How to commit the perfect murder to paper: Advice from David Thomas, aka Tom Cain

David Thomas’, aka Tom Cain, first novel

I’m not a fan of The Daily Fail. They really do seem to swim in the shallow end of the wading pool of intelligence. That said, today they featured an article from a very good novelist, someone with whom I’ve had some interesting conversations: David Thomas / Tom Cain. So like any good blogger, I’ve stolen the article and reposted it here. Enjoy!

All over the world, on countless flights, heading to an infinite number of sun-loungers people are burying their heads in stories about secret agents, serial killers, ace detectives, evil villains and sexy heroines.

Thrillers are a huge business. They make up about a third of all books sold, and 60 per cent of them are bought by women.

For the very top writers, the rewards are astonishing. In 2009, James Patterson signed a four-year, 17-book deal worth almost £100 million. At the peak of Da Vinci Code mania, Dan Brown was making more than £50 million a year.

For every one of those megastars, of course, there are hundreds of professional thriller writers who just about make it pay – even a best-selling paperback in the UK, shifting 100,000 copies won’t earn much above £50,000 in royalties – and thousands of wannabes. I’m lucky enough to come in the ‘make it pay’ category. So I know what the job entails. And trust me, it isn’t easy.

One Monday morning in June 2006 my literary agent sent out a book proposal to publishers: the first 150 pages of a thriller called The Accident Man that I’d written under the pseudonym Tom Cain. The book had a very simple, high-concept premise. Its hero, Sam Carver, was the man who killed Princess Diana. Her name appeared nowhere in the book. But on the night of August 31, 1997, Carver makes a black Mercedes saloon crash in Paris.

He’s been told the Merc’s passenger is a terrorist. But of course it’s actually a woman – the most famous woman in the world.

By lunchtime on Wednesday, I’d received a six-figure offer for the UK rights to the book and a sequel and Hollywood bought an option on the film rights.

Before you even try to write a thriller, take a good look at how other people have done it. It looked like an overnight success, but I’d spent two years producing one useless draft after another. My agent made it perfectly clear to me that I’d made a bundle of rookie mistakes. My plot didn’t hold together. My writing was hopelessly cluttered with unnecessary descriptions of Parisian streets and buildings as I tried to stuff all my endless research down on to the page.

The characters weren’t believable and the one the agency boss liked best – Carver’s love-interest, a Russian girl called Alix – was killed in the second act. The only crumb of comfort the agency boss could offer me was: ‘I never quite hated it enough to stop reading.’

In the end, we managed to fix all the problems. But in 25 years as a journalist and author, during which I’d written countless articles, edited three magazines and published half-a-dozen non-fiction books, nothing had been as difficult as writing a half-decent thriller.

But what if you want to write a thriller of your own? Here are ten tips that I would give to anyone who dreams of seeing their book piled up in airport bookstores . . .

1) Study the masters…

Before you even try to write a thriller, take a good look at how other people have done it. Read every book you can get your hands on, but watch great TV series and movies, too. The Accident Man was hugely influenced by the way the writers of 24 kept multiple storylines running simultaneously, each with its own cliffhanger, so there was always someone, somewhere, in desperate trouble. 24 was relentless, it never for one moment let you relax. And you always wanted more.

2) …but don’t overdose on them

I devoured Lee Child’s Jack Reacher books. I tried to imitate his terse, punchy, bone-dry style. The result was garbage. Then I realised that Lee writes the way he does because that’s how he naturally expresses himself. So I went back to the way I write naturally, and it made a huge difference. Your book will work best if it’s told in your voice.

3) Structure, structure, structure…

Property is all about location, thrillers are all about structure. Everything has to fit together with the precision of a Swiss watch, powered by a coiled spring. Frederick Forsyth’s The Day of The Jackal is a masterpiece of construction. I once drew a chart on a couple of sheets of A2 paper that consisted of a scene-by-scene analysis of Jackal, showing which characters appeared when, and how Forsyth balanced character development, plot and action over the course of the book. It really helped me understand the structural skeleton beneath the flesh and blood of the words.

4) Show, don’t tell

Always make your point through action and dialogue, rather than exposition. At the beginning of The Accident Man I had a few paragraphs explaining that Sam Carver was an assassin who created fatal ‘accidents’. An American publisher said: ‘Nice idea, but it would be much better if we could see him do it.’ So I wrote a new opening scene in which he killed a people trafficker by sabotaging his helicopter using a miniature spanner, a hacksaw and two blobs of Blu-Tack. So we saw Carver at work. Better.

