Monday, August 8, 2011

Three Thriller Tips

This is another post dedicated to genre writers, specifically, those interested in writing thrillers. Zachary Petit, managing editor of Writer's Digest magazine, gleaned three tips from bestselling medical thriller writer Michael Palmer (The Last Surgeon) that thriller authors should keep in mind when planning their novels.

1. Formulate a what-if question for your book.
For his book Extreme Measures, Palmer wondered, What if there’s a powerful substance that can make a person look dead if they’re not? He says your question should be highly stylized—no more than 25 words and two sentences: “The essence of what you’re going to be searching for in your book,” he says. “You should read it over and over. It should make perfect sense to you.”

Then, you’ll have the concept well-shaped in your mind, and that will help you craft your novel, and also allow you to pitch it in a pinch when you need to … say, in that storied scenario where you find yourself in an elevator with a literary agent, and you’ve got until Floor 3 to seal the deal.

2. Develop a MacGuffin.

Palmer explains the MacGuffin, a term popularized by Alfred Hitchcock and a key in thrillers, as basically the answer to your what-if question.

When he wondered about the substance that can make a person look dead but keep them alive, he thought, Suppose they used it to remove people from society? And that became his MacGuffin.

It’s the thing that drives your novel—for instance, it could be what the characters are seeking to get their hands on or discover, regardless of what that is, or why (a popular example is the film Citizen Kane, and the meaning of the word “Rosebud”). Palmer says you should start your book with the MacGuffin, even if you end up changing it later.

3. Answer the question, Whose book is this?

Consider who has the most at stake—“That’s how you can figure out who your main character is going to be,” Palmer says.

When he’s working on a book, once Palmer knows who his protagonist is, he starts to dig deeper How old is he/she? What does he/she do? Where did he/she grow up? What’d he/she eat for breakfast?

In the end, Palmer says it starts to bring the character to life—and by imbuing his characters with tiny human quirks, readers relate to them. After all, in the author’s opinion, people believe they’re reading books to see what happens, but inevitably, it doesn’t matter—people are reading those books because the author has led them to care about the characters.

Writer's Digest magazine has a number of free services, including a free weekly writing newsletter. I highly recommend it.
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  1. I heartily concur on the what if question. That one is vital no matter what genre you write. Plus, it's one of most mind-bending and fun parts of the process. At that point, the possibilities are endless!

  2. I'm going to keep this in mind, great thoughts!

  3. Great tips, Johne. Thank you for sharing. Now I'm inspired to pick up that novel gathering dust in that drawer.....

  4. I would love to know where the term MacGuffin came from. Was he a character in one of Hitchcock's movies?

    Good post. Thanks, Johne!

  5. Interesting, Johne. The MacGuffin is most intriguing.

  6. I would say the person with the most to lose is the one who is made to look dead! :)