Bookpleasures.com is excited to hear from two of our reviewers, Tom Pope and Steve Moore.They have put together a discussion based on their email exchanges to produce a Socratic discussion about several elements associated with writing thrillers. This if the first part of that discussion. Enjoy.
Tom Pope is a writing teacher and fiction coach who strives to spark the imagination. As a teacher, he works with tutoring services to help students organize essays and understand literary elements likee the point of view. As a fiction coach, he aids authors to develop characters, brainstorm conflict pacing and design worldbuilding.
What are your
impressions on the role of the clock with the threat? I think that a
threat should be a major one and the protagonist should face some
time limit before all havoc breaks out. Example: The protagonist has
to stop a nanite infection of fifty cases in a major hospital within
twelve hours or the infection spreads to the entire
However, the role of the clock does not end there. I
think the clock can work with segmenting the conflict into mini
conflicts. Example: Your protagonist has one hour to find the exact
nature of the nanite, but doctors block every step. He solves the
nature of the nanite, but then faces a two hour window to find how
the nanites are being activated by outside EM frequencies.
Of course, those are just the beginnings of the major problem, but the use of the clock and threat seem to work hand in hand.
Steve: The first movie I ever saw was High Noon, the quintessential "clock movie" and a thriller in its own right (my father let me tag along—he was a Gary Cooper fan). Of course, there was that famous Fox series too. In my thriller, The Midas Bomb, Detectives Chen and Castilblanco are working against the clock to stop a terrorist strike. In the last tale of my short story anthology, Pop Two Antacids and Have Some Java, Castilblanco is waiting for a drug-crazed killer to return home. The clock is almost a protagonist in this yarn.
A thriller without any time crunch lacks suspense. It's a critical element. It also provides a key distinction between mystery and thriller. In the former, something bad has already happened and the protagonist has to figure out the how's, why's, and who's. In the latter, something bad is going to happen and the protagonist has to try to stop it, usually with a time constraint. Of course, there are other differences between the two genres, but these are key. In brief, the time crunch makes a thriller differ from a mystery.
Tom: I think you home in on the key factor of when the threat occurs. The mystery does offer a threat that happened already, while the thriller poses an incoming threat. But some aspect of a coming threat still exists in a mystery. The presence of a killer in a mystery could be considered a subtle new threat. The classics of Inspector Morse or Holmes make readers feel a new threat looms over their shoulders because the killer still lurks. And what’s happening to those family members who are either guilty or innocent?
Yet, I think the role of the clock can be even more dominant than that in High Noon. The clock becomes an aid to segment the mini conflict. Cooper’s character faced one vital threat that revolved around the clock. The protagonist also had to deal with some psychological issues and ethical ones. But those were all linked to the overriding threat.
In contrast, the clock struck many mini conflicts for Jack Bauer in the final year of 24. The clock threatened solving intel on a Senate staff member’s betrayal, the way the White House had to be protected, the way Jack viewed his relationship with Tony, and then the way he had to deal with a contractor.
I think thrillers demand writers to think beyond the initial conflict to break it down and delve into the many parts of the threat. Then each one can become a subject for a mini conflict.
Steve: I agree that, even in the mystery genre, the potential that the murderer plans to kill again, for example, can add a time constraint—the protagonist must stop him before that happens. That’s when the mystery genre crosses over to the thriller genre, though, if the clock is really key.
I wouldn’t get hung up on mini-conflicts. 24 created them to match the soap-opera nature of the TV series. Books don’t need that. Many good thrillers have only one, albeit a major one, if the story is a novel. Of course, sustaining that conflict, whether through mini conflicts or not, is key to creating a fast-paced thriller that holds the reader’s interest. That’s why extensive backstory in a thriller is so dangerous—an author wants to move forward in his thriller writing. Occasional flashbacks (a brief backstory) is OK if it helps explain characters’ actions and/or motives. Again, mysteries are different—extensive backstory is often included, maybe in bits and pieces, as the sleuth unravels the mystery.
Tom: I suggest the mini conflict adds to the suspense. The past featured antagonists who set up a threat and the major threat was the conflict the protagonist sought to end. Yet that format could lead in a straight path to the climax. I think today’s antagonists hide their endgame so the initial threat is a cover for the larger major threat, which becomes unfurled later. Those twists could add to the suspense.
Yes, I agree that flashbacks have to be brief so that the author moves forward. Yet, two or three sentences could add to the understanding of the character. For example, the protagonist churns with trusting his partner as he goes dark. He recalls the death of the partner in a quick flashback. Then his image morphs to the face of the present partner as he says, “Be back later. Can’t explain.”
Actually, that leads to another question about the thriller. Do you see a different style of dialogue needed with thrillers compared to other genres?
