Writing Suspense: Fiction vs. Reality

by Michele Martinez, author of Most Wanted

As a federal prosecutor in New York City, I spent most of a decade locking up hardened criminals. Specializing in narcotics and gangs cases, I knew crime inside out. By the time I left that job, I'd done so many drug trials, listened in on so many wiretaps, and debriefed so many cold-blooded killers and thugs about so many different types of crimes that I could have gone out and committed one myself. And gotten away with it. So it seemed like an obvious evolution to start writing suspense novels based on my gritty real-life experiences. I figured crafting a page-turner out of that material had to be a piece of cake, right?

Most Wanted by Michele Martinez
Far from it. There's a lot more to writing good suspense than knowing the ins and outs of the drug and murder biz. Here I was in possession of the world's best raw material, but when I sat down to write fiction, I was staring at a blank screen just like anybody else. I wasn't trying to write a memoir. This wasn't a chronicle of my daily life in the Brooklyn courthouse or a recitation of the elements of proof for a heroin conspiracy charge. It was a novel. It needed to grab the reader by the neck on page one, sustain interest over hundreds of pages in the middle, and rush to a stunning and startling conclusion. I might have harrowing inside details at my fingertips, but I was a novice when it came to arranging them into a winning story. I needed a riveting plot, compelling characters. I needed a surprise ending. I needed to learn how to create suspense.

You see, if you're doing your job right in law enforcement, there just isn't that much suspense involved. In real life, you arrest a guy on -- say -- a heroin charge. He's facing ten years to life in federal prison, so he decides to talk. "Flip," we call it. He tells you, hey, the drug dealer supplying heroin to my organization is a major player. He's moving heavy weight every week out of such-and-such location. And, by the way, remember those bodies that turned up a couple of months back with the arms and legs chopped off? His people did that. I can ID the shooter for you and tell you exactly where and how it happened.

Nine times out of ten, your informer is telling the truth, but you still have to prove it. So you spend months meticulously building your case from the ground up, looking for corroboration and admissible evidence. You use all sorts of tried and true but dull investigative techniques, like subpoenas for telephone or bank records, and drawn-out wiretaps that require tons of paperwork. And you end up with a solid case against the same guy you knew months ago committed the crime. No gun battles, no stay-up-all-night suspense, no big surprises. Hardly the stuff of great fiction.

So the first thing I did was sit down and spend six months pounding out a pretty rough first draft. I literally threw that draft away -- didn't even keep a copy. But it was invaluable, because I got the bones of my book down. I had my basic cast of characters, led by federal prosecutor Melanie Vargas, who decides to go after a headline-grabbing murder case at the worst possible moment in her personal life -- when she has a new baby at home and discovers her husband is cheating. The first draft also contained a host of secondary characters who I knew were keepers, from Melanie's overbearing boss Bernadette, to the sexy-as-hell FBI Agent Dan O'Reilly, to the wealthy, silver-tongued murder victim Jed Benson, to Slice, the psychotic killer suspected in Benson's death. And it had the basic plot as well: murderer kills victim with the assistance of certain surprising accomplices; prosecutor must solve crime before she becomes the next victim. Now I had something to work with.

But a lot was missing, and I wasn't even exactly sure what. I felt the draft was flabby. It had too much detail in the wrong places. And it wasn' t scary enough. So I decided to take a break, and use the time to embark on a big reading campaign. I wanted to go back and re-read my favorite suspense writers to get a better feel for what made them so masterful and their books so compulsively readable.

The basic answer turned out to be pretty obvious: great characters, evocative settings, believable dialogue, compelling plots. I felt I had the seeds of those things, but I needed to work, work, work. I started carrying a small notebook at all times to write down snippets of overheard conversation, resonant song lyrics, powerful visual images that I happened across in the course of a day. I saved the best things and worked them into my draft. I revised dialogue again and again, read it aloud, played with it in my head, until I was sure it sounded right. And I paid attention to the technique in my favorite books. I read "above the lines," as they say. Here are a few of the things I observed that helped me improve my own writing:

Point of View. I realized that generally the suspense novels I found the most engrossing were written in the third person and frequently told the story from more than one viewpoint. I had been working in the first person, but ultimately this felt too limiting technically. I wanted to show the reader action beyond things that happened directly to my protagonist. I wanted to write the killer in his lair polishing his knife, or the innocent eyewitness watching television late at night, unsuspecting, about to be disemboweled. I wanted to plant clues for the reader that the protagonist was unaware of. I wanted to branch out and make my story bigger and more memorable.

Cliffhangers and a ticking clock. I realized I just hadn't structured my book carefully enough. I needed to pay more attention to the transitions between chapters, to give the reader that burning desire to keep turning the pages. I needed to hold back more, tease more. And it couldn't hurt to come up with a good "ticking clock" -- a bomb that would explode and kill the characters if not defused in time. My favorite ticking clock of all time is the girl in the pit in Silence of the Lambs, who will die within days if Clarice Starling doesn't catch the killer. I went back and re-worked my draft, paying much more attention to these structural elements, and really giving serious thought to how I could build suspense with each chapter.

Misdirection. I also realized I was too closely wedded to my real-life law enforcement experience, where we generally knew who the villain was from the outset. That just didn't make for compelling narrative. So I set about crafting sub-plots that would provide alternative scenarios for the murder. They had to be credible and well-realized enough to throw readers off the scent, so when the true killer(s) were revealed in the end, there would be an element of surprise.

Armed with these observations, I sat down and did what every real writer must do: spend huge gobs of time rewriting, rewriting and rewriting again. And that, ultimately, was the real lesson I learned. No matter how much I thought I knew about crime, there was plenty more to learn about writing, and always a way to improve that once-blank page.

©2005 by Michele Martinez. All rights reserved.

Michele Martinez, a graduate of Harvard University and Stanford Law School, is a former Assistant U.S. Attorney. Her debut thriller, Most Wanted, is available in hardcover from William Morrow and audio CD from HarperAudio wherever books are sold.