As some of you know, I've been running a growing book-publishing company out of my neighbor's shed for the best four years. So far, we've only focused on novels catered to one specific audience, but I'm pleased to announce that we will be expanding. From here on out, I will serve as the Chief Editor in Chief of O'Brien and "Sons" Erotic Fiction and Suspense Novel Publishing House. I couldn't be happier that we're breaking into the world of suspense novels. For as long as I've been a reader, I've always been very interested in how there's a shitload of money in suspense.
In case you're wondering, yes, I am accepting submissions and you can email me your proposals right here, but before that, you might want to check out the following five steps for writing successful suspense novels. In designing these steps, I looked to a modern, bestselling thriller, because it is important to tap into the zeitgeist and learn how to write the kind of books people crave. So, I looked no further than heart-pounding, successful, number-one-spot-on-the-New-York-Times-list-earning The Overton Window, a thriller.
By Glenn Beck.
Every good suspense novel is loaded with mystery. Mystery is what keeps the reader turning pages, and that is what matters to you. (I don't actually know anything about books. Are book pages like Web pages, where traffic is the only important thing? You want eyes on the page, right, to rack up hits? Am I remembering that right?)
The Overton WindowThe Overton Window follows Noah Gardner as he tries to get to the root of a deadly government conspiracy. In this book (and in Beck's imagination), Life, a PR company dedicated to handling the image of the United States of America as it is presented to the public, has been quietly and efficiently co-running America with the U.S. Government for the last 200 years. Arthur, the head of the firm and Noah's father, has accomplished quite a lot of completely unrelated things: he created the pet rock fad, he's behind all of those Che Guevara T-shirts, and decided the outcome of multiple presidencies. He's decided to take a break from his previous career in the field of Retard Hobbying/Hipster Fashion/Nation-Running to focus on his new goal: seizing power of America, removing all civil liberties and throwing innocent Americans into concentration camps.
Make Your Mystery Difficult to Follow
Your reader is not stupid, so a simple mystery, or a traditional mystery, or even a mystery that makes sense on a basic level of human comprehension is just too easy. The trick is to craft a shadowy organization whose methods are so bizarre, it's never clear what exactly they stand for. And make sure their master plan is as convoluted and impossible-to-implement as imaginable (taking over America based solely on the success of your admittedly impressive pet rock sales). If your reader believes your mystery, it means it was too predictable.
-A top secret organization (formerly Mattel), wants to replace all American soldiers with robots whose only setting is GAY-SEX MARRIAGE.
-The creative force behind of Pokemon eats the current president to gain his powers and assumes that this makes him the new president, based on a very shaky understanding of the American political system. And the twist: It was you! (Either the Pokemon guy or the president. It doesn't even matter!)
-The inventor of those novelty bow ties that spin when you squeeze a button infiltrates the Vatican to pose as the Pope. He serves in an advisory capacity for the president for several years until something something something concentration camps.
-The creator of Beanie Babies fucks a capuchin monkey live on stage. America crumbles.Protagonist
Your protagonist is going to be the centerpiece of your novel. He or she needs to be likable and relatable, someone your reader is going to want to root for (so, "he").
The Overton Window:
Your protagonist is Noah Gardner, a fit, witty, charming intellectual with an eye for political conspiracies. He is, essentially, an idealized version of the book's author, Glenn Beck, himself a pudgy, witty intellectual with an eye for political conspiracies.
The Lesson: Your Protagonist Must Be A Better Version of You
Glenn Beck isn't an interesting enough person to serve as protagonist, so he took all of his best qualities (being good at talking), gave them to Noah Gardner and removed the worst things about his personality (everything else). The formula for your protagonist, then, is You - Shit + Good Things You Wish You Were. If you're pretty happy with the way you turned out (like I am), then your protagonist can just be mostly you with a few minor tweaks.
See how easy that was? I took my worst qualities (being of cripplingly average height, not having access to many guns), and flipped them to make the perfect protagonist.
Oh, Bonus Lesson: Your Protagonist Must Be Swedish
You know those Girl With the Dragon Tattoo books? They're about as huge as Beck's book and only half as infuriating, so it couldn't hurt to learn a lesson or two from them. Now, I refuse to read them so I'm not entirely sure if they're suspenseful or even technically thrillers. I just know that they're selling like crazy, like Swedish Crime Novel might be its own literary genre, now. Just take your tough, witty, idealized version of you and make him aggressively Swedish.