Steve: I suppose it depends on how important dialogue is to the story. I can certainly imagine a tale where the protagonist is all wrapped up in his own internal conflict—the reader is privy to his thoughts. This can be done in third person POV of the protagonist, possibly using italics to indicate personal thoughts, but it’s easiest in first person.
On the other hand, snappy dialogue between characters can move a story along in a way that descriptive prose can’t. In that sense, it’s not necessarily like a real conversation between people, and shouldn’t be. We walk into our workplace and greet people, for example, as part of our normal day’s activities, but the reader will be bored if all the author accomplishes is basically a “Hello, how is everyone?”
Dialogue has other perils for the inexperienced writer. I once reviewed a book where the characters never used contractions—people don’t talk that way, even if your word processor doesn’t like contractions. On the other hand, too much slang and jive and tidbits from other languages can be annoying. The author can use them sparingly to add color, but no more.
Moreover, I find it annoying when an author writes something like: “My goodness, aren’t you perky today?” she winked. Or: “Are you hit?” asked the detective with concern. In the first, winked is no substitute for said or asked. In the second, the question already implies the detective is concerned. Mistakes like these can bring the forward motion of your thriller to a screeching halt—at least, they do for me.
Tom: First, I think the idea of internal can be used without it distracting from the desire to keep the movement forward in a thriller. The use of the third person internal hits readers almost like the impact of the first person. The language doesn’t need italics if the internal conversation is so obvious that it’s an internal struggle. And that can heighten a thriller because the conflict is brought right into the psyche of the protagonist.
Yet your point about writing snappy and avoiding trite dialogue is a good one. Those items halt the forward motion. The snappy quality also adds to the needed speed that shapes a thriller. Instead of the trite examples you posed that annoy you, writers could change the dynamics with this example:
Jake’s eyes scanned the squad room as he entered. No sign of Bill. He blinked, worried about that. What was that partner doing?
“Jake. In my office.”
Jake twisted his head to the voice. That grating micro-manager had to go. As his feet moved to the Captain’s office, he spotted the shield and badge on the desk.
Jake saw that scene from two years ago when Bill saved his bacon. Now he had failed to save Bill.
“Jake. You’ve been dark for two days.”
Jake leaned over the desk to peer right into the Captain. “You collecting badges now? Easier than tracking down our lead?”
In the previous scene, you might imagine a trite comment made by an office worker as Jake enters the office. However, Jake does not have to respond to that. He is lost in his concern for his partner, and the dialogue tends to move the action forward.
One suggestion about the use of some language sparingly. You’re right on with the idea that the same type of language from each character is boring. Readers lose sense of a character that way. However, a person with a patois does not use the language sparingly. To display that character with only one or two words would come off as unrealistic. The ethnic and cultural writers like Toni Morrison wrap the reader around the dialogue and that brings the reader into the world of the character.
Of course the amount can be controlled by having short spurts of dialogue. Most conversations happen with only a sentence or two. People don’t usually speak in two to three paragraphs of content.
Steve: What you call third person internal is just a temporary lapse into first person. Putting the thoughts into italics allows the writer to make it present tense: What’s my partner doing? Instead of, What was that partner doing? The first moves the prose along more. However, if italics aren’t used in the first, readers are justifiably confused due to the tense change. Moreover, many authors make the mistake of putting italicized thoughts into past tense, which is also confusing to the reader.
I’m even more of a minimalist writer. In one of your dialogue lines, it’s clear who’s talking to whom. You’ve replaced “Are you tracking badges now?” with “You collecting badges now?” while I’d replace it with “Collecting badges now?” The first might be appropriate for that nebulous genre of “literary fiction,” the second for a thriller, and the third for a hard-boiled mystery or police procedural. Depending on the person with whom I’m conversing, I might say any of the three in an office situation, but the last really moves the dialogue forward.
These examples are minutia, of course, but over the length of a novel, probably 60 to 80 kwords, the minutia can add up. Same goes for slang and street jive. If there’s a lot of dialogue—I mean pages and pages of it—and the slang or street jive used isn’t found in my normal conversational quirks, I’ll eventually tire of it as a reader. There’s nothing bigoted or hypocritical about this. When I lived in the Boston area, I found the ubiquitous accent there tiresome at times. This is a cultural phenomenon. Same goes for foreign language terms—I use those more than most authors, but I’ve become more careful. The Goldilocks rule applies here: use just enough to provide color, but not too much. Of course, too little and too much depend on the reader—you have to aim for the average person in your targeted audience.
