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

Rick on Maui (2)

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

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

About that Demon Pig Story ...

The Demon Pig story posted on Brandilyn Collins' blog ( has generated quite a few questions. Here are a few of the more popular ones:

Is there really a Possumneck, Mississippi? Yes. The town itself is little more than some ruins and overgrown graveyards today, but it still shows up on maps and locals still refer to the northwest area of Attala County as Possumneck. Drugstores down there used to sell sweatshirts and mugs that said "Where the heck is Possumneck?" Alas, I haven't been able to find any of these the last few times I've been there.

How big was the Demon Pig? I only saw its head, but I'm told the Demon Pig weighed over 300 lbs. In summer, it would've weighed around 450 lbs. While big, that's only about half the size of the famous Hogzilla (

Is everything in the Demon Pig story true? Yes. Er, well, with one exception. I said in the story that the severed pig head whispered, "My name is Legion." I actually couldn't make out what it was saying. ;-)