How to write a Thriller
I. WHAT IS A THRILLER?
The term 'thriller' applies to a variety of types of literature that makes the pulse RACE and ergo will make more money for its authors than any other genre of fiction. The men who write them are billionaires:
the best thrillers, a list or two. My own best thrillers list: Stieg Larsson, Ken Follett, Dan Brown, Frederick Forsythe, Jack Higgins, Lee Child, Daniel Silva Robert Crais, Vince Flynn David Balducci, and here is a list I found online http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_thriller_writers and another LIST that I MADE.
LIST AN EXPERT MADE: http://www.bidinotto.com/2011/09/the-best-thriller-writers-%E2%80%94-ever-part-i/
TWO DOZEN KINDS OF THRILLERS EXIST. First, the fantasy thriller, (like STEPHEN KING. I consider some of JAMES BOND/ Ian Fleming a fantasy thriller. Like where there's a totally original cosmic sized, SATANIC evil guy as villain who's planning on shutting down the world. Usually somehow M15 knows and Britain wants him stopped.
There's the pint sized fantasy thriller where Harry Potter fights the forces of darkness. And don't underrate this JUVENILE FICTION CATEGORY as it made more money than any other group of thrillers in history for its author, now richer than the Queen.
There's the legal thriller, (Grisham and some say Turow (not me.) have that world sewn up. Grisham's PELICAN BRIEF, " THE CLIENT and "THE FIRM" beat all.)
Then comes the venerable spy thriller, started with Eric Ambler, Bond of course, Le Carre and Robert Littell own a hunk of that bailliwick and Frederic Forsyth whose "Day of the Jackal" assassin practiced shooting DeGaulle using this very watermelon up at top here, blowing a hole through it at fifty yards? Remember the simple little French cop who spends the whole movie trying to find him? Best filmed thriller ever, a film which opened up the subject of French Colonialism by the right wing, the battle against it by the left wing, ergo a political thriller. DANIEL SILVA is the top political thriller writer today.
THEN there's the historical action-adventure thriller like KEN FOLLETT does in PILLARS OF THE EARTH, set in 1120. OR the SCARLET PIMPERNEL, A play and a 1938 superb movie! The play debuted in 1905 & spun off many books in the early l9th century. Written by a Countess. HISTORICAL ACTION THRILLERS like those 50s author Frank Yerby specialized in. Who knew that all those white characters, that soap opera came out of a black author? I never did. They're thrillers though, with a lot of bodice ripping & consentual rapes throw in. Another fine historical thriller: Josephine Tey did DAUGHTER OF TIME, extremely historical! Being RICHARD III's murder of his nephews! Tey's Sleuth Alan Grant is laid up in hospital and via books he solves the mystery that happened 400 yrs earlier. Richard didn't do it!
There's the medical or scientific thriller which Michael Crichton does -- TERMINAL MAN, ANDROMED are more fantasy science or SCI FI than True Science. Think back to his cloned Dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, killer bugs in Prey or super germs in Andromeda, mutated Apes in Congo. He optioned the work of a similar talent, Dr. Robin Cook, who's now in the UK government) and produced the film COMA. The greatest idea he never had, I guess, he had to produce it.
PHILIP. K DICK wrote Sci-Fi Thrillers. BLADE RUNNER, Total Recall, and 7 more films made of his stuff so far. Richard Matheson, I AM LEGEND has had four movies adapted. Author Jack Finney did time travel but no film made of it. The studio bought INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS from him.
If you go thru old SCI FI NOVELLAS and short stories and find something 'high concept', you could wage your assault on Hollywood by doing a spec script on one you dig out of a bin. You're not WGA so you could. That's how KEN KESEY's Cuckoo's Nest book got ADAPTED! The script he did got bought by Kirk and Michael Douglas for Jack Nicholson to star in. An over the transom spec script got bought. Later a pro rewrote it.
