I love a good thriller. To me novels are meant to, first and foremost, entertain. Some flowery prose may be interesting, the relationships and settings may be fascinating, but if there isn’t any imminent danger to life, limb and puppies, then I’m likely to be throwing the book away.
Mystery, crime and thriller genres are often lumped together or confused for one another. This is kinda like cars, some people don’t know the difference between cars and will just go by colour. While it’s true that they often overlap, there’s a distinct difference: in a mystery there is a puzzle to solve, in a crime there is a crime to solve after it has occurred (although there may be others committed later in the story), whilst a thriller is all about knowing that a crime is going to be committed and the story details the prevention of it.
In an article on Writer’s Digest, Zachary Petit put forward a list by Brian Garfield. He called this the 10 Commandments of thriller writing, because you can’t have a thriller if someone isn’t breaking some rules.
Start with action; explain it later. TA: I especially agree with this point. I’m sick of “thrillers” that take the first half of the book to set up the action.
Make it tough for your protagonist.
Plant it early; pay it off later.
Give the protagonist the initiative.
Give the protagonist a personal stake.
Give the protagonist a tight time limit, and then shorten it.
Choose your character according to your own capacities, as well as his/hers.
Know your destination before you set out.
Don’t rush in where angels fear to tread.
Don’t write anything you wouldn’t want to read. TA: You know, like street directions and descriptions of flowers and home renovations.
For the full piece, “10 Rules for Suspense Fiction” by Brian Garfield, click here.
At the 2008 Maui Writers Conference, bestselling thriller writer Gary Braver (Skin Deep) said that dread drives thrillers. You know who the good guys and bad guys are. Dull moments will lose an audience, and writers can’t afford to lose an audience, even for one page. To captivate an audience (and agents and publishers), Braver offers these 10 essential ingredients for a successful thriller.
1. You need to have a good story. Thrillers want to be thrilled. A common element in thrillers is that the protagonist will fall victim to someone else’s scheme and get stuck in a moment of dread. There are only three themes in all of literature: death and rebirth (Stephen King’s Misery); the hero slaying a dragon to restore the world to normalcy (James Bond, Indiana Jones); and the quest to make life better (The Da Vinci Code). Know which theme fits your story.
2. Write about the underdog. Tell your thriller from the point of view of the person with the most to lose. The protagonist gives the story character. Give him baggage and emotional complexity.
3. Multiple points of view can give you great range in a thriller. They allow you inside the heads of many characters, which can build more dramatic tension and irony.
4. Open your book with an action scene. Don’t put biographical information or exposition in Chapter 1 (do that later). Introduce the crime—which tells you the stakes—and introduce the hero and villain, and even some obstacles the protagonist may face.
Don’t sacrifice style—use metaphors and good language—but stick with action.
5. Early on, make clear what your protagonist wants and what he fears. You should know what the protagonist wants and how he would end the novel if he were writing it.
There are two quests: Stopping the bad stuff from happening (In The Silence of the Lambs, it’s to stop Buffalo Bill from killing) and dealing with the character’s baggage (for Clarice to be a good, professional FBI agent in a [then] male-dominated profession).
Think Cinderella: Her main quest is to get to the ball. It’s about liberation. When she gets to the ball she finds freedom.
6. Make your characters miserable. Ask what the worst thing is that could happen to your protagonist and make it worse. Give them grief, false hope, heartaches, anxiety and near-death experiences. We don’t want our protagonist to win until the end.
7. Your main characters have to change. It has to be an emotional change that shows growth and victory over some of his baggage. In The Silence of the Lambs, Clarice is stronger and tougher at the end and she gets a good night’s sleep.
8. Pacing must be high: Strong Narrative Thrust. Each scene should reveal something new, no matter how slight it is. Don’t tell us about stuff that has nothing to do with the story. The villain has a ticking clock, so there’s no time to waste on pages with useless information. Short paragraphs and white space are good. Consider using cliffhangers at the end of every chapter, albeit a sudden surprise or provocative announcement.
9. Show—don’t tell. Avoid the passive voice. Use action verbs (He heard the screams in his bedroom). Avoid adverbs—they are cheesy and cheap ways of telling instead of showing. Don’t start sentences with –ing words (“He stared” vs. “Staring at the …”). Make the subject and verb close and up front in the sentence.
10. Teach us something. Make sure your audience has learned about something—an animal, medical treatment, social issue—so we walk away with more knowledge.
A friend made the comment to me recently that a film we had both watched was merely a rip-off of another film. Rip-off is a bit harsh in my opinion. If we think hard about all the books and films we’ve ever watched and then break them down into their general plots you start to see a lot of patterns. Boy meets girl. Girl meets boy. Buddies team up to do something awesome. Odd couple team up to do something awesome. When all said and done, it is hard to identify anything truly original.
