I was a watching a thriller the other night in which our hero and his family were being threatened by a group of irredeemably evil bank robbers. Things were looking more and more desperate for the good guys until a climatic final scene during which, not surprisingly, the hero killed the lead villain in hand-to-hand combat. What was surprising, to me at least, was that the credits began rolling not one minute after that killing blow was struck.
This immediately brought to mind the challenges that writers of different genres face. In the case of the suspense story, the writer begins, usually, with the compelling question: Will our hero survive? This question will keep many readers turning pages and many viewers in their seats. The challenge then for the suspense writer is to not allow whether the hero lives or dies to become the only question his or her story answers.
Even the most cynical Hollywood producer, if pressed, would probably concede that he does not rise from his silk sheets every morning merely to not die. Life’s meaning does not derive from avoiding death. This is not to say that stories should not be written in which the protagonist’s life is threatened – but the question I would suggest suspense writers ask themselves is from where does the value of that life that is being threatened come?
The answer is almost always learning. In the case of the movie I watched, nothing had really changed for the protagonist—he was alive at the beginning of the movie and he was alive at the end. A sigh of relief and we’re done. It is always more compelling if the hero must learn something in order to survive, then this survival becomes symbolic of his or her release of a long held fear.
Most of us will never have our lives threatened by murderers, but all of us will live with fear that we may or may not overcome. If you want to connect with your readers on the deepest level possible, remember that the visceral need to simply survive is movement away from death, while the desire to live without fear is what inspires us toward life.