A pal of mine was writing short stories for those junk magazines before WWII, He didn't like the money, had a high scifi concept, airborne plague comes into harbor via sailors, invades New Orleans. He wrote PANIC IN THE STREETS and nailed an oscar first time out to bat. Sci FI HIGH CONCEPT. Extrapolate it from something new, trendy. Gene splicing?
There's the Cop or FBI or Police thriller, as popular on TV these days as on the printed page. It usually is 'procedural' in that it shows you how cops sleuth. (These often border on being mysteries. HOW A MYSTERY IS DIFFERENT is the URL right HERE.) For a great, fun cop procedural mystery, there's the BONES SERIES by Kathy Reichs, it's a Morgue Examiner thriller, but again, bordering on mysteries. Kay Scarpetta is a morgue examiner, a whole series by Ms. Patricia Cornwell, and Michael Connelly's cop Bosch is procedural and great and grim fun.
Then there's the romantic thriller, like "Sleeping with the Enemy" where husbands beat up wives and maybe wives kill husbands or try to, a genre very suitable for women writers.
Then there's the Stephen King type horror thriller, the Supernatural thriller, the Sci-fi Thriller (Colin Wilson's Sci-fi books "Space Vampires" qualifies.)
The political thriller can be historical. (Odessa File by Frederic Forsyth and Eye of the Needle by Ken Follett were both WWII. Follett has some new ones, the Pillars of Heaven, two huge novels, big hits, set in 12th century England. So it's a ROYAL THRILLER. SEE list of The BEST POLITICAL FLICKS by googling "best political films" and "Best thriller." I found a list --click on it!
You would NOT think they could do a religious thriller, but then Dan Brown comes along with THE DA VINCI CODE and fries the head honchos of religion (a secret OPUS DEI cult conspiracy burrowed inside the Vatican). Similars are: The Templar Legacy by Steve Berry is similar: a secret church cult THE TEMPLARS, which has a search for buried, Templar gold, assasinations to hide clues, gun chases.. Which brings us to the Mc-GUFFIN. The ancient Gold was this book's McGuffin. DEFINE MC GUFFIN? Okay. "the sought item, often it's evidence, the final key to the cipher that will clue everybody to the problem solved."
Then there's the OLDTIME religious thriller. Remember Sean Connery in Umberto Eco's "THE NAME OF THE ROSE", a novel translated from Italian which is an elegant, Monkish thriller & best seller based on a secret, hidden philosophy of Aristotle on COMEDY (the McGuffin) that the Church prudishly destroyed, all except this one copy, right? Ellis Peters did a series of Brother Cadfael mysteries. 12th century Monk is the sleuth. Same exact period as PILLARS OF THE EARTH.
Michael Crighton writes FUTURISTIC WORST CASE SCENARIO thrillers, Andromeda Strain, Westworld and all his books turned into movies, flicks got made. Do you remember high-tech thriller the CHINA SYNDROME? Imagine one involving computers. Dan Brown did one in DIGITAL FORTRESS. I haven't read it yet.
My particular fave due to troubled times we live in is the POLITICAL THRILLER. Click there for list of best films in this genre. Rent them! AND THIS OTHER LIST of the TOP 25 THRILLERS. Watch the whole series, take you one week. Next, GOOGLE SEARCH on this theme. "list of best political films" "Greatest political thrillers," etc. The movies mentioned may already be in your memory. I"ll wait til you get back. Go on, Click! In fact, do that on every category that you can define, those suggested here.
You can see that the thriller genre can mix with anything else that you like, know or are interested in. New types of thrillers are constantly being invented so get out your notepad and brainstorm. What gives them all their common ground is the intensity of the emotions they create, particularly those of apprehension and exhilaration, of excitement and breathlessness. By definition, if thrillers do not thrill, they aren’t doing their job. Sometimes, they build rhythmically to a rousing climax. Other times, they start at top speed and never ease off. At their best, they have an archetypal, primordial essence (think Homer and the Beowulf poet) addressing fundamental concerns —survival, the nature of humanity, the heroic struggle between right and wrong—that date back to ancient myth.
