Recently I had an interesting exchange on She Writes with an unpublished author struggling to make the theme of her novel more exciting and less sanctimonious. She wanted to know how I had managed to address the same subject in Terminal Ambition in a way that resulted in many reviewers calling it a “page turner.” It currently has 39 reviews on Amazon with a rating of 4.7 stars out of a maximum of 5.
Most of the techniques for creating a suspenseful novel apply to selecting one to read. Miki’s followers seem to enjoy this genre so I decided to discuss them here.
The characters are key. The writer must present a protagonist the readers care about. A hooker trying to avenge her pimp’s death wouldn’t appeal to me. A female lawyer fighting for justice for her protégée who’s been raped does. That’s Maggie Mahoney’s crusade in Terminal Ambition.
The antagonist must be smart and motivated, a worthy opponent for the protagonist. Someone with power to block the protagonist. Maggie Mahoney, the protagonist of Terminal Ambition, must fight two men: the chairman of her law firm who wants to be named U.S. Attorney General and a powerful senior partner at the firm who is blackmailing him.
The stakes that the characters are battling over are vital. That doesn’t necessarily mean the risk of Earth’s nuclear annihilation but, rather, a loss that would devastate the protagonist’s world. A man fighting to save his spouse or child is a clear example. Maggie has invested almost 15 years of her life in the world-class law firm at the center of Terminal Ambition. It became her family. She is fighting to restore its commitment to obeying the law and to treating its attorneys fairly.
Complications enhance suspense. Maggie’s career at her prestigious law firm is jeopardized when her principal client fires her. If she takes on the antagonists, will her career survive? Her budding romance with a go-along-to-get-ahead partner is threatened by her battle with firm management.
Pressure on the protagonist must mount until readers wonder if she’ll crack. Maggie is offered escape routes from the firm’s immorality. She resists until the final chapters where the firm chairman offers to help her achieve a previously unimaginable ambition. Will she grab the gold ring? Dilemma is another important element of suspense.
Time constraints increase the pressure. For Maggie that means revealing the firm chairman’s misconduct before he is nominated to serve as Attorney General. As the day of the Presidential election grows closer, Maggie becomes more desperate.
Suspense builds with unpredictability. The protagonist must be tortured when her actions have unforeseen consequences. I won’t spoil of the unpredictable events in Terminal Ambition but it’s full of them. I had fun creating the “twists and turns” noted by reviewers.
Another element of suspense is foreshadowing. Did you wonder what the ticklish theme was I referred to in the opening paragraph? It’s sexism in the workplace.
It seems natural for a lawyer to write legal suspense. I spent years in the profession, serving as a partner at a major law firm and then general counsel at a Fortune 500 company. I chose suspense to create an entertaining read. However, my true goal in writing Terminal Ambition was to educate readers about workplace bias and harassment.
Think of Terminal Ambition as a two-for: suspense with a dash of education.
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