Twenty points about Thriller-writing
by Stuart Larner
Compiled from: Linda Adams, Sarah Dunant, Alfred Hitchcock, Carl Hose, Crawford Kilian, Stephen King, Creative Writing Now website, Tennessee Screenwriting Association, Trish Macdonald Skillman, and intermingled with my own humble thoughts.
1. Get in late and leave early.
(Stephen King). Start the action in media res, not ab ovo. Open up in the middle of the action, not from the egg. Bring in details later. Hook and look busy.
2. Put protagonist in danger
Thrillers are about the heroes being thrown into their worst nightmare. The stakes must be very high to present a valid question to the reader.
3. Reasons why protagonist can’t solve problem by normal means
There must be a reason why the hero can’t just win by calling the police.
4. Worthy antagonist
The best have their own believable reasons for the action they take, and they are not totally 100% bad. They do have a redeeming feature, which might be a weakness.
5. Tie antagonist and protagonist together emotionally.
It is the psychological battle that creates the tension. Eventually the treasure that they are both after becomes a “MacGuffin” (Hitchcock): the actual object itself is arbitrary and could have been anything without making much difference to the emotional tension inherent in the plot. Cf “Rabbit’s Foot” in Mission Impossible.
6. Ups and downs
Successes and failures
Give your protagonist a goal, let it almost be reached, and then take it away at the last moment. Goals in thrillers need to be hard-earned. The reader wants the protagonist to succeed, but the protagonist must have the extraordinary stamina and determination to work for it.
7. Action and rest – pacing.
Too fast-paced, and the reader gets lost; too slow-paced, and the reader gets bored. Pacing doesn't apply to just the action scene itself; it also applies to the scenes before and after. Too much sustained, uninterrupted action for too long can actually tire out the reader. Eventually, it becomes boring. The intensity of the action is heightened by having peaks and valleys -- places where the story changes pace and slows down.
8. Dialogue must not overwhelm the action
Dialogue should not overwhelm action. Thrillers are action-orientated. Thrillers are external. They don’t have much internal dialogue unless it is a psychological thriller between different parts of the self.
9. Stakes fit the payoff
The reader won't believe it if a villain kills 100 people, tries to kill the hero five times, and blows up a bridge during rush hour -- and all he wants is money. The stakes must justify the action.(Linda Adams).
10. Plan bringing the details in and plan using them.
Plan for the action scenes. Show how your hero has been prepared for the scene by being trained for what they will have to do.
What the hero is trying to do and what the antagonist is stopping him from doing must be clear. That is what holds the tension.
Make sure the action is at least credible , but not incredible for the sake of more action.
13. Remove unnecessary details which slow down or divert the action.
Descriptions of setting, characters, explanations, and expositions are best left to later on where they can be more effectively used rather than clogging up the action at the start.
14. Choreograph the action through the protagonist
Try to put as much as possible through the protagonist’s eyes. This simplifies things and intensifies the action. This especially important when we are trying to describe the final scene where the protagonist wins. We need to know where all relevant objects and people are located in relation to everything else so that we can visualise it correctly and see it happening.
15. Don’t lose structure of the story in the action
Keep the goal clearly in mind, and what people trying to do.
16. Reversals and peripety
Peripety: he cuts the red wire to defuse the bomb, but in fact it only makes the timing mechanism go faster.
Paradoxical intention: pretending to be the opposite in order to lull people into a false sense of character and so achieving the events he secretly wants. E.g. doing the opposite to achieve a secretly desired effect.
Irony: saying something but meaning the opposite. Dramatic irony lets the audience in on the subterfuge, but not all of the characters.
17. Maintain tension through conflicts
The psychological struggle is the key aspect.
18. Devices: Cliffhanger: ending at an unresolved high point of tension.Ticking clock pressurising the action: could be literally a clock, or a bomb, or a schedule, or a sequence of apparently uninterruptable events. Watch evil over the evildoer’s shoulder: see it from the protagonist’s point of view, watch the antagonist in action Include false trails and red herrings as long as they are short and relevant. . Make instances personal and specific to make them real. (from TSA)
19. Resolution should surprise and linger
Is the protagonist changed because of the experience?
20. Character-depth justification for risky actions.
It should always be seen that the behaviour is in context, believable, and if a skill, then has been appropriate and learnt.
I devised these tips when I was asked to adjudicate the entries in the Nikki Barker Compeitition,
Scarborough Writers' Circle.