I’m a girl, I can’t lift heavy things! (A study on creating the Perfect Suspense Heroine)

Who is the perfect suspense heroine?  A courageous woman?  A timid woman?  A strong woman?  A fragile woman?  A confident woman?  A struggling woman? 


When I first met my husband, twenty –two years ago, I was a strong, lithe, hard core camping woman who could carry a Duluth pack and a canoe alone on a portage.  I thought I was sooooo tough.  In our group of fellow guides, there was a girl who loved asking the guys to carry things for her.  “I’m a girl, I can’t lift heavy things!” she’d say and I’d roll my eyes.  Never, I vowed, would I ask a man to carry things for me. 


Then came the day when I was trying to carry a baby, a toddler, our carryon, a diaper bag and my purse.  My husband said, in frustration – why don’t you let me help you?  Sheesh,  you don’t have to do it alone! 


I don’t?  It took me more strength, more heroism to hand over my bag than to carry it myself.


A revolutionary thought for me, but not, say, for my sister-in-law who loves having my brother help her.  After all, isn’t that what husbands are for?  But when she had to rise to the occasion and fend for herself, she became a heroine.


The fact is, all types of women can be a suspense heroine, as long as they – or the story — possesses two basic ingredients. 


Regardless of who your heroine is, the key to convincing her to jump into action is to make the situation, or even that propels her into the suspense plot personal.  Unlike a hero, who can be propelled into action by a Noble Cause, our heroine needs to have a personal element to the plot. Not that we don’t care about the big, noble things in life, but the fact is, woman are always pursing a noble cause.  Taking care of their families, responding to the needs of society.  Making the world a better place (now, I’m not saying that men don’t’ do this, but women are naturally nurturing, which means we already have a lot of noble things to fight for in our lives. Why would we drop those things and pursue something else? 


When it becomes personal. 


Let’s consider our heroine in Eagle Eye. Rachel Holloman is a single mom, working to support her son.  It’s with great angst that she has to send him on a field trip to Washington D.C. without her (although with his school class), but a gal’s gotta work.  She’s already involved in a noble cause – taking care of her son by being a responsible parent. 


However, she’s launched out of this noble cause and into the plot when an unknown female caller asks her if she would risk her life for her son.  Rachel then sees her son’s image displayed on a digital sign and she is told by the voice that his train will be derailed if she doesn’t comply.  She realizes someone is watching him, and when the female voice calls back and demands she get into a car and wait at the corner, she does it, for fear of her son’s life. 


The personal “Push” into the plot moves our heroine forward.


Let’s look at The Bourne Identity.  Our heroine, Marie, needs cash. Fresh out of a visa to travel to America, and without a job, when our hero, Jason shows up and offers her $10,000 to drive her to Paris, she agrees.  However, none of this becomes personal until she drives him to his flat, watches him kill a would-be assassin and then realizes that her picture is being flashed around as a suspect, with Jason, who banged up a few people in the Zurich embassy.  Suddenly, she’s in trouble, and she has a choice – stick with a man who has just saved her life, or take her chances with the government (who has treated her unfairly and without regard when considering her visa application.)  Although Marie isn’t exactly involved in anything, noble, she doesn’t particularly want to find herself running.  Still, the personal nature of the photograph propels her to stay with Jason Bourne…and pushes her into the suspense plot. 


In my book Expect the Sunrise, Andee MacLeod is a bush pilot whose plane has suddenly crashed.  Of course she feels responsible for the lives of her passengers.  But, among them is her best friend, Sarah, who has suffered a head injury.  As Sarah worsens, the urgency to getting her to medical attention increases, as well as the personal push on Andee to move forward into the suspense plot.  Against her better judgment, she leads the passengers on a dangerous trek through Alaska in hopes of saving Sarah.


How have you made your story personal to your heroine?  If you haven’t, perhaps they don’t have the push they need to jump into your plot.  Ask your heroine – what would make you leave your current noble cause/life to risk your own on a dangerous quest?  Or, more simply…what would you die for?  The answer is the personal push you’re looking for. 


Stop by tomorrow and we’ll continue our discussion on Creating your Perfect Suspense Heroine!  And if you’re around tonight at 7-8pm CST, join us at the MBT Monday Night chat. Go to www.mybooktherapy.ning.com, sign in and join us!


Susie May


Do you want help on your writing?  Enter the Frasier contest, get useful feedback and win a free retreat!


Man up! (Creating a Suspense Hero Day 2!)

Yesterday we talked about creating that sympathetic opening for our hero that helps the reader connect with him and forgive him (just in case he starts doing things like break the law…or people). 


What other elements does a Suspense Hero need? 


Competence.  Our hero has to be GOOD at something.  Maybe it’s not anything we see right away, but some skill that he uses to save the day.  See, everyone has something they are good at, even if they don’t know it and a great suspense brings this out.  It challenges the hero’s abilities at each turn, and yet in the end, it’s this hidden competence, or rekindled competence that saves the day.


