Thrillers are perhaps the hardest genre of novel to write and get right. I’ve written about this before and you can catch my Part 1 and Part 2 tips on thriller writing in earlier posts on my website blog. But there’s one reason I’ve not yet touched on why I think thrillers are by far and away the pinnacle of fictional writing challenges: they demand the writer to elicit a significant emotional response from readers.

To be thrilled means that the body and mind are pounding each other with neurons that carry agitated and excited messages. The neurons are in swarm; directionless, confused, but totally aware that they’ve been deployed in a heightened state of alertness. Among other parts of the body, they bombard the skin, heart, gut, and brain. And they do so because their carrier has purchased a thriller book written by someone he or she has never met.

One may think that other fiction genres require emotional responses from their readers – for example, comedies, romance, and literary novels. Not so.  They and other genres may elicit such emotional reactions, the good ones do, but they don’t demand them in order to work as novels. The detail is in the genre descriptions. Comedy isn’t called “Gives you happiness”. Erotica isn’t called “Makes you aroused”. And literary novels aren’t described as “Read this and you’ll be full of wonderment, sorrow, and reflection”. To be fair to these genres and others, they never said they’d give you such emotional responses. But the thriller genre is bold. It wants you to feel what it says on the tin – “read this and you’ll be thrilled”.

However, there’s a problem beneath the thriller author’s monumental and magical task of attempting to thrill. Novels within all fiction genres are not just judged on their story. They are also judged on how the tale is delivered. And delivery includes writing style, characterization and scene-setting. In particular in thrillers and to a lesser extent crime, it also means pace. But how do you scattergun your thriller readers’ nerves into a chaotic surge of madness, and pause to describe the pretty blossom on a tree and how the man standing underneath it is a divorcee who mourns the absence of his ex-wife as if she had departed to Heaven? Therein is the problem that just has to be fixed.

On the contentious basis that writing cannot be taught, I shall unheroically dodge commentary here on writing style. Maybe one day I’ll be brave enough to return to that issue with substance. But for now I thought I’d share my views on weaving in characterization and scene-setting while maintaining momentum.

Scene Setting – It’s my world and my lie

If you’ve been to a place and want to weave that place into your novel, be courageous and write not only what you’ve seen but also what your imagination saw – the two are symbiotic if not indistinguishable. Don’t worry if one of your readers has also been to the same place and saw it differently.

The substance of the world is not a truth shared by all who live on our planet. It is a composite of billions of competing, conflicting, sometimes overlapping, and rarely identical stories. Each story belongs to each person who lives on Earth. For 10 years of my adult life, I lived in London. So did millions of other people. All of us would agree that Oxford Street is precisely where it says it is on any reputable map of London. But, put all of us at one end of Oxford Street, and I guarantee you would be befuddled by the diversity of descriptions of what we could see, hear, taste, smell, and touch.

It gets more complicated than that. Put me at one end of Oxford Street five years ago, and put me back there now, and you will get two different subjective versions of what’s ahead of me – and not because there’s been any noticeable change in organic and inorganic structures within the route. Imagine one of the most wonderful places you’ve been to in your life. Did you go back there in later years? If so, was that wonder you first felt recaptured? What we see is but one of the senses, and couple that with a cognitive process that is not only bespoke to each individual but is also evolving and adapting and creating its own “stories” depending upon time and circumstances.

As a young adult, I watched the sun set while sitting on a beach in Eilat. A pretty young woman was sat next to me. I had a shine for her and she did for me, though we were coy and not an item. The sun felt warm yet not oppressive on my skin. The sounds of the sea were soporific. I could smell chickpeas, Camel cigarettes, and sun cream intermingled with the perfume on my skin and her skin. The smells seemed to make the moment right. We were alone, or so it felt; this was our place, my place, my moment. I dare not go back to that beech. I would probably see concrete hotels, litter, and throngs of tourists. I’d see a completely different scene.

The real scenes in our lives are positive, negative, or indifferent delusions that are time and mood sensitive. Yes, we writers must be accurate in the basics of our novel’s scenes. If the street you’re describing in Vienna has cobbles, make sure it has cobbles. But beyond those accuracies, authors can feast amid the delusions and differing interpretations of the Viennese who trample the street. And we can turn the truism of anarchic and schizophrenic subjectivity to our advantage.

Scenes are no longer the annoying but necessary backdrop to our tales and nor are they hindrances to our storytelling haste. They become a cogent reminder that we are journeymen, drawing closer to our fate while taking in the amazing scenery.