As a result, people often say that there are only a certain number of basic plots and that any story is really just a variation on these plots. Depending on how detailed they want to make a “basic” plot, different writers have offered a variety of solutions. An article I found lists these:
Attempts to find the number of basic plots in literature cannot be resolved any more tightly than to describe a single basic plot. Foster-Harris claims that all plots stem from conflict. He describes this in terms of what the main character feels: “I have an inner conflict of emotions, feelings…. What, in any case, can I do to resolve the inner problems?” (p. 30-31) This is in accord with the canonical view that the basic elements of plot revolve around a problem dealt with in sequence: “Exposition – Rising Action – Climax – Falling Action – Denouement”. (Such description of plot can be found in many places, including: Holman, C. Hugh and William Harmon. A Handbook to Literature. 6th ed. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co, 1992.) Foster-Harris’ main argument is for 3 Plots (which are contained within this one), described below.
Foster-Harris. The Basic Patterns of Plot. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1959. Foster-Harris contends that there are three basic patterns of plot (p. 66):
- “’Type A, happy ending’”; Foster-Harris argues that the “Type A” pattern results when the central character (which he calls the “I-nitial” character) makes a sacrifice (a decision that seems logically “wrong”) for the sake of another.
- “’Type B, unhappy ending’”; this pattern follows when the “I-nitial” character does what seems logically “right” and thus fails to make the needed sacrifice.
- “’Type C,’ the literary plot, in which, no matter whether we start from the happy or the unhappy fork, proceeding backwards we arrive inevitably at the question, where we stop to wail.” This pattern requires more explanation (Foster-Harris devotes a chapter to the literary plot.) In short, the “literary plot” is one that does not hinge upon decision, but fate; in it, the critical event takes place at the beginning of the story rather than the end. What follows from that event is inevitable, often tragedy. (This in fact coincides with the classical Greek notion of tragedy, which is that such events are fated and inexorable.)
7 basic plots as remembered from second grade by IPL volunteer librarian Jessamyn West:
- [wo]man vs. nature
- [wo]man vs. [wo]man
- [wo]man vs. the environment
- [wo]man vs. machines/technology
- [wo]man vs. the supernatural
- [wo]man vs. self
- [wo]man vs. god/religion
Tobias, Ronald B. 20 Master Plots. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books, 1993. (ISBN 0-89879-595-8)
This book proposes twenty basic plots:
- The Riddle
- Forbidden Love
- Wretched Excess
Polti, Georges. The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations. trans. Lucille Ray.
Polti claims to be trying to reconstruct the 36 plots that Goethe alleges someone named [Carlo] Gozzi came up with. (In the following list, the words in parentheses are our annotations to try to explain some of the less helpful titles.):
- Supplication (in which the Supplicant must beg something from Power in authority)
- Crime Pursued by Vengeance
- Vengeance taken for kindred upon kindred
- Falling Prey to Cruelty of Misfortune
- Daring Enterprise
- The Enigma (temptation or a riddle)
- Enmity of Kinsmen
- Rivalry of Kinsmen
- Murderous Adultery
- Fatal Imprudence
- Involuntary Crimes of Love (example: discovery that one has married one’s mother, sister, etc.)
- Slaying of a Kinsman Unrecognized
- Self-Sacrificing for an Ideal
- Self-Sacrifice for Kindred
- All Sacrificed for Passion
- Necessity of Sacrificing Loved Ones
- Rivalry of Superior and Inferior
- Crimes of Love
- Discovery of the Dishonor of a Loved One
- Obstacles to Love
- An Enemy Loved
- Conflict with a God
- Mistaken Jealousy
- Erroneous Judgement
- Recovery of a Lost One
- Loss of Loved Ones.
It is therefore inevitable that it is all just a little bit of history repeating.
(via Climate Central)
From our friends at NASA comes this amazing 13-second animation that depicts how temperatures around the globe have warmed since 1950. You’ll note an acceleration of the temperature trend in the late 1970s as greenhouse gas emissions from energy production increased worldwide and clean air laws reduced emissions of pollutants that had a cooling effect on the climate, and thus were masking some of the global warming signal.
The data come from NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York (GISS), which monitors global surface temperatures. As NASA notes, “All 10 of the warmest years in the GISS analysis have occurred since 1998, continuing a trend of temperatures well above the mid-20th century average.”
Does gun control work? Well, yes, yes it does.
I could post a bunch of statistics and the data from various countries, but instead I’m going to post The Daily Show’s three part series on the topic.
Now, I don’t like the idea of making it illegal for people to be able to be involved in the sport of shooting, nor making vermin control prohibitive. I think in some respects that Australian gun laws are probably a little too restrictive. I also think that the figures on how effective our gun control measures have been are a little overstated, as law enforcement had already made inroads into lowering gun crime prior to the new laws in 1996. But overall, in my opinion, Australia doesn’t have much of a gun problem now. Making sure gun owners are responsible people who are involved in the sport of shooting and not a disgruntled time bomb going unnoticed until they start shooting people, seems to be a good thing.
