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Thoughts about writing thrillers

by Frank on June 7th, 2013

Thrillers are, by their very nature, intensely plot driven. It’s the pulse of the genre. The reader is kept in suspense by a knock on the door at the end of every scene, to paraphrase Zane Gray. But we’ve all had the experience of being glued to a thriller into the wee hours, and one that may be well-regarded, unable to turn the pages fast enough, but yet at the same time feeling empty and a little cheated.

This is what can happen when plot overwhelms the credibility of characters, when the writer spends a ton of energy describing the machinery and revving up the details of monstrous conspiracies, and allows the characters to become little more than stick figures. Sure, we’ll often keep on reading because the details are interesting and, hey, we truly want to know who just knocked on the bloody door, but at the same time it’s like eating a bowl of cotton candy. We trade identification with character for pyrotechnics and world altering threats.

Pyrotechnics and world altering threats definitely have their place in literature, don’t get me wrong, but who can deny the deeper pleasure of reading a thriller by a writer who devotes great care to the details of character and motivation. I think of Graham Greene, John LeCarre and Robert Harris. I think of Raymond Chandler, Elmore Leonard, Tess Garritsen and Patricia Cornwell. And dozens of others.

Including Homer, for that matter. There is no little suspense generated by the question of when and how Troy will fall, and the narrative is spiced up by some pretty spectacular god-generated special battle effects, but what keeps the Iliad alive after twenty-five hundred years of heavy use is the greedy foolishness of Agamemnon, the petulance of Achilles, the self-sacrifice of Hector, and the grief of Andromache and Priam.

This is worth remembering if we’re aiming for the higher rung of the thriller world–a plane where the distinction between literary and genre fiction grows wonderfully hazy.

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