In Eagle Eye, we see that our hero can talk fast to get himself out of a tight place…but by the end, he is also thinking fast.  He is also unsure of his ability to be a hero – but his brother always believed in him, and through the movie, we see this belief come to fruition until he’s exactly the hero, using his instincts he has in the beginning to save the day. 


In The Bourne Identity, we can see that Bourne is easily taught (he learns how to fish) and he is a survivor.  As the movie continues, he continues to be a survivor, bulding on his learning abilities to think on his feet.  Clearly, he can also handle himself – something he also learns quickly.  It’s these abilities that allow him to win the day. 


As evidenced by these two films, a hero might have qualities that he uses, or he might have abilities – but it’s key that they win the day by their competence, and not just luck.  (Although you can have elements of divine providence, as long as they are not too “God Saves the Day.”  J)


How do you show/build a hero’s competence?  I often give the reader a glimpse in the first chapter, even if they fail big.  For example, in Expect the Sunrise, my hero Mac knows in his gut that the guy he’s chasing is a terrorist, even if he looks like a fisherman.  And, although the Feds cover it up, he’s right.  However, to the public, Mac looks like an overkill agent. The truth is, Mac is an expert on terrorists, and especially those targeting the pipeline. So, when he sees signs that there is a terrorist on the airplane, he trusts in his belief. Even though the pilot, our heroine, thinks he’s nuts. 


Ask your hero:  What skills do you have that will save the day?  How can you hint at those skills in Act 1?


Finally, your Hero must have a Greatest Fear, something you will use to craft that climactic Black Moment Event.  We’ve talked about how to create this in previous blogs (by looking at the dark moment of his past, extracting from that a greatest fear, and then recreating it in the Black Moment Event). Often the greatest fear has something to do with his past, some dark moment, or his mistakes.  It’s exactly this greatest fear that you will make happen. 


For a suspense, however, the greatest fear needs to be more epic, more believable.  (We’ll talk about this more in a couple weeks, when we talk about The Event).  But when you are building a suspense, it helps to hint at the Greatest Fear at the beginning of the movie. 


For Jerry Shaw, in Eagle Eye, his greatest fear has already come true, to a much smaller effect.   He’s let down his family, and his father thinks he’ll amount to nothing.  The worst thing that could ever happen to him would be to be labeled a terrorist and disgrace his patriot family.  So…when that nearly happens…


For Jason Bourne, or anyone, his worst fear is discovering he was someone horrible. He actually voices this to Marie early on in the movie, as he goes to his apartment.  Of course, this comes true as he realizes he’s an assassin. 


Sometimes you can start a book with the greatest fear occurring.  In Expect the Sunrise, I did this with Mac. He feared that someone he loved would be killed because of one of his decisions. When his brother dies in his arms, this fear is confirmed.  You can also have the greatest fear happen to someone close to him, or have it be in his backstory, and have it dredged up because of something that happens.


The key to a Greatest Fear is that it has to be tangible, specific, possible, and compelling in order to use it for the Black Moment Event. Take a look at your GF – does it have all four elements?


We’ll be covering the Black Moment Event more in a few weeks.  For now, make sure your hero is sympathetic, competent and has a greatest fear. 


If you have any questions about creating Heroes, go to www.mybooktherapy.ning.com and join our Man Up! Chat discussion!


See you next week!

Susie May



Man up (Creating a Suspense Hero Day 1)


Today, we’re going to take a look at our suspense Hero.  See, when you’re when you’re writing a suspense, it’s all about the guy who rises from the dust, the ball in hand. 


(Ooops, it’s playoff season.  And I just watched the Pack (my second favorite team!) beat the Bears. Go Pack!) so you may get football illustrations)


But, just as quick review, last week, we divided a suspense novel into three sections: 


Act 1: The Game 

The set up:  Players, the Goals, the Rules, Board/Playing field. 


Act Two: The Guts

All the great stuff happens during the Guts phase – confronting fears, reaching out in the darkness for the girl’s hand, stealing a kiss, and failing big, and learning something new about yourself. 


Act 3: the GLOW.

The glow is the big change inside, summoning your courage, overcoming of the monster/villain, and saving the day. 


When you’re constructing your Suspense, start your novel by outlining all three sections. Here’s a hint that helps me:  Act 1 and Act 3 combined should be a little less than ½ as long as the entire novel.  For example, if you have a 20 chapter novel, you might spend 3-4 chapters on Act 1, and 3-4 chapters on Act 3, which leaves 12-14 Chapters for Act 2.   


If you have a 90,000 word novel (and most suspense novels are 75-90K), then you might have 12K for Act 1, 12-15K for Act 3, leaving 50+ K for Act 2. 


Okay, enough math.  It’s all I can handle. 


Let’s start with the GAME.  And specifically….

Guys and Gals.  We’ll talk about our Gal next week. 


