“(A) thriller plot tightens the noose around the protagonist’s neck.”
Last week Catherine Linka, our Tollbooth sister and author of the fabulous A GIRL CALLED FEARLESS dropped into the ‘Booth to spill her secrets about writing a thriller. And this week she’s back to explain the rest.
(And while you’re there check out the rest of Catherine’s “thrilling” website. It’s super well done, just what a great author’s website should be.)
Creating suspense in a thriller is a combination of things. Certainly the landscape of a thriller tends to feel darker and more shadowy than in other novels, because it reflects the protagonist’s inability to perceive all the threats that inhabit his or her world.
But even more important is the way a thriller plot tightens the noose around the protagonist’s neck. With each scene, the writer reveals a new threat or hints that yet another person shouldn’t be trusted.
The tension increases as the writer leads the character through a maze in which each of his or her attempts to solve the mystery or evade the impending threat hit a dead end. The reader should get to the point that he or she can’t see the way out. The character is trapped.
In A GIRL CALLED FEARLESS, Avie is Contracted into a marriage she doesn’t want. To escape it she needs to get past her bodyguard and the video monitors in her house and school, and trust in Exodus, the underground railroad to Canada. Escape attempts are foiled as the man she is to marry convinces her best friend to spy on her. When Avie does get away, Exodus isn’t the way it was described. She’s with strangers, not knowing who to trust. Her fiance hires private Retrievers to get her back, and later government agents join the hunt. By the final chapters of the book, Avie is trapped and there is no apparent way out.
Writers have to craft the tone of the story to keep the tension going. Even in peaceful or romantic moments, the writer has to hint that the moment could be interrupted by a threat and come crashing down.
Part of crafting tone is language choice and sentence structure. Thrillers don’t require spare prose, but flowery prose is definitely out. Dialogue often reflects the protagonist trying to get information, while not revealing what he or she knows by answering questions without actually answering what was asked or using humor to avoid a straight answer. The reader should feel the character attempting to discern the truth or to evade discovery–and deciding who to trust in the process.
How do you create character in a genre that tends to be plot driven?
Character development can be buried under a thriller’s complex plot, but the most memorable thrillers often feature characters that fascinate us. Think of Lisbeth Salander from THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO. She is brilliant, deeply secretive, and perhaps psychotic. Readers want to know what her story is and how far she’ll stretch the boundaries of what is legal or moral.
As writers we build character in thrillers the same way we do in other genres, by showing how the character reacts to situations, how her or she makes decisions, how the character expresses him or herself through dialogue.
The faster pace of a thriller doesn’t offer characters time to explore their feelings about their past or their place in the world. They have to focus on surviving the unfolding crisis. And the looming threats make it challenging for a writer to introduce or build a romantic relationship, because love requires a character to trust enough to be vulnerable. And being vulnerable is the last thing a character in danger wants.
I’ve noticed that writers often show us the key to a character in the opening pages of the story. In Mary Elizabeth Summers TRUST ME, I’M LYING, readers learn that sophomore Julep Dupree is the daughter of a grifter who has a talent for lying, disguise and running scams–skills she will use to survive when her dad goes missing.
In THE PRINCE OF VENICE BEACH, Blake Nelson shows us how Cali, a teen runaway has survived living on the streets because of his talent for building relationships in the community and his honed awareness of what is happening around him. So as Cali is drawn into an increasingly dangerous situation, these character traits keep him alive.
In A GIRL CALLED FEARLESS, my main character Avie says in the opening scene, “I’m not fearless, but I like that Yates thinks I am.” She doesn’t see herself as gutsy, but as the story progresses, it’s that quality that propels her forward and ultimately saves her and others.
Alternatively, much of the tension in a thriller comes from the character’s vulnerabilities that put them at risk of failure. Cali’s exposed out on the street, vulnerable to people who prey on street kids. And who in authority is going to believe a kid who lives on the streets? Avie lives in an America in which young women have become rare and valuable. Her knowledge of the world outside her home and school is deliberately restricted, making her vulnerable when she is Contracted into marriage without her consent and makes a run to freedom.