Source for Image
From Writers Write Blog.
Earlier this week comedian Stephen Colbert was able to make a tragic event funny, touching and uplifting, all in the same monologue. For that moment the world was a little brighter. Then I accidentally clicked on a Steven Crowder Youtube video and I immediately despaired for humanity that this man could call himself a comedian. He is to comedians what Norman Bates is to hotel/motel owners. In the interests of the interwebz, I’m compiling a list of “comedians” whose performances may cause lasting damage to your sense of humour.
His only funny moment was when he tried to pretend he didn’t pick a fight with a union rep at a rally.
I’ll be fair to Dane, he has turned in some halfway decent acting performances (E.g. Mr Brooks). Pity he can’t act like a comedian. Even his Twitter feed ‘jokes’ make you question why he isn’t limited to less than 140 characters.
I’ll admit it, I have a copy of one of his comedy CDs. Of course, jokes about peeing your pants and lunch ladies have an expiry date of seconds after the joke is told.
Ranggers already have a tough time in this world, Carrot Top made it worse.
The funniest thing about Dave Hughes is that he has managed to forge a career as a comedian in Australia.
I’m against censorship. Unfortunately many are in favour of censoring books. You may have heard of the outcry over the decision to edit Mark Twain’s classic, Huckleberry Finn, to stop calling the main supporting character, Nigger Jim. What you may not have heard is that schools had stopped teaching Huckleberry Finn because they didn’t want to have to explain the historical and racial undertones and themes of the book. We can’t have a literary book actually studied now, can we! Definitely don’t want to look at Twain’s biting commentary on racism in the south of America, because that would mean discussing racism, and we like to pretend it isn’t still an issue.
It isn’t just the school curricula that are being impacted, it is libraries and book stores as well. The list of frequently challenged books is far too long and the reasons cited are far too ridiculous. For example, Brave New World by Aldous Huxley is regularly objected to for being: insensitivity; nudity; racism; religious viewpoint; sexually explicit. Seriously? What about the other complaints?
I’m offended by the word ‘sustainable’ as it is ambiguous term that is used politically as a catch-cry to gloss over reality. Does that mean I can complain about books containing that word? And what is sexually explicit? Is it when two characters embrace for a passionate kiss, or when the ball-gag and whips make an appearance? Are parents really concerned about the level of “smut” in the books their kids read or are they trying to have books banned because readers might enjoy them?
I know I have a complaint about the Twilight books. Now, my reasons aren’t like the other complaints (Reasons: religious viewpoint and violence), I just don’t like them because I’ve been dragged to see four terrible films by my wife. Ban the Twilight books so that husbands and boyfriends everywhere aren’t tortured with Kirsten Stewart’s “acting.”
Every work of literature, and much nonfiction narrative, is based on at least one of the following conflicts. When you write a story or a biography, or relate a true event or series of events, you need not focus on such themes, and there’s no reason to state them explicitly (except in passing, perhaps, to provide insight about a biographical subject), but you’re wise to identify the conflicts inherent in your composition and apply them as you write.
1. Person vs. Fate/God
This category could be considered part of conflict with self or with society (many people count only four types of conflict, including those two and conflict with another person or with nature). That’s a valid argument, as one confronts fate as part of an internal struggle and religion is a construct of society, but explicitly naming fate (Oedipus Rex) or God — or the gods (The Odyssey) — as the antagonist is a useful distinction.
2. Person vs. Self
A person’s struggle with his or her own prejudices or doubts or character flaws constitutes this type of conflict (Hamlet).
3. Person vs. Person
Any story featuring a hero and a villain or villains (The Count of Monte Cristo) represents this type of conflict, though the villain(s) is/are often representative of another antagonist in this list, whether a villain is in essence an alter ego of the protagonist (thus representing the conflict of person versus self) or stands in for society.
4. Person vs. Society
When the protagonist’s conflict extends to confronting institutions, traditions, or laws of his or her culture, he or she struggles to overcome them, either triumphing over a corrupt society (I draw a blank here – Tyson says: most thrillers have an element of this), rejecting it (Fahrenheit 451), or succumbing to it (1984).
5. Person vs. Nature
In this conflict, the protagonist is pitted against nature (Robinson Crusoe) or a representation of it, often in the form of an animal (Moby Dick).
6. Person vs. Supernatural
Superficially, conflict with the supernatural may seem equivalent to conflict with fate or God, or representative of a struggle with an evocation of self (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) or nature (The Birds). But this category stands on its own feet as well.
7. Person vs. Technology
Humanity’s innate skepticism about the wonders of technology has resulted in many stories in which antagonists use technology to gain power or in which technology takes over or becomes a malign influence on society (Brave New World).
