Publishing U: Creating Killer Suspense in Psychological Thrillers

Publishing UOur readers are often curious about the process of writing and publishing books, and we’re happy to provide access to the experts. In this latest addition to our Publishing U series, we receive writing advice from internationally best-selling author John Katzenbach. (His latest, The Dead Student, publishes today.) Read on and discover the difference between grossing your readers out and making them wriggle in helpless anticipation.

John Katzenbach (photo credit: Nancy Doherty)

Photo credit: Nancy Doherty

John Katzenbach: Over the many years I’ve been writing what folks in the book industry like to categorize as “psychological thrillers,” I have considered the elements of suspense that characterize this genre. As a result of this on-again, off-again study—imagine a really poor and ill-prepared student of philosophy (which I once briefly was) examining the works of Descartes or Thomas Aquinas with utter dismay and helplessness—I have formulated some odd thoughts and flimsy observations, which have subsequently degenerated into a half-baked notion that I somewhat pretentiously call “The Sliced Eyeball Theory.”

It goes something like this.

Any writer worth his or her salt can accurately describe a bad guy slicing some poor victim’s eyeball. First, you decide what sort of razor you want to use. Safety? Disposable? How about an old-fashioned straight razor? Maybe even a knife honed to a razor-sharp edge? These choices aren’t difficult, but it does help if the author hasn’t already described the bad guy as possessing a long, dark, and luxurious beard, which would make an astute reader wonder why he had the razor in the first place. After choosing the device, all the eyeball-slicing writer needs to do is call up the local medical examiner. These folks are generally happy to describe nerve endings and pain thresholds. After that conversation, Google eyeball substances. This will give you a leg up on gooey qualities. It’s also worth watching Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali’s 16-minute surrealistic collaboration from 1929, Un Chien Andalou. The filmmakers used a cow’s eye and a little bit of cinematic legerdemain to make it seem like it was human.

Far more than a sliced eyeball is at stake.

So, with this modest amount of research, you’re all set to write your eyeball-slicing sequence. You layer in an appropriate Friday The 13th or Texas Chainsaw Massacre-type bad guy, with a dollop of Ed Gein and Jeffrey Dahmer mixed in for flavor. Combine him with either a helpless, tied-to-the-rails-in-front-of-an-onrushing-train female or male, depending on your plot inclinations. If that’s unsuitable, try your James Bond wannabe good guy/good gal detective or superspy who is busily working his/her way through the ropes or handcuffs or bungee cords restricting them—imagine a typical Hollywood scene filmed perhaps a zillion times with the wholly unnecessary background of really portentous music—and voila!

Your eyeball-slicing scene is complete.

All it becomes, for lack of a better term, is gross.

WARNING: this is gross.

The real nature of suspense in writing stems not from a journalistic recitation of actions but from certain psychological truths. A far more intriguing sequence imagines a character who thinks their eyeball is going to be sliced. And a character whom we, as readers, fully recognize is capable of slicing that eyeball. Take these two and put them into a location where the equipment is handy but the outcome is far less certain. Remove the ropes and razor from the equation and put it into the psychological realm where possibility replaces reality. Potential creates inner conflict, requiring each character, good and bad, to make dangerous choices while operating with limited information—and where every decision just might result in that eyeball being sliced.

Or not.

I think one of the greatest examples of this comes from one of Stephen King’s earlier books: Misery. It is not the actual physical torture that the deranged Annie Wilkes visits on the bedridden novelist Paul Sheldon that creates the tension on the pages. It is the exquisite balance between the psychotic fan and the trapped writer struggling to create anew a character he believed he had killed. It’s also the recognition that this book, which is being written under duress (a word that doesn’t even begin to capture the situation), is actually damn good. Consequently, layers of emotional forces are delivered on the page. Far more than a sliced eyeball is at stake.

The Dead Student by John KatzenbachI could cite other examples: Raskolnikov and his post-murder delirium in the father of all psychological thrillers, Crime and Punishment; George Smiley and his ever-shifting perceptions about Karla and the pursuit of the mole in books that describe the spy world of  “The Circus.” Consider also the truly wonderful scene in Peter Hoeg’s great Smilla’s Sense of Snow where the title character walks across the water because she knows that, beneath the liquid, there is a thin but crucial layer of ice.

What these examples display is that real tension is created on the page not by reality but by suggestion. After all, Smilla doesn’t break through the ice, does she? But every slippery little step forward makes us think she just might crash through.

So here is the dirty truth: you may have to slice an eyeball on the page. But the anxiety that the reader will feel lies in those words leading up to the actual eyeball slicing. Fill those passages with doubt, uncertainty, and conflict. And if you don’t get it right, well, good luck, because you are likely to get one of those really frightening auditory hallucinations that all writers experience from time to time: the sound of a reader slamming your book shut with a force that says they won’t be opening it again.

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John Katzenbach is the author of The Dead Student (The Mysterious Press) and has written 13 previous novels, including the New York Times bestsellers The Traveler, Day of Reckoning, What Comes Next, and Red 1-2-3. A former criminal court reporter for the Miami Herald and Miami News, he lives in western Massachusetts. Find him on the web at and follow him on Twitter at @KatzenbachJohn.



About the Author:

Keir Graff is Executive Editor of Booklist Publications and the author of five books. His most recent is the middle-grade novel, The Other Felix (2011). Follow him on Twitter at @Booklist_Keir.

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