Some thrillers are whodunits: the hero arrests the bad guy. Some are action thrillers: the hero kills the bad guy. Either way, you’re going to be thinking of new ways to kill people and cool weapons to kill them with

5) It’s the people, stupid

Stieg Larsson thought his Millennium Trilogy was all about the sexism and corruption at the rotten heart of Swedish society. But the millions who devoured The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo couldn’t care less about that. They just fell in love with an emaciated, autistic computer genius called Lisbeth Salander. It’s the characters in a book – and that means the villains, lovers and supporting cast, too – that make it work. So if you ever think, ‘I’ve got a great idea for a thriller,’ make sure you’ve got great characters for it too.

6) Grab them by the throat and their minds will follow

If you don’t grab your readers’ attention in the opening chapter, they’ll find another book. Robert Ludlum’s The Bourne Identity has one of the all-time great opening sequences: a man, fished from the Mediterranean, unaware of who or what he really is, unknowingly possessed of all the deadly skills of a CIA assassin. The men from Hollywood threw away 90 per cent of what Ludlum wrote in the Bourne trilogy. But they kept that opening and it gave them a billion-dollar franchise.

7) Think like a killer

Some thrillers are whodunits: the hero arrests the bad guy. Some are action thrillers: the hero kills the bad guy. Either way, you’re going to be thinking of new ways to kill people and cool weapons to kill them with. So clip grisly news stories. Read books about real killers. Go on the gun-nut channels on YouTube. And read books by Patricia Cornwell and Jonathan Hayes. They’re professional forensic pathologists. Dead bodies are, quite literally, their business.

8) Count the bullets in the gun

If you want your readers to believe your story, get the details right. Either write about what you know, or do your research properly. Don’t have your hero firing 15 bullets from a Walther PPK if it can only hold nine. And speaking of James Bond’s favourite gun, Ian Fleming pulled off a brilliant trick when he created 007. The idea of a cool, sophisticated, lady-killing assassin, touring the world On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, bumping off bad guys who wanted to rule the world was as much a fantasy as Harry Potter playing Quidditch. But because the details were so brilliantly observed – Bond’s cars, his Sea Island cotton shirts, the exotic locations – it all felt completely real.

9) Always think of Option C

The fun part of thriller writing is getting your characters into dangerous situations and then getting them out again. An editor once gave me a great tip: put your protagonist in a situation where they have to choose between two options, A and B. Then write option C. In one of my books, Carver is on holiday in the Greek islands with a girl. They’re having lunch. The restaurant is attacked by gunmen. The girl is shot. Carver just escapes, after a frantic chase. He stops for a second to think. Should he go after the gunmen, or should he get the hell off the island? That’s options A and B. Then the phone rings. He takes the call. It’s the girl – the one who’s just been shot dead. And that’s Option C.

10) If you’re a man, ditch the dumb blondes and tough girls

You have a male lead, and chances are he’s going to want a girl. And she’s going to be sexy, sultry and splendidly beddable. That’s fine – being ravished by the hunky hero works for girls too. Just don’t make her a cliché. Very few men now dare write a ditsy, screaming blonde. But many dream up superchicks who are as tough and deadly as any man. Most women don’t see themselves that way. Strong, yes. Gorgeous, certainly. But intelligent, complex and vulnerable, too, if you don’t mind. And if you’re a woman, bin the bad guys and the goody-goodies. Men are more complicated than that.

…but finally, and most importantly

Forget the rules . . . except one. The first four, clunkingly tabloid words of The Da Vinci Code, ‘Renowned curator Jacques Saunier’ tell you that Dan Brown can’t write for toffee. There’s not a character in the book that’s close to being interesting and the ‘facts’ on which the whole thing depends have been debunked. Yet somehow it’s is completely unputdownable. So in the end, the only rule that really counts is: keep the reader reading.

Revenger’, Tom Cain’s latest Sam Carver novel is published in paperback by Corgi, £6.99. ‘Ostland’, by David Thomas, is published by Quercus, £16.99

7 thoughts on “How to commit the perfect murder to paper: Advice from David Thomas, aka Tom Cain

  1. Reblogged this on journeyofjordannaeast and commented:
    I *LOVED* this post! There are some great tips here that I can’t wait to get in the habit of. It’s already creepy how good I am at #7 (twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week), but now I’ll be practicing #9 with earnest. Thanks Tyson Adams for stealing and posting!


  2. Deep sigh! I am currently working on my second draft of – OK, not a thriller, but a crime fiction novel and am finding all of the difficulties that David Thomas/Tom Cain points out. Great advice! It looks so easy, but it really isn’t. Who knows, maybe I’ll even end up with a little respect for Dan Brown?


      1. Yeah. When I read The DaVinci Code I found it entertaining and worth reading/finishing. But I still thought I’d read plenty of better thrillers that deserved more attention.


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