Thriller Authors Aren’t Normal!
Ten Writing Tips that Can Make You One of Us
By Jordan Dane
I’m here to confess that as a thriller author I’m not a well person. Bad men speak to me in my head—and I like it. I scare myself all the time. It’s my job. Who says crime doesn’t pay? And I openly admit that I torture fabricated people with my computer keyboard. In short, what lands most people behind prison bars can put me on a fictional happy train.
That’s because thriller authors don’t think like normal people. We have a warped sense of reality and of what’s funny. I play deviant games of “what if” scenarios in my head, like what if the Internet could melt your brain and make it seep out of your ears? Or what if coffee shops dispensed mind-altering lattes or espresso was discovered as the sole source of global warming? In the world of fiction, these things can happen. But once you get the great idea for a novel, what’s next? How can you pull it all together enough to interest a publisher?
For aspiring authors everywhere, I’ve put together TEN TIPS that I hope you’ll find useful in crafting your book. Add a little pace and structure to your brilliant plot and you may join the ranks of published thriller authors who are borderline psychotics, like me. Everyone has got to have goals.
1—Start with a BANG!
Start your book with the moment that changes the character’s life forever or throw the reader into the middle of action, using all their senses. Shorter sentences will also add tension when your character is holding a ticking time bomb, but stick with the action and be patient with dropping mystery clues. For suspense, action sequences are not the time to introduce back-story or a lot of description. You’ll have time to explain later. If your character is ducking gunfire, avoid telling the reader about his misspent youth or describing the posh setting that he’s about to bleed over.
2—Something Bad is Coming
Filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock pioneered many film techniques in suspense and psychological thriller genres. He believed suspense didn’t have much to do with fear, but was more the anticipation of something bad about to happen. When I read this, it was a huge epiphany for me. The idea changed how I thought about scene and chapter endings. (Remember the movie scene where the woman is about to open the door and everyone in the theatre screams, “DON’T OPEN THE DOOR!” Of course, she always does, but once the door is opened, everything is known.) Don’t give the reader a chance to put down your novel at the end of a chapter. Hook them into turning the page. Give them a sense of foreshadowing or plant the seed of a red herring to sustain the pace and tease them with things to come.
3—Enter Late, Leave Early
Enter Late, Leave Early (ELLE) is a concept that maintains pace and transition in the scene of a book and leaves the reader wanting more. ENTER LATE refers to starting a scene in the middle of the action, such as a cop already at the murder scene staring down at the body, not a scene that shows him or her driving over to the crime. LEAVE EARLY refers to a scene ending that foreshadows something or raises a question or creates more of a mystery, not showing the detectives driving back to the police station. Quick snippets of plot suggest pace and movement. The reader’s mind will fill in the gaps on what happened in between. If you’ve ever read a good screenplay, you will see how readily your mind fills in the gaps of setting, action, and the emotional elements of a character through the predominant use of dialogue. (Note: This ELLE principle does not apply to dialogue. Don’t make the reader guess what your characters are talking about. Begin at a logical starting point to the conversation for clarity.)
4—Torture your Characters
Yes, you read this right. Torture your characters. It’s legal and fun. Make the reader understand why you chose your character to be the star of your novel. In suspense, they have to rise to the occasion—even if they are an average Joe or Josephine—and go up against insurmountable odds.
5—No One Likes a Cheater
Don’t rely on surprise suspects or miraculous databases to add twists to your plot. That’s cheating. We all laugh when a TV crime show or movie can process DNA analysis in seconds or the crime scene technicians have access to amazing databases that don’t exist. Or in fantasy, when a character suddenly develops a magical power when they need it, even though they never showed the ability before. How convenient! Such inventive technology allows the TV detectives to wrap up the TV show in minutes—or in that fantasy example, a character can be saved more by author intrusion and coincidence than by any true ability—but that’s not how it should work. Don’t get lazy with your research and don’t resort to this kind of “cheating.” There are no short cuts to a solid plot with well-motivated characters.
6—Pile it on, Baby!
Conflicts add drama. Put up roadblocks and heap on the complications by capitalizing on the internal and external conflicts for your character. Force your character to deal with BOTH—a guy afraid of heights (personal internal conflict) must scale a tower to save a child from a natural disaster (external conflict). Or compel a shy, timid woman (internal conflict) to pick up an AK-47 and shoot her way out to rescue her family from a very bad man (external conflict). Give your characters baggage the reader can relate to. Force your character out of their comfort zone with emotional obstacles that enable them to do amazing things and become a real star in your book. (Remember that torture is good in fiction. Say it aloud until you believe it, “Torture is good.” It’s liberating.) Action by itself can be boring if you don’t add the right balance of human struggle and compelling emotion into a story.
7—Escalate the Stakes and Make it Personal
In good suspense, the stakes intensify. As an author, you want your reader to feel a visceral reaction when they read your book. To do this, it helps to put a face on the victim. In my book, EVIL WITHOUT A FACE, a 17-year-old girl is lured from home by an online predator pretending to be another young girl. You’ve heard this story before, but I catapult a troubled Alaskan family into a massive global conspiracy with the clock ticking. A tangle of unlikely heroes attacks this conspiracy from different angles and they converge in a fight for their lives. The conspiracy is far-reaching, it’s deadly, and because one young girl is caught up in a web of lies, it’s personal.
8—Tick Tock Goes the Clock
Give your characters a deadline—a race against time—then shorten the timetable. The story is even more compelling when you force your character to make really tough decisions. Make them do the one thing they would NEVER do with an unthinkable consequence looming as the clock is ticking.
9—Everyone Loves a Big Finish
If you build up the hype on your book, give the reader a big finish. Don’t disappoint them with an ending that doesn’t live up to expectations. Also tie up the loose ends for reader satisfaction. I’m not only referring to the clues being resolved, but the emotional journey should be tied up too.
10—Restore the world? That’s up to YOU
Redemption at the end of a book can be good as well as uplifting. I like the idea of restoring the world that an author creates, but it doesn’t always have to be the same world. Crime affects people in a bad way and it radiates out like ripples on still water with many people affected—from the victim to the family survivors to cops investigating the case. Don’t be afraid to show the aftermath.
I know by now you’re thinking that I really love what I do. For the sake of my mental health, I’m conflicted, I suppose. Weighing the strange consequences of being a thriller author has not been easy, but I’m optimistic that I can strike a balance and retain the sanity I have left—or be forced to find a whole new set of friends.
© Jordan Dane