Thursday, January 27, 2011

How I Build Tension In A My Thriller Novels

I am unendingly interested in the technique of writing. I read and re-read novels to get an understanding of what they did and how they did it. In my novel "Tranquillity Initiative" which is about an anthrax attack on New York City, I created fear and tension in the reader by laying out exactly what would happen if an anthrax bomb were properly deployed from a skyscraper over New York. The following excerpt is from a discussion between Cassandra Williams, an anthrax expert from the Centers For Disease Control who has been sent to New York to investigate a mysterious outbreak of the rare disease pulmonary anthrax and Senator Richland Powell who has been warned that a bomb was opened accidentally and that the terrorists have a second bomb they intend to drop.

"The next areas to break down would be police, fire and sanitation," Cassandra continued, describing what might happen if Tranquility were optimally deployed. She could see the scenario she was describing as if she was sitting in a movie theater. "The fires would be worse in the old buildings. Row houses, blocks of warehousing, could all go up in flames. New York burned to the ground once before, and without outside help, it might do so again. The first time New York had been incinerated, its Fire Departments had been decimated by a cholera epidemic. Firemen in the city would also have been infected by the anthrax. Fire stations would be critically short of staff. Without massive support from other states, half the city could burn."

"Would the National Guard help?" Powell asked, worrying about the how many Guardsmen would be available with so many of them in Astrakhan.

"I don't know. Are they trained for urban fire fighting? I mean it's a fairly specialized art. Maybe help from other cities with tall buildings would be more useful," Cassandra mused, trying to work at the parts of the problem that were not her specialty.

"I'll look into it," Powell said, making a mental note.

"Provision would have to be made to start collecting bodies. Secondary diseases would spread rapidly if the bodies weren't collected," Cassandra closed her eyes. She could picture the way New York would be. It wouldn't be Armageddon of course, the rest of the country would still be functional, and many people could come to the aid of the city, but it would be very ugly before things got under control. "Sanitation departments would also have been decimated by the disease, and the task they would face would be daunting even without reduced personnel. That's probably where your National Guard would be helpful.

"It's entirely possible that once the public got wind of the epidemic there would be rioting: looting would spread in volatile areas. Especially if people thought they were going to die anyway. It wouldn't matter that there would be whole areas of the city that would not be directly in the path of the infection. That probably wouldn't register with the rioters. The police force would have been decimated by the disease as well, and there would be too few of them to control the rioting."

"We'll definitely need the National Guard," Richland Powell whispered, his administrative mind organizing the problems that would have to be dealt with if even half of Cassandra Williams' scenario became reality. "They definitely can be used to control the rioting."

"Yes, and don't forget the body collection. I can't begin to tell you how important that will be," Cassandra replied, not fully registering the fact that she and the Senator had just changed tenses. They were now speaking in the future, as if Tranquility had become a reality.

"Finally, a lot of people will try to run away. You'll have free-for-alls at every exit out of New York. The bridges and tunnels will become killing grounds. As soon as the suburbs figure out that hordes of hypothetically infectious New Yorkers are heading their way, there will be vigilante attempts to close the outlying towns and cities down to anyone but residents. You can expect mass slaughter on top of whatever damage the disease and the riots will do."

"But they wouldn't be infectious," Powell said, hoping he hadn't missed something.

"No, but try telling that to a home owner with three kids in Connecticut who's been watching what's happening in New York on CNN." Cassandra was quiet for awhile, as the pictures her words had elicited sank in. "The good news is, that's not going to happen."

Richland Powell hardly heard her. He asked, "Is there any way to prepare for it? Could we vaccinate the city or something? Could we at least inoculate the police and fire department personnel?"

Cassandra suddenly became aware that he was not treating her story as theoretical. Hearing fear in his voice, she asked, "Is there something I should know, Senator?"

To buy Tranquillity Initiative go to To see what reviewers are saying about "Tranquillity Initiative" visit my press room at autographed copies are available on my store.

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