Wednesday, July 27, 2011

What makes for a great thriller?

We have an open slot in the AuthorCulture schedule today, so I thought I'd give y'all some insight into a specific form of genre writing—the thriller. Jessica Strawser posted an interview with David Morrell and Ken Follett. Follett is a legendary thriller author whose break-out novel was the 1978 book Eye of the Needle. David Morrell’s first book in 1972, First Blood, introduced the character of John Rambo. (Both books were made into iconic movies.)

In this snip from the article, Ken and David talk a little about what makes a thriller.

What do both of you think are the really essential elements to a thriller? When you’re developing that outline, what has to be in there?

KF: Well, I always say thrillers are about people in danger. And while it’s easy enough to think up a dangerous situation to put the people in, the challenge then is to draw that out for 100,000 words in such a way that the danger is constantly present, that the story is still developing internally. There’s a rule of thumb that says every four to six pages the story should turn. If you leave it longer than that, people start to get bored. If it’s shorter than that, it’s too frenetic. And a story turn is anything that changes the situation for the characters, so it could be quite minor—somebody telling a little lie—but it’s a story turn. And so the challenge for me is not thinking of dangerous situations to put the people in—that’s easy. The challenge is then drawing out that suspense, their responses to it, their interactions with one another, their interactions with the bad guys, and making that into a consistent drama that lasts 100,000 words.

DM: Reversal and recognition, Aristotle said. You know, that a twist causes the character to understand something about him- or herself that wasn’t there before. Aristotle in some ways had it all—I discovered if you change the words that are in the translations, it sounds like a modern writing book. And reversal and recognition is a pretty cool thing.

In Ken’s work, particularly Eye of the Needle—what makes that a place in thriller literature, and I like to think First Blood is the same way—neither book feels like a genre book. It has umpteen action scenes and all of that, but we believe that this story is happening to actual people. The element of believability.

Anybody who sits down to write and they think thriller maybe shouldn’t be thinking that way. Maybe we should be thinking novel, maybe thriller way in the background, but that these are real people to whom things are happening. It just happens to be a hell of an exciting story.


I highly recommend reading the rest of the article. It's a long, luxurious, in-depth peek into how these authors write. Morrell is more of a classic pantser while Follett's devotion to the outline is stunning. (He says he typically spend between six months and a year on the outline before he begins writing, and explains his process in some detail.) The entire post is fascinating and well worth the read even if you don't write thriller stories.
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6 comments:

  1. I remember reading that interview when it was first published. Fantastic stuff. My highlighter was busy!

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  2. I was amused by Follett's outlining process. And thought of you, Katie. ;)

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  3. I totally connected with the way he described his process and his theories about storycraft. His how-to book is on my wishlist.

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  4. I remember reading that article, too. Like Katie, I put my highlighter to good use. If you want to learn how to write thrillers, those two are great sources to start with!

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  5. Love the thought that the story needs to turn every 6 pages. I think that is something that should apply cross-genres.

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