Drama is life with the dull bits cut out. Alfred Hitchcock
Storytellers have been weaving mayhem into their plots since men began painting on the walls of caves. Maybe it’s the battle between good and evil. Maybe it’s the catharsis of watching someone face and overcome danger. Maybe readers just like a rousing good tale.
Whatever label you slap on the genre, or how many times it has been declared dead on arrival, mayhem/suspense has not only refused to die, it has morphed into countless subgenres—and even sub-genres of those subgenres. And it continues to thrive as readers eat them up.
Whether your tastes run to dark plots, grand schemes for world domination, or creatures of the night, made-up mayhem is the genre’s dark heart—and it’s purpose is to both scare and entertain your readers.
While I feel a bit guilty about it, writing made-up mayhem is fun. It’s also very cathartic to put your characters through trials and tribulations. And if someone annoys you, well, your villains will always need expendable characters to knock off. Fictional killing doesn’t involve you in strip searches or prison time, so it’s a great place to funnel the frustrations of real life.
Like many writers, I was a reader first. I became an avid reader of mayhem when I discovered that The Moonspinners wasn’t just a Haley Mills movie. It was also an exciting novel. After inhaling all Mary Stewart’s books, I then proceeded to read my way through the library, starting with A and ending with Z. I still have Alistair Maclean, Helen McInnes, Phyllis Whitney, Joan Aiken Hodge, Elizabeth Cadell, Mary Roberts Rinehart and Georgette Heyer on my shelves. (And I continue to discover great authors writing great mayhem, including mayhem in outer space.)
My mother, who prefers her murders politely tidy, worries about my blood thirsty inclinations, my father-in-law cut short a visit when he caught sight of my reference book shelf, and my husband constantly reminds our kids to ask for an autopsy if he dies suddenly, but still I can’t give up plotting and writing mayhem.
If you love to read mayhem and long to write it, this series is for you.
Basic mayhem can come in a variety of shapes and sizes, from the big, multi-plot blockbusters to romantic suspense to small chillers. They come disguised as paranormals and science fiction, but there are certain elements that mark them for what they are.
If you ask for a definition on a writer’s list, you’ll not only spark a major and often heated discussion, you can also end up confused. That said, writers will agree that fictional mayhem must have:
- PERIL. We’re talking serious peril here. It can range from characters in peril to the whole world to the universe, but there is PERIL.
- A TICKING CLOCK. If someone doesn’t stop the bad guy or guys by a certain time, peril happens.
- A BAD PERSON CAUSING THE PERIL. And they need to be bad enough to keep the plot moving. Mayhem/suspense novels aren’t typically disaster driven, though disasters can complicate the peril.
- A GOOD GUY or GAL TRYING TO STOP THE BAD STUFF. Without opposition, there is no story. And the readers won’t have anyone to root for. Readers like having someone to root for.
To be labeled a thriller, a book should have what is sometimes called the “high concept” plot. You’ll find a lot of definitions on what high concept actually is, but I thought this one was less perplexing than most:
- It’s original
- It has wide audience appeal
- It’s specific without being generic
- The potential is obvious
- It can be condensed into a short pitch.
This is a compilation of several definitions, scattered all over the internet—usually to be found on screenwriting sites. While it is helpful in doing a postmortem on a completed project, it probably has limited use for actually planning high concept mayhem, except as a vague target to aim at. If you really push someone to explain “high concept,” they’ll eventually fall back on, “I’ll know it when I see it.”
Whether “high concept” or not, in a thriller the plot will have a broader impact, with higher stakes, such as a threat to community, country or beyond. Thrillers can also be more action oriented and may walk the line, or even cross over into action-adventure. Another feature of the thriller is the level of intensity, a heightened sense of risk that can either race forward like the TV show 24 or have the steadily rising horror of a Steven King. At its most basic level, think of the difference between a thrill and a chill.
There are some mysteries that wobble into the realm of mayhem/suspense, but a mystery is a puzzle that can have peril, while mayhem/suspense has to have peril, even if it also has a puzzle to be solved.
For instance, in my novel, Do Wah Diddy Die, there are several murders that need to be solved for the story to be resolved, but what pushes it into the mayhem/suspense realm is that Luci, my main character also has threats against her life. There is peril and a puzzle.
In The Last Enemy, the murderer is obvious from the beginning. There is no mystery to solve, just peril to overcome, danger to defeat. There is a high adventure aspect and an intensity to the action that pushes it into the thriller zone, but it lacks the wider societal risk of the high concept thriller. In my Project Enterprise series, each group of characters have puzzles and problems to solve, but there is a thread of peril to both time and space that connects the books.
In a mayhem/suspense novel, the bad guys can be known or unknown.
The stakes should be life and death—or a fate worse than death.
The heroes and/or heroines both have to have a stake in the outcome and the stakes need to be equally high for both. You can’t have one character risking their life, while the other is merely inconvenienced.
The story doesn’t have to begin at the life or death moment, but events should move the plot and the characters steadily in a direction of increasing peril, deepening risk and higher stakes at a pace right for your story.
Readers pick up mayhem/suspense because they like the thrill of danger or the chill sliding down their back—a safe threat because they are securely at home.
If you want to write suspense, you need to deliver on the thrills and/or chills without flinching.
If you don’t like to read mayhem/suspense, if you can’t put chum in the water and then catalog the sharks moving in for the kill, and then toss your characters in there to fight for their lives, then this isn’t the genre for you.
It shouldn’t be a surprise that the elements in a mayhem/suspense novel are the same as any novel you might sit down to write. They include:
Carefully crafted mood, style and tone
Like the mystery novel, suspense relies heavily on a tightly constructed plot, but you can’t neglect the other elements if you want to be read. And you still have to start on page one and work your way to “The End.”
Up next, let’s look at each of the elements, and how we mesh them into a mayhem/suspense novel.
© 1998-2014 All rights reserved. Pauline Baird Jones.