Sex sells. But a few good explosions don't hurt, either.
In looking at what makes for a successful cloak and dagger series, especially in today's reading environment with so many other options to occupy one's personal time, certain must-haves jump out. The book must be exciting; which is to say that it should grab you in the first few pages and not let you go. Letting you go (i.e., putting the book down because you are tired of reading) is the same as stacking a load of laundry on top of the book, knowing it is there but not bothering to uncover it. Chances are good that the reader likely not pick it up again. In the case of a series, that results in subsequent books not being bought.
Excitement can come in many forms, depending on the sub-genre the story falls into. No book will contain every type and a nice mixture can be called for but for the most part, the following truths exist.
A romantic thriller has to keep the heart thumping and the blood pounding. Female bosoms should be heaving and male loins aching and lips re-licked and pursed and eyes filled with longing. Of course, that is not every minute as the characters have to have time for a quick snack and a much needed shower and a chance to ponder whether it is real love they are experiencing and not just momentary lust.
[Have you ever noticed that it is the woman who gets to say, “I’ll just be a minute” as she steps in the bathroom where we know she is going to check her breath and have a good pee before the action happens? What about the guy? Come on, writers! A beer before dinner, wine during the meal, perhaps some brandy afterwards – that man is going to be in agony.]
In a book where love is the primary motivator, emotions cannot be let down for more than a page or two. If the feeling is not lust, it must be longing (a close cousin) or regret or despair or anticipation, and so on. The reader must be kept feeling some emotion or the writer loses the audience.
For a romantic thriller, sex definitely sells, the hotter and steamier, the better. Explosions should be used but sparingly and never too strong so as to not mess up the coiffure or cause bleeding on any interesting body part. Granted, if the boom can help a woman’s bodice to rip while tearing the shirt off the male, revealing his washboard abs, so much the better.
In the suspense thriller, the anticipation of upcoming action or, worse yet for the characters, impending doom must not be allowed to go away. In any good scary movie, there must be the knowledge that with every good laugh of relief that it was the cat at the door must come the sudden screech of some musical instrument as the knife or dagger or machete or scythe or chainsaw comes into play. Hopefully the suspense novel is not quite that blatant but no author writing one can afford to let the reader relax for more than a few pages.
In the case of the cloak and dagger suspense novel, the character is constantly needing to be led down or chased into a dark alley or dimly lit hallway or musty basement or abandoned rail station. Meetings with informants or fellow agents or controllers or even the odd enemy agent helping out this one time should seldom be done in a brightly lit coffee shop with the sound of espresso makers in the background mixed with cries for double mocha lattes (whatever they are). That will kill the mood and in suspense genres, that is a major no-no.
The sex in a suspense thriller should come as either a way of coping with mounting fear or relaxing after a particularly harrowing experience. It should be passionate and urgent, bodies grasping each other for solace or appreciation for still be alive. Explosions, on the other hand, should be kept to a minimum as they can spoil the tension; conversely, though, the anticipation of an upcoming explosion can help keep the mood. Timers ticking down are always useful.
For the action thriller, the reader cannot be given a chance to rest for more than a couple of pages. The character can, if needed, take some time because it takes more than a couple of hours to recover from a serious beating or gunshot wound or pulling shrapnel from one’s back but the reader must be told this is happening in a few short pages or the chance of the book-lay-down increases. This is true in any genre but especially true in the action thriller where excitement is the goal with adrenaline the spice and to let it ebb too long is to risk it going away.
To really succeed, the action novel, especially in the cloak and dagger world of spy-fi, must be building towards a major ending as most plots are but this construction must be of ever-increasing dramatic and breath-catching occurrences. If the hero must wait for news or some other distant event, it must be done in very few passages or let the time be spent in preparation for the next bout of activity. Another common way to occupy time, and fill up the pages that most publishers seem to demand nowadays be ever increasing, is to have the main characters argue strenuously about what just happened or will about to occur. Verbal action, as in telling the hero he should have killed that bad guy or should not have killed that bad guy or may have to kill that bad guy the next go-around, can keep the story going, though too often the inane arguments of the other guy (i.e., not the hero/heroine) make me want to punch the idiot in the nose, which is another form of action so it is an acceptable response.
Sex, never a bad thing, is always a good way to kill time in an action thriller. Be prepared to replace buttons and zippers or just whole outfits, though, as action is keyword and the clothes need to come off quickly and with gusto. Readers usually don’t care if nothing is happening in a sex scene as long as things are “happening”, if you know what I mean. And in an action thriller, explosions are not only useful, they are almost a requirement. Mine shafts, houses, office buildings, cars, trucks, and the odd airplane go boom often to let the characters, and the reader, remember that this is serious stuff going on and action is called for right now!
The last major type of espionage drama, one that is sadly leaving our planet because its time seems to have left forever is the cerebral thriller, for want of a better term. This is the type of book in which the thoughts and motivations and considerations and memories of the hero, and sometimes other characters, play as important a part in the book, if not more so, than do the actions.
In these books, the types written years ago by literary geniuses like Graham Greene, Eric Ambler, John LeCarre, Len Deighton, John Buchan, and others, there is romance but it is more often remembered or longed for than actually happening. There is action but it is separated by long periods of planning before and recuperating after. There is suspense and anticipation but be prepared for it to be of short duration with more questions coming as a result than answers.
The spy guys and gals who operate in the cerebral thriller are mystery solvers more than action heroes. They are the ones who operate dead drops and clandestine tail-jobs; the kind of protagonist who understands and practices Moscow Rules. Knife fights and gun battles are kept to a minimum because cuts bleed an awful lot and bullets make people dead and bleeding or dead operatives do not get the job done. These same guys and gals can also usually find out about a mission, track down the players, eliminate the opponents, and report back to their bosses who routinely sit in gray rooms wearing harried expressions, all in 180 pages, not the new norm of 500+.
Still, cerebral types like sex, too, especially with enemy agents they knew once long ago and swore they had forgotten. The sex is passionate and often desperate and if there is any true feelings left between the star-crossed lovers, expect the non-series characters to turn out to be a rat in the end or get killed by his/her own people. In my experience, cerebral types do not like explosions very much as they are loud and messy and fraught with danger but, luckily for the readers, the enemies of the cerebral hero do like things that go boom.
So, sex sells. Explosions sell. Regardless of the sub-genre, certain truths remain true.
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