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'24' producer takes TV thrills to print

By Suzanne Kelly, CNN
Howard Gordon, who was the executive producer of "24," uses the show's beat-the-clock style in his new novel.
Howard Gordon, who was the executive producer of "24," uses the show's beat-the-clock style in his new novel.
  • Ex-"24" producer Howard Gordon has written a new book, "Gideon's War"
  • It's a a fast-paced, show no mercy adventure-driven story
  • Gordon says, "You can't be thrilling without being engaging"

(CNN) -- What does it take to create the perfect thriller? Nonstop action scenes? Hot leading men or women? Exotic locations? Flying objects that can fire big weapons? The built-in anxiety trip that comes with racing against time? In short, all of the above.

The Fox series "24" seemed to have the formula worked out, until the series ended last year. But the need to thrill didn't die with the series.

Executive Producer Howard Gordon has picked up on some of the show's success and has given himself a new role, this time as author. His first thriller hit bookstores January 11 and it's already garnering the kind of attention that many first-time authors only dream about.

"Gideon's War" is -- no surprise -- a fast-paced, show no mercy adventure-driven story about a man who struggles with his own family issues as he's saving the world from a terror threat on a deep-sea oil rig. Coming fresh off a TV series that kept the clock ticking, the book grabs the reader from page one and doesn't really let go until the very end.

"It gains some momentum and there are enough surprises," says Gordon, who understands the need to balance the action-packed sequences with the development of characters people actually care about.

"You can't be thrilling without being engaging. You have to always identify and know who the characters are, because those characters are relatable to the audience, and then experiences become far more impactful."

The success of "24" is proof that the beat-the-clock style has worked for Gordon.

"It's good in that almost inevitably you have something that's happening, which is the basic action premise, whether its stopping a blimp from blowing up over the Super Bowl or something else. In "24," every year we were stopping something. By definition, the closer you get to that event as the clock ticks down, the more action you get. It's almost like a formula for suspense and tension."

While the ratings proved it was clearly entertaining for many of us to watch Jack Bauer save the world for eight seasons, the natural question would be whether Gordon would be able to pull off creating that same kind of race against time action sequence on the written page. The answer, in short, is yes.

Karen Dionne, vice president of technology for the group International Thriller Writers, finds it a winning formula.

"It helps to have a short time frame and the more concise you can make that time frame, the more important the story becomes," says Dionne, herself an author of two thrillers ("Freezing Point" in 2008 and "Boiling Point" in 2010).

Even in this age of big-budget action films and suspense-packed TV shows that jump out at you with 3-D technology, the market for e-readers has exploded and readers are downloading books by the millions, which means readers are still getting a good thrill, too.

"Thrillers tend to dominate the best-seller list," Dionne says. The thing is there are so many different kinds of thrillers -- the ones on the big canvas where the fate of the world is at stake, but you also have the intimate thrillers, a person's child is stolen and you have to get them back. An exciting story told in a gripping way."

Who thrills better, men or women?

When he was the show-runner for "24", Gordon would often have thriller authors visit the set, some of them even offering consulting services. Very few, if any, of those authors were women. When Gordon and I talked about that last year, he shrugged his shoulders and challenged me to name a female thriller writer who didn't write crime fiction. Um ... there ARE some, (like the UK's Stella Rimington) but admittedly, their names didn't roll off my lips. That's something that baffles crime thriller authors like Karin Slaughter (her 11th novel, "Broken," is out this week in paperback).

"Eighty percent of all book buyers and readers are women, so I've never quite understood why it's considered men's territory" says Slaughter, an Atlanta-based author who started penning her gripping reads 10 years ago. "Women are interested in reading about violence, the character relationships and all of the familiar tropes."

Of course, there are loads of female crime thriller writers, like Tess Gerritsen and Tana French, who bring a woman's perspective to violence, notes Slaughter, which is an important distinction, because there are differences in how men and women deal with tense situations.

"If a man hears a noise in a dark parking lot, he turns around. If a woman hears a noise in a dark parking lot, she starts walking faster. We bring that psychological element to it."

There is a certain mystery in character, argues Slaughter, that all the action in the world can't replace. "Nobody read 'Gone With the Wind' to see who won the Civil War and that's what makes any book compelling."

Whether crime thriller or globe-trotting save-the-world thriller, it seems that there are some common issues both kinds of writers face, like creating a fascinating character who is somehow a reflection of the time in which they live.

"Who is that character, how are they going to react?" asks Slaughter. "I think a lot of people give the thriller genre a lot of flak for being pulp fiction, but the stories are so immediate. I mean if you wanted to study what was happening politically from a particular time period, you could watch '24.' "

A thriller is born?

"Gideon's War" is not by any means Gordon's first effort to connect with an audience. As a former executive producer for The "X-Files," and a consulting producer for "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," he clearly has shown a knack for keeping things exciting. But will people line up to shell out money for his latest project?

"It's hard to break out like this guy," says Gail Ross, a nonfiction literary agent based in Washington who admits to being a closet fiction reader. "But he's got enough notoriety, and once you have the blurb from people you trust and the brand recognition, the readers will talk to each other."

Gordon is getting a little help from his friends for sure. Kiefer Sutherland, the star of "24," has offered a blurb for the back cover of Gordon's book.

While Gordon says he's loved every minute of his budding career as a novelist, he hasn't given up his day job. He's hard at work on a pilot for Showtime called "Homeland." So the question is, will he continue his latest adventure?

"I'm working on it now," says Gordon. "It's called 'Allegiance,' and it's the second in the Gideon series, exploring some homegrown terrorism. I love these kinds of stories. They also are stories that are exciting as they are. They also contain a lot of ideas about politics and foreign policy and about this country."