That leads to another question: who’s the targeted audience? It’s my personal impression, but borne out by many stats, that women are more avid readers than men. Given that, perhaps male authors should adapt their prose accordingly? I’m not talking about vampire romances or things like that, but thrillers still. Jon Land, for example, has created a kick-ass female deputy sheriff. James Patterson has created a strong female detective. Most thrillers I’ve written have strong female protagonists. First, do you think a male writer can get inside the female mind enough to write in first person or third person internal and be convincing? Second, will thrillers, with their fast-paced action, heavy violence, strong language, and sex scenes, deviant or not, appeal to female readers if the protagonist is female? While mine are at the level of cable TV (no erotica or porn), they tend to have those elements. I know that some women are turned off by these thriller “features.”
Tom: Actually let me
suggest that the internal can be used beyond a temporary lapse and
that avoids the confusion of tenses. The character can from the
outset speak from his mind and the use of the emotion brings that
sense of immediacy that appears as the first person.
The targeted audience is a great point. Authors have to foresee a profile of their readers. While women do buy more books, I think they are attracted to specific cultures. Rather than thinking like a woman instead of a man, the cultural framing might be more crucial.
One culture might be the multitasking middle management of legal or business firms. That female’s attraction to thrillers would appreciate the fast paced problem solving she sees as necessary in her world. Her enjoyment of dialogue could arrive at seeing how others use the jargon of the legal system or the management arena. Yet another woman might grow up in a slum in India and her culture might enjoy seeing the character speak in a similar dialect.
Having said that, yes, female characters are demanding to be more real to the woman who picks up the thriller. Hence the development of the female FBI agent. Our design of these characters must take into account the woman of today who is more feisty, and aware of the obstacles we see in thrillers compared to the Donna Reed of yesterday.
Steve: Probably similar comments can be made about settings. A female reader might feel more comfortable with more domestic venues, even though these are invaded by bad guys intent on doing the female protagonist and her family harm. Sometimes the suspense is heightened when the very familiar becomes a battleground, psychological or otherwise. The movie Prisoners is an example where bad things start happening in a quiet middle class suburb. Or, will the female reader react negatively to this because it hits too close to home?
Tom: Actually, I see this as a cultural issue rather than a female one. One culture is linked to being a female, but another one exists in the office of the FBI or the diner. So a female blue-collar worker might feel less comfortable reading about the female FBI agent despite the fact that the protagonist is a female.
Note the switch in an internal psyche of Liz in the TV Series The Blacklist. Her natural instincts of nurturing and being a mother exist, but only when she is off duty. During a crisis, she has switched off that part of herself. That driving force has been repressed. So, the average woman category is really a problem because that group is divided into many subcultures. The female CEO might share some of Liz’s struggles due to the politics of her business. Those issues could duplicate the crisis seen in Blacklist. Yet the Diner waitress could have more things in common with a character who struggles with paying finances, dealing with sexism from dining customers, or handling the child at home.
One other item, though, which relates to some previous content in our discussions. I think the thriller requires more attention to how the characters present backstory. You’re right about the constant need to move forward. I find some thriller authors are not aware of how to show items like a planned abduction of a key person that occurred before the story began. Or, the details of the enemy vessel as described by just by two characters in a dialogue. The emphasis in both often comes across as telling instead of showing.
One technique to avoid this would be to start a description of the information by translating the details into something visual where the reader sees the material as happening in the present.
Jake told the captain about the abduction. “They waited for the chief of staff in the alley of the hotel and when his SS detail responded to an explosion, unmarked vans drove up to seize the chief of staff.”
Jake opened his laptop and punched in a code. The screen showed a dark alley as lights of the St. Regis glowed. Off to the side the van hummed. Dark covered faces saw the eruption of light on the other side of the hotel. SS pulled their guns and ran to check out the explosion.
Or, another example, instead of:
Jake had to ask about the weapons on the attack sub.
The captain frowned. “Twenty five MK 48 torpedoes and Tomahawk Cruise missiles.”
“Why the frown?”
“The diving planes have been moved from the sail to the bow to strengthen the sail for under ice conditions.”
Instead, how about having the sub encounter an enemy attack sub and the characters see the info from their view screens:
Jake watched the captain nod to track the contact. A blur lit the screen as they rounded the enemy vessel. Jake noticed the bow and rear tubes as the grey ship yawed away from their view.
“Almost twenty five tubes?”
Jake watched the ship turn as the sail dipped away. “”Where are the diving planes?”
“In the bow—ensures extra strength for under ice conditions.”
Steve: All good examples. Tom, you’ve had the last words. Well, almost. I’ve enjoyed this Socratic discussion about writing the thriller. We’ve only touched on some of the aspects. If any readers have questions, contact me. If they’re for Tom, I’ll forward them to him. Tom and I hope that readers have enjoyed this dialogue as well as writers.
In libris libertas….