Suspense is all about timing. (Also, lightning.) The pacing of a thriller is the speed at which you present it to your reader. This is accomplished by sentence structure, tension, chapter length, whether or not your literary flow is conducive to pee breaks.
The Overton Window:
The chapters are short (like, Goosebumps short), generally contain an uncomfortable amount of extremist political rhetoric disguised as dialogue and always end with a bang. And often times I mean that literally, a chapter will end with a bang, an explosion of some kind. You'll have a chapter that's 9,000 words of straight "The government used to be one way but now it's this other way" bullshit nonsense and then the last sentence in the chapter will be "And then Noah Gardner's car CRASHED INTO TEDDY ROOSEVELT."
The Lesson: The Lesson is HOLY SHIT THE LESSON JUST EXPLODED!
Here's what you must never forget: Your readers are very stupid, or else they wouldn't be reading your book. Cap off every chapter with something intense, dramatic and desperately game-changing. Something that will make your readers say, "Good gasp, how will my hero ever get out of this situation?!" The great thing about this kind of suspense-writing is that it doesn't have to go anywhere. You have no obligation to follow through on your suspense, so don't be afraid to murder your protagonist at the end of one, several or every chapter. It's a quick fix to start the next chapter off with "False alarm," or "Then his sexy assistant gave him CPR and he was suddenly alive again," or "No, he didn't die, you read that wrong." The reader may feel mislead, but hey, they turned the page. Here's the thing about your reader: As every chapter nears its end, they'll say "OK, this is my last chapter for now." Then you end it with a bang so they have to turn the page, which is when, of course, they'll see how short your next chapter is and decide "OK, I can read one more. Repeat this throughout your entire book.
A trademark of every thriller is the big reveal, wherein the protagonist finally discovers the antagonist's Master Plan. It's usually done in some complex, incredibly clever manner that shows off how brilliant your protagonist (and by extension, you as an author) can be. It's the moment in a novel where all of the mysteries come together and all of the loose ends over which you've been agonizing get tidily tied up. If a big reveal isn't earned, or if it comes too soon or if it isn't all that shocking, your reader will turn on you.
The Overton Window
Noah stumbles into a room that holds his father's computer and finds an evil master plan in a PowerPoint Presentation that was left open. Seriously.The Lesson: Ignore All That Stuff I Said
The stuff about how reveals need to be clever, earned or in any way meaningful. Overton sold like a billion copies so apparently you can do freaking whatever you want.
Big Reveal Ideas:
-Your protagonist breaks into a vault only to find out that the antagonist called the protagonist and left his master plan as a detailed message on his answering machine.
-Your protagonist wakes up one morning and finds the antagonist's master plan written in sharpie on his forehead.
-There's no reveal because, fuck it, there just never was one, at all, and this isn't even a thriller, but you put "Glenn Beck" on the cover and then lots of idiots bought it.Words:
Words are what go into books. Don't worry if this is the first time you've learned this, you're still qualified to write a thriller that's just a good as The Overton Window. The words that appear are under your control, and they help establish your voice, your unique attack on the English language.
The Overton Window:
Let's look at a few samples from the novel, all centered around Noah and his love interest, Molly.
When some stray hairs fall across Molly's face...
These liberated chestnut curls framed a handsome face made twice as radiant by the mysteries surely waiting just behind those light green eyes.
When Noah first flirts with Molly...
"So Noah [from the Bible] comes home after he finally got all the animals into the ark, and his wife asks him what he's been doing all week. Do you know what he said to her?" Molly asked.
"No, tell me."
"Molly patted him on the cheek, pulled his face a little closer.
"He said, 'Honey, now I herd everything.'"
When Noah wants to warn Molly not to excite his genitals…
"You don't tease the panther."
The Lesson: Your Readers Crave Shitty Dialogue
It's no secret: The secret to great writing is terrible writing. Your readers have a pathological desire to punish themselves, and it's your job to help them out. And for this, there is honestly no better guide than The Overton Window.