InÂ the airport in Zurich, I bought a paperback novelÂ for the flight home.Â I wasn’t looking for heavy literature, just something to keep me entertained for the seven-hour flight, so I chose it based on the back-cover description, which promised a fast-paced thriller with an international setting.Â Â Within the first chapter, bam, someone died a violent death.Â About every other chapter after that, there was a gun battle or a car chase or a fist-fight.Â The protagonists were chased across several countries, by a relentless cabal of bad guys, and everyone was after a piece of evidence that would change the world.Â There was a fall off a cliff, some death-defying escapes, and countless ambushes.
I was bored out of my mind.
I wanted to stuff the book in the seat-back pocket for some other hapless airline traveler, but I still had five hours left in the flight and nothing else to read, so I persevered, more as a writers’ exercise than for entertainment.Â When I finished the book, I thought about why the book didn’t work for me.Â On the surface, you’d think it should be exciting, with all the chases and derring-do.Â Yet it lacked tension.Â It was all action, and no suspense.
I have the same reaction while I’m watching films.Â I find that the most boring part of a thriller movie is often the car chase.Â That’s when I yawn and glance at my watch, waiting for something more interesting to happen.Â During the most recent James Bond film, I thought the action sequences were okay, but what really got me to perk up was the dialogue between Bond and the Eva Green character on the train ride.Â The verbal sparring, the double entendres, the undercurrent of sexual tension — that’s what I call suspense.
When it comes to books, I’ve come to realize that action on the page is sometimes the least interesting part of the whole story.Â Real suspense lies in the buildup toward conflict or danger, the threat of something terrible happening.Â When it finally does turn into action, all that tension is released and leaks out of the story like aÂ deflating balloon.Â
A lot of writers confuse suspense with action.Â They think that for a book to be thrilling, it needs lots of fights and gun battles and falling bodies.Â Well, let me tell you about four books that kept me riveted to the page, books that were loaded with heart-pounding suspense, yet weren’t overstuffed with action.Â NO TIME FOR GOODBYE by Linwood Barclay and REMEMBERING SARAH by Chris Mooney wereÂ by male authors who managed to inject amazing suspense just by the conflicts and crises of their characters.Â Once I’d started these two books, I couldn’t stop.Â Â They didn’t need action scenes dripping with testosterone.Â Instead, they relied on something far more difficult to achieve:Â characters whose lives are in such crisis, you have to keep reading to see what happens.Â
I can think of two other books thatÂ managed this feat.Â One is an older book, KILLING ME SOFTLY by Nicci French.Â I can’t even remember any violence in the book, but I remember almost unbearable tension toward the end, as the heroine finally discovers the truth about her lover.Â Another memorable book (not yet released), isÂ ICE TRAP by debut author Kitty Sewall.Â It has no violence that I can recall, yet the author manages to set up so much psychological conflict and thatÂ I didn’t really care if it was a thriller, a murder mystery, or just a novel aboutÂ twisted characters in the far north — I had to find the answer to the puzzle that the author introduces within the first few chapters.
I think it takes far more skill to write aÂ suspenseful novel with no action.Â Action scenes are easy.Â Anyone can write aÂ chase scene or aÂ murder scene, and less skillful writers confuse action with suspense.Â They think a gun battle is all you need to make a chapter exciting.Â Instead it may have the opposite effect.Â It may bore readers like me, readers who just flip past all the running and shooting and screeching tires.Â
Pay attention the next time you read a thriller novel.Â When does your heart pound, your hand go sweaty?Â Is it during the gun battle?Â Or is it during the pages leading up to the gun battle?Â Is it the dread and impending doom?Â Or is it when the bullets actually start to fly?
COMMANDER RIKER AND ME
As a lifelong Trekkie, I was tickled when actor/director Jonathan Frakes and I were asked to be judges for a local talent show here in town.Â Here we are, along with third judge David Grima (editor of our local paper) and emcee Slim Goodbody (in the tuxedo.)Â Â We took our jobs seriously — and it wasn’t that easy a job, considering the talent we had toÂ choose from.Â Â I just wish there could have beenÂ an extra prize for the amazing 12-year-old boy who played the piano, sang, AND played the harmonica to Elton John and Billy Joel tunes!Â
(And in case you’re wondering, Frakes is both utterly charming and outrageously funny in person.)