From Daily Writing Tips.
Of course, Mark left out the most important one for writers, especially those working on a series of novels:
Person vs. Expectations.
Someone picked up your book because the publishing house put a picture of a dog on the cover, even though there isn’t a dog in the book (unless you count the love interest), and is expecting a book that will help them get to sleep in the 10 minutes per night that they read just before bed. Anything other than an easy to read, short chapter, low concept novel and the expectations will either result in a sleepless night or dire reprisals on social media. If this is not the first book the person has read by the author, then unfair comparisons will be made if you don’t manage to outshine everything you’ve ever written and will ever write – the latter for those coming late to a series or author.
Easter is here for another year. I like to celebrate this time of year with bacon (for peace) and chocolate eggs and bunnies. Actually, interesting fact, the reason we celebrate Easter with eggs and bunnies is because they were fertility and sex symbols of the goddess Ishtar (pronounced Easter). In honour of the event, we clearly need the chocolate eggs and bunnies to keep us fuelled up for the fertility long weekend. In some of the spare hours, it might be worth reading a good book.
So, have you read any of Lee’s favourite books and will you be reading any of them this long chocolate fueled sex weekend?
1 To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
“The greatest legal thriller ever written.”
2 Revolution in the Head by Ian MacDonald
“If you were there, you can’t remember – so read this.”
3 Roots by Alex Haley
“A tragic story we should all know.”
4 Sophie’s Choice by William Styron
“If you read only 10 novels in your life, make this one.”
5 Catch 22 by Joseph Heller
“Started a brief but glorious period of dissent in the United States.”
6 The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham
“The best what-if sci-fi ever.”
7 Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh
“An elegant saga and a double love story.”
8 The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
“A novel that described and defined an era.”
9 Nice Work by David Lodge
“Social realism from a recent but almost forgotten era.”
10 Goldfinger by Ian Fleming
“Iconic, for a reason.”
11 Ragtime by EL Doctorow
“What great novels used to be – and could be again.”
12 The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler
“The best of the US golden age of crime writing.”
13 Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare
“The finest writing EVER.”
14 The Road to Wigan Pier by George Orwell
“How we used to live, think and write.”
15 Churchill by Roy Jenkins
“The best one-volume biography ever.”
16 The Dam Busters by Paul Brickhill
“Guys my age grew up on stuff like this.”
17 Gorky Park by Martin Cruz Smith
“A Californian writing about Russia in a Scandinavian way.”
18 Los Alamos by Joseph Kanon
“My current favourite writer’s debut – excellent.”
19 Postmortem by Patricia Cornwell
“There’s a reason she became so popular – and this is it.”
20 Sleepyhead by Mark Billingham
“An amazing debut with an early ‘reveal’ that will shock you.”
21 The Glittering Prizes by Frederic Raphael
“A time, a place – how we used to live, who we used to be.”
22 Maisie Dobbs by Jacqueline Winspear
“The first in an amazing new series.”
23 The Little Drummer Girl by John le Carré
“The unfairly neglected jewel in le Carré’s crown.”
24 City of Thieves by David Benioff
“Powerful, entrancing, tough, wonderfully imagined.”
25 Have His Carcase by Dorothy L Sayers
“The best of ‘golden age’ mystery fiction.”
26 The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon by Stephen King
“An example of King’s genius – he can make a story out of the simplest premise.”
27 A Place of Execution by Val McDermid
“Everything plus that vital x-factor that makes you cross when you have to stop.”
28 The Lost by Daniel Mendelsohn
“A heartbreaking work of personal history that reads like a thriller.”
29 Debt of Honour by Tom Clancy
“The best from the man who dominated the genre for a decade.”
30 The Golden Rendezvous by Alistair MacLean
“His first dozen books are all great – why not start here?”
31 The Female Eunoch by Germaine Greer
“That rare thing – a book that changed the world.”
32 Dreams From My Father by Barack Obama
“I read this 7 years ago and wanted him for president right then.”
33 The Power of the Dog by Don Winslow
“A huge multi-generational crime saga – a book of the decade.”
34 The Day of the Jackal by Frederick Forsyth
“ ‘Book Zero’ in terms of recent thriller evolution.”
35 Green River Rising by Tim Willocks
“Maybe the best-ever prison novel – terrific suspense.”
36 The Runaway Jury by John Grisham
“Much more than it seems – a masterclass in narrative drive.”
37 Brilliant Orange by David Winner
“My favourite sport explains one of my favourite cultures.”
38 Night Sky by Clare Francis
“The multitalented Ms Francis unleashes terrific suspense and a great ‘OMG’ moment.”
39 On the Beach by Nevil Shute
“The best of 1950s style – with 1950s concerns.”
40 The Given Day by Dennis Lehane
“A big meaty epic, sprawling and inclusive – like novels use to be.”