Let’s say I need to write Oxford Street into a scene in my book. I recal being there. I see Oxford Street. Big deal. It is full of traffic, tacky shops, pedestrians crossing the road when they shouldn’t, and has an air of irritable desperation amid consumers and vendors alike. Perhaps I should rush this scene-setting for fear of boring the reader with its mundanities. Or perhaps I could create my own delusion. Above the shop to my right was once a squalid apartment where Kitty Dawson poisoned her child in 1876 and tossed its body into the Thames to avoid prosecution. Why are the two men in front of me hiding knives in their jackets? The wind that’s coursing down the route smells of salt-caked drying herrings. The nearby hawker of saccharin-smelling nuts is watchful because he needs to know if the police are going to swoop and arrest him for also selling cocaine. Beneath the sidewalk I’m standing on are the bones of Jack The Ripper’s first unknown victim.

The possibilities are endless. You might challenge me if I don’t get the nuts and bolts of Oxford Street correct in my research. But I dare you to prove that the air didn’t smell of drying herrings on the day I stood on the street, or that my imaginary Kitty Dawson didn’t exist and commit infanticide.  The scene becomes its own story. It becomes a thrill, not a chore, to walk through it.

Characterization – 1 line can make all the difference

When I create a character, I want to spend quality time with them. If I don’t, I kill them before they set foot on my pages. For many writers, creating multidimensional personalities for the protagonist and antagonist is a relatively easy process because those characters are not only at the forefront of our minds but we’ve also devoted a lot of time thinking about them. We might even imagine ourselves as them, and thereby bring a history of thought, personality, behavior, and experience to the page. Whether they’re a knight in shining armor or a demented psychopath doesn’t matter as most writers can easily imagine being good and bad because we’ve got our own human foibles, strengths, and aspirations to draw upon. Plus we have imagination. It’s the bit-part, minor, characters where some authors fall down.

The reason for this is because, like the aforementioned Oxford Street scene, these small-time characters are essential building blocks to the story but they’re also a nuisance because they’re in the way. So, at best we rush them in and out as quickly as possible, but leave no room for captivating our readers with their presence. At worst, their boring presence is drawn out, thereby numbing our thrill-seeking desires.

It needn’t be this way.

When creating the synopsis for your story, if you draw up a thumbnail sketch of a minor character, it could be something like this:

“Female, 45 years old, teacher. Happily married, two teenage daughters. Lives in Los Angeles. Teaches protagonist’s estranged daughter.”

Now, the above character may contain interesting foibles, eccentricities, or other traits that can be written in to her character by the author. One of the joys of writing is to see your characters unfold in new and unexpected ways as the book is written. I’m a big fan of this process and don’t like having a cast-in-stone character script in advance of bringing my personalities to life. But that’s not to say you can’t take a moment to simply add one or two extra lines to your minor character’s mini biography, before you put fingers to keyboard.

For example, consider adding this to the above character’s bio:

“Her sister died from a fall when character was 14 years old.”

Maybe that adds sadness to the character. Perhaps it gave her motivation to start her own family in later life. It could beg so many possibilities about who she is and what motivates her. The author doesn’t need to answer these questions (unless they’re pertinent to the central tale). But just one small sentence can add manifold new dimensions to a person. The reader’s mind starts asking questions, and wonders about possibilities and answers. Then, the author could take the minor character’s bio one stage further:

“She pushed her sister from the 20th story of the abandoned tower block.”

In my example, suddenly she’s a murderer. Or maybe not. Maybe it was an accident. Maybe she got into an argument with her sister. Does she feel regret? Is she a killer by nature? Are the children in her school in danger? Is the protagonist’s estranged daughter in peril? So many questions can shoot out from just 1 line.   By putting that 1 line in there, it puts the author off kilter before he or she starts writing. That’s a healthy thing. The character is no longer boring.

And the additional 1 line can be delivered by the author with efficiency of prose. “Susan looked at the children in her care. She was proud of them and it gave her comfort that they trusted her. Just as well none of them knew she’d pushed her sister in a fit of rage when she was fourteen. When it happened, Susan was on the twentieth floor of an abandoned tower block. Her sister’s skull smashed when it struck the distant ground below. Now, the teacher looked around and smiled. That dreadful act had happened so long ago.”

If you don’t need to explore the character and what happened in her past for the sake of further characterization or your main story, then you could just leave the character description at that. Whenever she briefly pops up in the story again, she’ll certainly be memorable. It needn’t be as dramatic as your minor character turns out to have a dark past. It could be more benign but equally instructive e.g. “She glanced at her husband and wondered when he’d tell her that he knew she was dying.”

All characters, minor included, should add to the thrill rather than diminish it.

A Final word – for now…

Thriller writers should obsess about pace in the same way that hurdlers obsess about the timings of every footfall.  In thrillers, pace and plot are king. But you know that your favorite thriller novels have so much more than that. A great thriller is a supreme example of what can be done on the page. I am still learning. I hope the above, in tandem with my other tips posts, is of help to aspiring and current thriller writers.

Matthew Dunn

July 2015

[A note about spelling and descriptions in my above post: it’s written in “American English”. Why? Because I write novels for an American publisher, so am becoming more American in print by the day, plus my spellcheck gets the “red mist” if I try to write in the “old language”.]

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