And what is mythology but a thriller built around human frailities. So let's add the frailty thriller.
"A thriller isn't just about someone being murdered. There is always something bigger and more important at stake behind the murder that may endanger more lives. Where in a mystery the motive for a crime such as insurance fraud can be greed, in a thriller mere money doesn't come across as believable for all the terrible things the antagonist will do. Can anyone imagine a low-key motive like greed for any serial killer book? "
"Thrillers have Complex plots. Because the storylines are bigger, the plot itself becomes more complex to help pull off the storyline. Imagine a plot about assassinating a major world leader. There isn't a way to do such a story in a simple way and have it be believable. It would read like a newspaper story. Dan Brown's Angels & Demons, a popular thriller, weaves a complex story to deal with the death of the Pope and how the new Pope is selected." Note: His Da Vinci Code goes back to Jesus' romantic life then looks around for the heirs of Jesus. If I'd been editor on that one, I'd have told him to go on and make Sophie, the GIRL in the piece, the fifty times great grandchild of Jesus and Mary Magdalene & the last & only living relative of Jesus Christ, the final twig of the Merovingian line.
Were we listing the different types of thrillers? Here's a THRILLER LIST. Researched it myself It has all the different categories of thriller listed.
But here's a new category for you, the SCIENCE FICTION POLITICAL THRILLER which would be an extrapolation of some horror that could come from things that we're already on the border of here on this planet. Maybe in the fifties it would be a nuclear bomb plot or today, Killer diseases escaping from labs, that's in the news: http://www.thehorse.com/PrintArticle.aspx?ID=10527 ANY good non-fiction book with an expose of something SHOCKING, HUGE, lethal and SCARY could become that next, hit thriller. FIST OF GOD by Frederic Forsyth was one such and it's a riveting book about Saddam having mega weaponry buried all over Iraq's mts. WRITTEN before it happened! Or didn't happen, as the case may be.
Bottom line, try to be like Forsyth (ex newspaper man) or Michael Crichton (ex doctor) search around in the most scary threats to mankind in News/ Journalism, Science and go into Speculative non-fiction and turn it into a whopping novel. For instance, here's a book:
Blowing Up Russia
by Alexander Felshtinsky, Yuri Litvinenko
Gibson Square, 304 pages
Alexander Litvinenko was a 20-year veteran of the Russian military, achieving the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel and serving in the KGB Department for the Analysis of Criminal Organizations, only to be arrested for disclosing a number of illegal orders he'd received. He was imprisoned. He escaped from Russia and received political asylum in Britain in May 2001. Yuri Felshtinsky studied history at the Moscow State Pedagogical Institute and immigrated to America in 1978 where he obtained a doctorate in history from Rutgers. Felshtinsky is a recognized expert on Soviet Affairs and the other of several books on Russian history and politics. In Blowing Up Russia: Terror From Within, Litvinenko and Felshtinsky collaborate to reveal a scathing accusation of the Russian special services, holding them responsible for acts of terror, kidnappings, contract killings, and efforts to steer Russia back to being a dictatorship. Sadly the author Litvinenko was poisoned at age 43 by PLUTONIUM in his sushi --ordered put there by Vlad the Impaler PUTIN. The job was carried out by ops for that very organization. So that tells us Alex must have hit a nerve. Blowing Up Russia also strenuously denounces the war in Chechnya for its deleterious toll on human life and freedom. A sobering, persuasively charged account, Blowing Up Russia is an essential text for Soviet Studies academic reference collections, and should be mandatory reading for anyone having political, cultural, or economic dealings with present-day Russia.
These fellows had by the way, ratted out Vlad PUTIN for doing gruesome, wacky False Flag operations, radiating other enemies to death, blowing up schoolchildren and pretending it was separatists who dunnit, giving him cause to reactivate the KGB (which he ran.) And then, the doomsday plot has PUTIN threatening NATO and reawakening the Commie Dragon with its BOMBS (oh, he did that last week, didn't he? Sigh.) Still, Putin's a nasty pip and I can see a great movie there. A few years back (though now it's old hat,) the smart money would be on plots with RUSSIAN military selling all kinds of weapons to terrorist groups (upon the breakup of the USSR). Who shot down American Airlines with a stinger missile/ Some client of a Ruski. Fershure.
