But how do you incorporate suspense? How do you bring your novel from good to great? How do you keep us turning those pages, and invite the clichéd reviews you so desperately crave? Below are some observations for how one highly successful author has done it, using an example from one of my all-time favorite science thrillers. If you can't guess the work, please do yourself a favor and pick up some classic Crichton. I became a molecular biologist because of this novel. And here are a few of the techniques that made me love it...
1) Add a twist. Then add ten more.
This is a story about a pair of scientists (are you nodding off yet?...) They are out on an archeological dig site when an unruly helicopter lands, disrupting their work, and out steps a man who is clearly filthy rich as evidenced by the fact that he's entering an archeological dig site dressed in a pure white suit (OK, I'm still reading...) He turns out to be their boss, and he needs them to go with him to his private island. Right now. And then the twists ensue:
- Holy hell! There are dinosaurs on this island!
- They were genetically engineered from petrified mosquitos and frog DNA!
- Oh no! There's a major storm brewing!
- Whoops! The power went out!
- I'm being chased by a T-Rex and a herd of angry velociraptors!
- Despite the impossibility of our genetically engineered dinosaurs breeding, they are doing so!
- And...they can open doors and herd people!
- So a door-opening, people-herding trio of large, scaly bad guys is now encircling us with bibs around their necks and knives and forks wedged between the toes on their vestigial front limbs...
- Whew! An even bigger bad guy just saved us from the slightly smaller bad guys by eating them instead!
A book with twist after twist not only keeps you guessing, it has no choice but to continue building suspense. Because each twist must one-up the previous one. So if you don't have a steady stream of twists, your novel might not have the bang-up ending a thriller should.
2) Mix up the characters.
It's a science thriller, so it's almost mandatory that we have a pair of scientists and a rich, demanding boss. But throw in a leather-clad, rock star mathematician (not a contradiction in terms after all...,) a lawyer, an arrogant, greedy pig of an IT guy and a couple of young children. Now you've got a story. And a ton of new material for those plot twists. And just as importantly, you've now made it easy to...
3) Jump between sub-plots like a jack-raptor on a date.
In case I haven't already mentioned it, I happen to love molecular biology. But if null mutants of lysine and transgender frogs aren't your thing, you can always skim through these bits to get to the T-Rex gobbling up the lawyer (you KNOW you wanted it to happen!) Frequent shifts between sub-plots lend forgiveness for a weak one, as readers will still race to the parts they bought the book for.
What are some of your favorite techniques for increasing suspense?