My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I have studied a lot about writing, read umpteen books on it, but never specifically to my genre. When James Frey’s book How to Write a D*** Good Thriller (St. Martin’s Press 2010) came out, I grabbed it. What’s the first thing I learned? I have been making a lot of mistakes. The next thing I learned was how to fix them. Thankfully, he promised that doing this was ‘not brain surgery’.
In this book, Frey reviews first novel writing in general, then thriller in detail. The way thrillers are plotted (characters always in danger; one ends and another pops out of the scenery), their characters developed (moral, bigger-than-life but flawed), crises handled (each gets the main character into worse trouble) and the pace of action (constant, never take a breath) is why readers pick them. Compare those characteristics to literary fiction, where characters get time to smell the roses while they introspectively muse over life. If my WIP’s characters consider the quirkiness of their existence, it better be while they’re fleeing for their life.
I didn’t know that when I started Frey’s book, and that’s just one of the ‘rules’ I missed when I set out to write thrillers. Here’s another. Mysteries and thrillers are often confused,but consider this:
In a mystery, the hero has a mission to find a killer.
In a thriller, the hero has a mission to foil evil–and it must be an impossible mission.
That’s a big difference.
There’s also big difference in audience–people who choose thrillers rather than mysteries, literary fiction, biographies, etc. Thriller readers like their main characters to be heroes. They set out to save the world and succeed. Doing their best won’t work. Not in a thriller. Main characters should also be moral, patriotic, believing in the goodness of mankind and tolerant of mistakes. That might sound like a stereotype, but your artistry as a writer will keep it fresh. Consider country-western music. It’s always about dogs, trucks, mama and prison, but there are tens of thousands of songs beloved by millions of fans. How’s that for artistry.
Frey covers the varieties of thrillers from political to the little-known comic. He tells us the importance of a villain to thrillers–so important, the author should consider them a new best friend. Know as much about the villain as you do the hero so both are believable, and when the reader is asked to accept that the villain might stop the hero, it’s a real concern. Frey discusses voice–I didn’t know that 99% of thrillers are written either in first person past tense or third person past tense.
Luckily, my WIP falls into the latter so I don’t have to start a complete rewrite.
Another issue he discusses is where to start the novel. That’s more difficult than it sounds. Often, as I’m editing my mss, I find the more I cut at the beginning of a chapter, the better it reads. Thrillers have to be action-action-action. That stuff we-all include that isn’t, must be cut. Every sentence must be action. Every paragraph. If it isn’t, change it. The gist of a thriller is a well-motivated character overcoming increasingly difficult obstacles in pursuit of a worthy and impossible goal. When you ‘hang your character out on the horns of a dilemma’, you have the audience gripped. Where does that leave room for an involved discussion on the garden outside the house or the landlady’s dog?
Not unexpectedly for a how-to book on writing, Frey discusses plot, characters, scenes, but always the unique characteristics that apply to thrillers. He does this by showing-not-telling, sharing excerpts from great thrillers and explaining how they work.
Spoiler alert: I’m going to share Frey’s rules on making a D*** good climax. Check off with me whether yours accomplishes these goals:
- In almost all d*** good thrillers, the hero is nearly killed in the climax but manages to kill or capture the villain and to foil his evil plot (check)
- In the climax of a d*** good thriller, good prevails over evil (check)
- The climax of a d*** good thriller is not just more of the same old stuff we’ve seen before. (ch-eck, I hope)
- In the climax of a d*** good thriller, there are surprises (check)
- Often in the climax, the hero discovers something about himself or gains insight into the human condition (Hmmm… Let me think about this)
- Sometimes a hero experiences a loss at the climax (check)
- Sometimes the hero dies in the climax (nope. I’m writing a serial)
If you didn’t check off all of those, buy the book. Frey will tell you how to do it. As a bonus, he asks all thriller writers to take a pledge to writer their novel in the manner of a thriller. Check pg. 247. It’s as much a how-to list as a pledge.
Overall, every thriller writer who’s never read a book on their genre should buy this, read it, and keep it in their reference library. Remind yourself what must be in every chapter to make your story a credible nail-biting experience.
Jacqui Murray is the editor of a technology curriculum for K-fifth grade and creator of two technology training books for middle school. She is the author of Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy midshipman. She is webmaster for five blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer, a columnist for Examiner.com, an Editorial Review Board member for SIGCT, an IMS tech expert, and a weekly contributor to Write Anything and Technology in Education. Currently, she’s working on a techno-thriller that should be ready this summer. Contact Jacqui at her writing office or her tech lab, Ask a Tech Teacher.