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!—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.
 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.