It’s really easy to write a boring thriller. (That’s why “Show, don’t tell” is any editor’s most-used advice.) And I suffer from it as much as anyone.
Just 200,000 words into my fiction sideline – it takes a million to get good at it – I’m still brutally ripping apart most paragraphs to put in action instead of explanation. Given I’ve been a commercial writer for everything from bicycle gears to supercomputers – where your audience is engineers and the technically literate, and explaining is Rule One – it’s a tough task. But I’ve come up with some tools for doing it.
1. Turn inaction into action
Onscreen or on the page, characters in the best thrillers spend very little time sitting down. If, like me, you write lengthy rough drafts for later rewriting – I use Randy Ingermanson’s Snowflake Method – you’ll already know what the scene is supposed to achieve. The question is how you achieve it. So I ask every paragraph a question: are the characters too relaxed? If they’re sitting around with resting heartrates, they’re doing thrillers wrong.
This doesn’t mean they can’t have discussions. If the chat is vital to the plot, that’s ok. But thrillers thrive on conflict and setbacks. So make sure there’s something preventing that discussion from happening. The suspense comes from them overcoming that obstacle.
Maybe they’re separated by a wall and have to tap Morse. Or the discussion is on the correct use of a parachute – a chat best had if they’re hanging out the door of a plane on fire. As long as there’s forward action, a reason for that action, and an obstacle to be overcome, your thriller is looking okay.
2. Set yourself non-obvious questions
Next step up is to turbocharge your newly action-only scene to make it interesting and fresh. I attempt it by asking: is there a more exciting way to get the character over this obstacle?
Last week I was writing a scene where Gabe‘s being buzzed by a low-flying aircraft (it’ll be in Book 1, Blue Star, Lone Star.) A decent enough obstacle. But to create suspense, I first took away his gun, since that’d make it too easy for him. (Light aircraft are fragile things, and no pilot would ever swoop someone pointing a weapon.)
Next, I realised the night scene, while it gave the chapter a sinister edge, also made it too easy for Gabe. So it now happens in blazing sunlight. (The pilot has the sun behind him, Gabe gets it right in the eyes.)
Then came the question: how does an unarmed man bring down a light aircraft? I didn’t know when I planned the scene. I do now. Answering it took all day, but it made the scene a hundred times better. (And no, I’m not going to tell you.)
3. Keep the ‘coaster rolling
Many thrillers are as structured as a symphony. A chapter of goal-conflict-setback (a proactive scene) followed by a reaction-dilemma-decision (a reactive scene), all within the larger exposition of setup, action, and conclusion. This to-and-fro swings the narrative along while keeping your characters off balance. But also like a symphony, it’s the subtle variations on this structure that make it art. So ask: does the next thing happen at the right time?
A series of short chapters, each a reaction-dilemma-decision, build up suspense and can open up numerous plot threads for later closing. Lee Child’s Never Go Back could have had a pretty dull first 10,000 words if he’d revealed Jack Reacher’s actions in the order they happened; instead, Child chops up the first day or so and tells the story out of sequence, creating tension and questions. To the reader, it’s a headlong rush of action, even though in real time Reacher’s confined to a motel.
This trio of touchstones help me a lot. I used to write ads for audiences of three million, where the goal is to make things plain and simple in two seconds; that approach makes for a very dull thriller. My ambition today is to write for just 30,000 people – but I’ve got to sell something to every one of them.