Vintage WD: 10 Rules for Suspense Fiction

John Grisham once admitted that this article from 1973 helped him write his thrillers. In it, author Brian Garfield shares his go-to advice for creating great suspense fiction.
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Writer’s Digest, February 1973

By Brian Garfield


The English call them thrillers and in our clumsier way, we call them novels of suspense.

They contain elements of mystery, romance, and adventure but they don't fall into restrictive categories. And they're not circumscribed by artificial systems of rules like those that govern the whodunit or the Gothic romance.

The field is wide enough to include Alistair McLean, Alan Drury, Helen MacInnes, Robert Crichton, Graham Greene, Arthur Hailey, and Donald E Westlake. (Now THERE’S a parlay.) The market is not limited by the stigmata of genre labels and therefore the potential for success of a novel in this field is unrestricted: Day of the Jackal, for instance, was a first novel.

Game’s object: to perch the reader on edge, keep him flipping pages to find out what's going to happen next.

Game’s rules are harder to define; they are few, and these are elastic: the seasoned professional learns the rules mainly in order to know how to break them to good effect.

But such as they are, the rules can be defined as follows.

1. Start with Action; explain it later.

This is an extension of Raymond Chandler's famous dictum: When things slow down, bring in a man with a gun. To encourage the reader to turn to page two, give him something on page one: conflict, trouble, fear, violence. I realize you've got a lot of background that needs to be established, leading up to the first moments of overt conflict; but you can establish all that in Chapter Two. Flash back to it if you need to. But in Chapter One get the show on the road.

2. Make it tough for your protagonist.

Give him a worthy antagonist and make things look hopeless. Don't drop convenient solutions in his lap. The tougher the opposition, the more everything is stacked against him, the better.

3. Plant it early, pay it off later.

Don't bring in new characters are facts at the end to help solve the protagonist’s dilemma. He must work out his own solution based upon a conflict that is established early in the story. No cavalry to the rescue, and no sudden unearthing of a revealing letter written before he died by a character who was dispatched way back in Chapter Three. (Unless, of course, you established in Chapter Four that's such a letter exists, and followed that revelation with a race between the protagonist and his enemies to see who will get the letter first.) No cavalry to the rescue.

4. Give the protagonist the initiative.

All good dramatic riding centers upon conflict: interior (alcoholism; oedipal conflicts) or exterior (dangerous enemies; an alien secret police force). Only in poor Gothic fiction is the protagonist habitually and tearfully and hand-wringingly at the mercy of evil opposing forces which will push him/her around at will. The best story is usually that in which the protagonist takes active steps to achieve a goal against impossible odds or to prevent opposing forces from overcoming him or his loved ones. The protagonist may begin by reaching but in the end, he must act from his own initiative.

5. Give the protagonist a personal stake.

No longer is it acceptable for the hero to solve a mystery just because it presents an interesting puzzle. The more intimate his involvement in the main conflict of the story, the better. He himself, or his aims, should be in jeopardy; his own life or his loved ones’ should be in danger, or his best friend has been murdered, or he is the kind of character whose values and principles won't let him sit by and allow injustice to destroy people around him. Whatever the conflict is, if he loses, it's going to cost him horribly; that's the essence.

6. Give the protagonist a tight time limit ... and then shorten it.

This doesn't always work because the logic of many stories prohibits it; don't use it unless you can work it in believably. But when time is a factor, and when the brief span of time in which he must resolve the conflict is then shortened, you have gone a long way toward heightening the suspense.

7. Choose your character according to your own capacities as well as his.

Don't use as your protagonist an accomplished professional spy unless you are prepared to do the research and groundwork necessary to create such a character convincingly. It is better, particularly when approaching the early stages of your own professionalism, to stick to the familiar. Some of the most successful suspense novel protagonists—many of Eric Ambler’s, for instance—are ordinary innocent people caught up in dangerous webs. The indignant honest idealist makes a good protagonist because his innocence makes the professional opposition all the more frightening. Yet a plot structure for this character is often difficult to contrive because in spite of his naïveté he has to be clever and not resourceful (not lucky) to prevail over his awesome enemies. The other face of this coin, of course, is the professional-crook–as-protagonist; he's easy to identify with because he's an outcast, an underdog, one man using his wit to survive against the society’s oppressive machinery; but the pitfalls of this are treacherous and unless you know criminal procedure and feel comfortable competing with Anthony Burgess and Richard Stark, it's better to avoid the crook-hero in the beginning.

8. Know your destination before you set out.

The prevailing weakness of many suspense stories that are otherwise successful is the let-down the reader experiences at the end: the illogical and disappointing anti-climax. It isn't enough to set up intriguing conflicts and obey all the other rules if you haven't got an ending that fulfills the promise of the preceding chapters. It becomes disgustingly obvious when a writer has confronted his hero with thrilling obstacles only to paint himself into a corner. Presented with his own unsolvable cliffhanger he is reduced to bringing in deus-ex-machina to solve the hero’s problems for him. It is not necessary to tie up all loose ends but the climax should resolve the principal conflict one way or another. (In recent years, to avoid the dish in of clichés a virtue triumphant or ironic downfall, several talented novelists have resorted to obscure endings which you know reader can possibly decipher. I'd rather hope the fad is dying out; whatever the reasons behind it, it demonstrates lazy thinking and infuriates the reader.) The best way to a good ending is to know what the ending will be before you start writing the book. Whether you write a preliminary outline or not, you should know where the journey will end, and how.

9. Don't rush in where angels fear to tread.

I admit this is a catch-all. Essentially I mean that it is wise to observe not only with the pros do but also what they avoid doing. The best writers do not jump on bandwagons; they build new ones. The pro doesn't write a caper novel about the world’s biggest heist unless he's convinced he can write an unusual story with a unique and important twist. Otherwise, he risks unfavorable comparison with the classics in that sub-genre. "Why bother with it if it's not as hot as Rififi and not as funny as The Hot Rock?" Yet this should not be taken to mean every writer must obey faddish advice such as, "Spy fiction is dead," or, “Historical novels are out the season." There is no such thing as a "dead genre" because the human imagination is limitless and there is never a dearth of new ideas, new twists, new talent. The question is, Is this idea strong enough and important enough to make this story sufficiently different from its predecessors to merit publication? If a novel is good enough it will find a publisher whether it is a hard-boiled detective story, a western, a spy novel, a historical adventure, or a novel about bug-eyed monsters from Mars. If it is good enough the publishers may reject it by seeing that such novels are out of style, but this is merely a euphemism.

10. Don't write anything you wouldn't want to read.

This one sounds self-evident but I've met several young writers who decided they wanted to start out by hacking their way through Gothics or westerns just to learn the ropes because those categories looked easy to imitate. Nuts. If you start out that way you'll end up a hack. Now if you like to read westerns, then write a western. But don't write into a genre for which you have contempt. If you don't Gothics but insist on writing one, your content will show; you can't hide it. You'll end up by "writing down" and the reader will resent your attitude. I don't say you can't sell books this way; God knows people do, all too often; but if you thoroughly enjoy sea stories—even if you don't know a thing about nautical life—you're better off attempting to write a sea story because you'll go into it with enthusiasm, you'll make it a point to learn the terminology and the life, and you'll write a far better book.

Under various names, I wrote some fifty novels in order to learn some of the above precepts. This has been written in the hope that one or two of my ten rules will help you.

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