This week, it’s all about our Guy.


Our suspense Hero is a rare breed.  He must be an everyday man who has the capacity to be a hero, but someone who might not be our heroine’s first choice.  He must also be extraordinary, have some special skills that he might use to save the day.  Finally, he must have a perfect mix of toughness and tenderness, and at the end of the day, must be willing to sacrifice himself for our heroine (or, if there is no romance, then the cause of the day). 


If you followed this blog from last year, you know that the key to every character is finding his dark moment from the past and building on that to create a multi-layered character.  This is essential for creating your suspense hero, also.  But, for a suspense you must also add three elements: 


Let’s take a closer look. 



Our hero must be believable, a person we understand, someone who isn’t perfect, but has something about him that makes him sympathetic.  Even if they are super buff and unflappable Navy Seals they need to have some way to connect to the reader.  You might do this by inserting a flaw, or a situation that has crippled him.  And you incorporate this sympathetic element right away in the story to bond him with the reader. 


Let’s look at some examples: 


In Eagle Eye, we first meet the hero as a fast talking husker who wheedles his pal into betting high and losing big.  We’re impressed with his ability to wheel and deal – until his break is over and he returns to work.


As a print shop clerk.  (Not that there is anything wrong with being a print shop clerk, but it’s a bit of an unlikely suspense hero…which is also the point). 


Then, continuing the scene, the hero arrives to his apartment only to have to talk his way out of getting evicted…to discover that his brother has died.  By the time we attend the funeral with him, and we see his parents disappointment with him as the lesser twin brother, (he has obviously dropped out of school and doesn’t believe in himself to build a different future), we feel very sorry for him. 


When we arrives him to find his apartment full of bomb making terrorist materials, we’re rooting for him, horrified at what might happen to him.  This is an excellent way to build sympathy for him (and to get us to root for him as he begins to break law after law!) 


Let’s take a look at my other favorite – The Bourne Identity.  Bourne is fished from the sea, near death.  He has a bullet in him, and he has no idea who he is.  He works onboard, earning his keep enough so that the fishermen give him money and wish him well.  We don’t see him as dangerous, but as a victim, especially as he spends the night on a park bench, shivering. 


We want him to figure out who he is as desperately as he does. 


How did I use it?  Expect the Sunrise, the story opens with our hero chasing after a guy he thinks is a terrorist.  The sympathetic element comes in when his brother, who is not an FBI agent, takes a bullet.  Suddenly the mood shifts and it’s about Mac’s need for help.  He spots an airplane flying overhead and calls for help, but the pilot doesn’t stop.  It’s that helpless feeling that we all have when we someone we love is hurt. 


To find that sympathetic element, ask yourself:  What situation can you open the story with that connects your reader with a feeling, an idea, a sacrifice or a moment that we can all relate to?  


Tomorrow, we’ll talk about creating a Competent Hero who can face his Greatest Fear.


Thank you for all the folks who participated in last week’s drawing!


The Winner is Janet K:

A mystery: Columbo
A suspense: Marathon Man
A thriller: Vanilla Sky


This week – send me your favorite suspense Hero and WHY he’s your favorite (to susan@mybooktherapy.com and you’ll be added into this week’s drawing for Point of No Return!  


See you tomorrow –

Susie May

The My Book Therapy Frasier Contest is OPEN!

My Book Therapy is thrilled to announce the Second Annual My Book Therapy writing contest for the members of Club Book Therapy Voices!  

The Frasier! 

Frasier 2010 Winner
Frasier 2010 Winner



We at My Book Therapy believe in the power of feedback to help a writer grow! And one of the best ways to get unbiased feedback is to enter a contest.  However, it’s not enough, sometimes, just to get a contest entry back…how do you take the feedback and go to the next level?  Our vision is to help authors become PUBLISHED authors…..







Which is why we’ve designed the “Frasier” writing contest for unpublished member of the My Book Therapy Voices…with a grand prize that is more than a plaque…it’s a TICKET.  Or rather, a SCHOLARSHIP to one of the My Book Therapy’s intimate yet intensive writing retreats.

 A $500 value.   

The Frasier is a straight storytelling contest – using the elements of a great book that we’ve blogged about at MBT over the past few years – a great HOOK, compelling inciting incident, a strong Voice, characters we love – all the essentials to a great book (or at least, the start to a great book!)


The winner of the Frasier receives a FREE MBT Retreat, as well as a feature on the MBT blog, AND writing feedback from published authors/judges from the industry. 


Finalist will be announced June 1st, and the Winner awarded at the annual MBT Pizza Party (at the 2011 ACFW Conference in St. Louis, MO)


 Agents and Editors agree that writing contests are the perfect way to

1. Get feedback from professionals on your manuscript and

2. Start a buzz for your work among the gatekeepers. 


 Winning the Frasier means you have the Best of the MBT books…regardless of genre.  Interested?

 Check out THE MBT Frasier Contest!