A GLOBAL WARMING thriller might be good. But who's the villain? A CEO at an oil company? If that strikes you as an important theme, read "THE FORMULA" by STEVE SHAGAN which was a 70's thriller about gasoline and the harm it could do. (Brando starred in movie version as the evil CEO.) So this would be a CROOKED CAPITALISM, CORPORATE MALFEASANCE THRILLER. Meryl Streep did a fwe of these. Bio of Karen Silkwood was a whistleblower thriller. Or a Corporate malfeasance thriller.
A good spine for a plot would be a killer ILLUMINATI (probably ILLUMINATUS, as it's singular... these are the 13 families who rule the world.) Have some blue blood Vlad the Impaler hire a string of scientists to destroy all middle class idiots and poor people. Drive them stupid, brainless & passive by flouridating their water or decimate their number with bacillus. Why? Their pullcarts get in the way when he wants to double park his Bentley outside the Ritz and order thirteen desserts on a tray at once and take a bite out of each.
Figure out how the hired scientists sowed all the lakes in America with brain-eating lethal amoebas, figuring the middle class will be stupid enough to swim in those lakes no matter what warnings. Now that bug actually exists. Nobody knows how it came from Brazil to American lakes but it did.
And another horrid fact, 40 Bioscientists were murdered in last few years, all at once, an amazing cluster indicating intent. Build a plot around that and oh, say the AMOEBA of the moment ---one that only works in America with global warming heating lake sufficiently for them to thrive & I bet you have a novel!
The HERO has to beat this whole dark plot or the thriller's no good. He can't stumble out at story's end a LOSER. He has to fix it. So he'd have to measure, find, kill the amoebas. Or kill the off the ILLUMINATUS who's behind these bought scientists. A note about heroes. The best, most commercially succesful writers, who can use the same detective l00 times, and public still scoops the novels up-- Robert Parker for instance, will create a kindly hero that the public wants to return to. SPENSER is sparkley clean, valorous, has funny, pungent rap, his first person narrative is witty, delicious. Parker's hero is a private detective, a big lummox, a gourmet cook, true to his girl Susan though he notices other gal's bodies. He works out at a gym and because of size and muscles, often creams the villain's side arm men. He is altruistic to clients but what I found most memorable is the way he whacks the head of the Mafia gang with acid bon mots, irreverent ones. He's fearless. He goes straight in to every dangerous situation tossing funny lines. That buys you repeat customers.
Could a writer with political sensibilities create a nice guy fighting the MATRIX? And keep it spinning over the course of a dozen novels? I don't see any contemporary thriller writers tackling the problems of all of us being slaves on an Oligarch Planet where shadowy men in Bentleys have an "I'm alright Jack, screw you, die already you peons!" agenda. There's obviously a plotty amount of basic Lifeboat Theory going on in the heads of the Illuminati or Oligarchs. (I'm alright Jack, screw you! toss the nobodies out of the lifeboat?) No author that I know of has made his villain a Rothschild, a Bush or Harriman. If you have the stones, hit MR. BIG. Create Dr. No as an Illuminati, castles in the Meadows of Burgundy, private jets, mistresses in ten countries. Give him evil features we'll love to hate, as well as creating a Matrix fighting, in the know, internet reading HERO suitable for the times.
