Thursday, June 23, 2011

Thrills Sell

Do you read the bestseller lists? You should. You’ll find lots there to learn about what’s happening in the publishing business. Agents and editors acquire authors to represent and books to publish according to their marketability. The lists are a gauge of marketability.

If you want to know what’s selling, the titles are right in front of you. If you want to divide those titles into categories, that information is right in front of you also. If you’re a novelist, you’ll notice that two genres consistently dominate the charts – romance and its associates and suspense and its associates. Let’s talk about suspense novels.

Check out the lists and you’ll see suspense titles everywhere. Whether the author leans toward the mystery novel format like Stieg Larson or romantic suspense like Mary Higgins Clark and Nora Roberts or flat out thrills the knickers off us like James Patterson, suspense sells.

Why is that? In my opinion, it has to do with the nature of the fantasy. In romance or relationship stories, for example, the very basic fantasy begins with love lightning. Two folks meet and sparks fly. Then they’re pulled apart by the struggles and complications that make up the plot of the story. Finally, they are reunited by the undeniable power of the love between them.

The suspense fantasy shares this level of story intensity and heightens it by adding mortal danger. In romance, emotional life is at risk. In suspense, physical life is at risk and, if the author is market savvy, emotional life also. The more risk in any story, the better, if your goal is to capture a reader, hook that reader deep and not let that reader to go till The End.

In a suspense novel, the main character, about whom we’ve been made to care a great deal, is struck by the forces of chaos that free float in the universe and from that moment on he is scrambling and clawing to survive. She must use every weapon in her arsenal, and I’m not just talking about gun firepower. This character will need to discover depths and perhaps even dark corners within, where the skills to survive whatever the cost reside.

This main character we want so much to triumph is up against an extremely formidable adversary. The more evil that adversary, while still being believable, the better. The fight will be to the death. Dire consequences will ensue if our hero does not win out in the end. The more dire those consequences, the better.

Our hero does triumph, by the skin of the teeth and at a personal cost. In this triumph lies the secret to the popularity of this genre. We live ourselves in a universe where chaos swirls about us in every direction. We’re terrified that these malevolent forces will touch down in our own lives. We’re further terrified that, if this happens, we won’t have what it takes to triumph.

Suspense fiction tells us tales of triumph over malevolence. Our hero makes it through and carries at least some of the rest of the cast to safety also. This is a reassuring fantasy in a time when reassurance is sorely needed. So if you want to write what readers want to read, consider suspense. The result could be a career thrill.

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