That is the reason that I SOOO love Daniel Silva as he goes after the industrial size villains with his savvy Mossad spy, GABRIEL ALLON. LUDLUM tars the CIA which is good, but not new. Silva writes POLITICAL "ISSUE" THRILLERS, mostly related to Israeli issues. Read his:"Unlikely Spy," "Marching Season", Mark of the Assassin," "The English Assassin, "Death in Vienna. "The Kill Artist, and "Confessor," and the "Messenger." a buck each at ABES. ) You will adore Silva because he attacks huge institutions, goes back in his research to SECRET, historical events (BIG ONES) and goes after the actual real life villain like a Terrier shaking a geriatric rat. He's tearing up the Nazis in Unlikely Spy. He sympathizes with the IRA, denounces the Belfast Protestants in Marching Season. He goes after the modern day stolen, Nazi art thieves and their cohorts in crime, the SWISS BANKERS, who together 'disappeared' France's art troves, taking from both Jews and museums...in The English Assassin. He savages the Swiss PEOPLE mercilessly, ripping them new ones. And then he goes after the VATICAN and POPE PIUS XII for endorsing the murder of Jews as they wanted Holy lands back and were anti-semitic and had been for two thousand years, puzzling when their main man was a Jew boy.
Where's Silva gonna keep all his money taxfree now with a string of best sellers? He viciously blasphemed Swiss bankers and their phony neutrality, then the SWISS citizenry, too, their character, not just the banks for aiding the Nazis and for still having 30 billion in art and MONEY hidden, taken from Jews but the ordinary bourgeois SWISS! To cap it, he tells exactly how the bankers and Gov won't give the art or their bank accounts back to the legit heirs of dead Jews with their catch 22 restrictions. Ya gotta LOVE this guy. His latest, MOSCOW RULES hit #1 on NYTIMES best seller LIST.
Many of Daniel Silva's books are set in current time where his enemy is the Saudi Sheik(s) who pays for all Muslim terrorism. No target is too big for this little Rottweiler of an author. Actually, he's not little. He's talk, dark and very handsome --just like his mentor Frederick Forsyth, the King, Day of the Jackal, The Icon, the Fourth Protocol, Odessa File, ICON, FIST OF GOD and many, many others.
Silva has stepped into the new niche in thriller writing: the DELPHIC THRILLER, where an annointed, appointed person (his hero Gabriel is MOSSAD) sniffs the finest gases issuing from a crack in the earth and can smell HELL. Voices speak to him. In this trance, he stumbles on what's really going on. Silva describes clandestine groups beyond Al Qaida, that nobody even knew about. He walks into the slums of Lebanon where they live. That's the definition of DELPHIC. Extra sensory. He reports that the Islam/ Muslim war is heavily funded by our own petro dollars. Every gallon you put in your tank funds guns pointed at your children's head. He tells us that Saudis wage a much more extensive-than-thought war against the liberal west as it hates our sexy movies with free living ladies. So Hollywood should fight back and make a movie or tv show where Saudi shieks are the villains, have Dustin Hoffman play him from the back seat of a Bentley.
That is a good crack to work. I'd get my fishing rod and go there if I could, in fact I thought of a plot, all on my own, about a murdered Time Mag journalist working the INDONESIA beat. In my take on it, TIME MAG lady is researching a book that makes MUSLIMS look dumb and paranoid but she stumbles on a huge conspiracy out of JAKARTA and the military murders her! It's a real story by the way. That's my take on her death. Not my gal pal's INTERPRETATION. My friend's a writer, her best friend was killed and she imagined that the BOYFRIEND did it. Jakarta Government says lady boozed, took a fall. My gal pal is certain the TIME REPORTER was beat to death by a lover. This story would pivot on the Western model of emancipated sexual single girls and the Muslim man, which is the basic fissure running down the planet these days. Indonesia is a MUSLIM country dominated by macho guys who make women wear veils, which has a military that genocides the spiritually liberated Hindus and Buddhists within its own borders like Nixon murdering hippies. People rave about Myanmar but JAKARTA, Indonesia is way worse.
II. THE RITUALS & SET DRESSING FOR ALL THRILLERS
a.) PLENTY OF PEREGRINATION! Hero must leap from one vivid city or country to the next with plenty of exact descriptions of the weather, the pubs, cafes, buildings, exact street names, the types of people walking around. Exotic names, Vienna, Constantinople must come every few chapters. In his best thriller, "The SPY WHO COULDN'T SLEEP, his hero Evan Tanner has to make an ODYSSEY across Europe to get in the back door of Armenia and get the GOLD.. Author LAWRENCE BLOCK does the best job I've ever seen in this regard, describing first the TURKS who jail him in Chapter I, then Armenians who sent him on this Gold Seeking journey, when he does the Backstory of how he got in jail. Then the little Turkish jailer who takes him in chains to Italy and whom Tanner outsmarts. Then Tanner starts running to Ireland. He's got the Irish people and landscape and lifestyle to a T. Tanner has to run fast, to Spain, totally captures the SPANISH, (that wannabe hairdresser was hysterical!) and then the stoic GREEKs. This fine Novel rivals the travels of ALICE in WONDERLAND, the Spaniard was the Mad hatter. Tanner descends into landscapes that ring true and amuse but which are TELLING.
b.) MAKE THE HERO VIRTUOUS, FUNNY, BRAVE, MUSCULAR, NOT AFRAID to USE HIS FISTS, then, TAKE the TIME TO MAKE THE SECONDARIES VIVID. In "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" first timer John Berendt creates wonderful, eccentric, fleshed-out secondaries. I vividly recall in the flick Clint Eastwood directed, the black transexual hooker, a comedic masterpiece. This book was 216 weeks on Best Seller list. Berendt's next, non-fiction, shot to the top in sales, too.
c.) NOT JUST A PULSE but a THROBBING PULSE! When you do the plot outline, make sure it looks like the Swiss Alps. Peaks and valleys. Never a dull moment. Characters ride up the roller coaster to top of the mountain, barely see the vista when they're THROWN down! They build their empire then lose it all. They're back on the street, scuffling, poor, starving even, if you're Charles Dickens. They're safe in a warm home then they're out in the snow endangered. They're attacked, near death and then just as the bad guys seize power, they're saved or they think of something brilliant to save themselves. Allow a pause for the BAD guys to regroup, then shortly, they're endangered again. PILLARS OF THE EARTH an historical thriller, has this pulse, this rhythm. This Technique. Never a dull moment. All the good authors design a zig-zag into the plot. Peaks must be scarier, valleys are just resting places til the next peak comes.
d.) LARGER THAN LIFE, HEROIC CENTRAL CHARACTERS.Your readers have to love the hero and nobody likes a loser. We will identify more with your main man if his handling of events defines him as a ballsy, fierce, smart hero. We'll be stuck to the pages like gum if we feel warm about him.
e.) A CULT, SECRET SOCIETY, as an enemy. Lot of books kick the VATICAN around these days. Steve Berry has the Vatican's secret soldiers, the Templars. Dan Brown has not one but two secret societies Priory of Sion is the one keeping Jesus' line alive, and the Vatican has the actual OPUS DEI out of St. Peter's as the Villain. Silva has the Crux Vera inside the Vatican (a group concecrated to hiding the Pope's complicity in paving the way for the Nazis, turning his head during Holocaust then hiding and relocating Nazis after the war. Silva is a real rottweiler on this issue. For him the gun never loses its stench.
f.) BLOOD AND GUTS! This gets us back to the basic elements of fiction which are a TERRIBLE DEED that needs sleuthing then righting, a murder or genocide which must be paid for. So ponder how many wrongs haven't been righted! World needs a Bosnian/Croatian Serb thriller. A RUMANIAN thriller. Those orphanages bear watching.
Get hold of these authors for a buck each at ABEBOOKS.com (Use my ultra SECRET cheapo METHOD of shaking books out of Abes' 13,000 vendors!) . List of BEST CRIME NOVELS of 2007, I go back a year as they're all a buck now.
OTHER INTERNET ARTICLES on THRILLERS LINDA ADAMS -
START READING THRILLERS. You won't be bored for a second. Tell me who YOUR favorite authors in this genre are and why, I'll read them, and get back to you.
Signed Anita Sands Hernandez at astrology at earthlink dot net
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