By Joe Moore
Next week I head to NYC for ThrillerFest — what many consider summer camp for thriller writers. ThrillerFest is really 3 events bundled into one general heading: CraftFest, AgentFest and ThrillerFest. This year, in addition to the 27 bestselling CraftFest instructors including Doug Preston, Michael Palmer, David Morrell, and our own TKZ blogmate John Gilstrap, the great Ken Follett will be teaching a course called “How Thrillers Work”. Taking a class from a guy who has 130 million copies of his thrillers in print ain’t too shabby.
AgentFest has grown to over 60 top New York agents and editors waiting to hear book pitches and look for that next big seller.
And ThrillerFest boasts two days of panels and interviews by some of the biggest names in the genre. As an added bonus, representatives of the CIA will be on hand to answer all those spy novel questions. And the conference ends with the naming of the 2011 Thriller Awards winners and the celebration of R.L. Stine as this year’s ThrillerMaster. There’s still time to register if you can make it.
On Saturday (July 9), I’ll be on a panel called “Are there must-haves in Thrillers?” My fellow panelists include Karen Dionne, Mike Cooper, William Reed, Larry Thompson, Norb Vonnegut, and F. Paul Wilson. It should be a great discussion.
I believe, as I’ve discussed on this blog before, that there are a number of elements commonly found in most thrillers. So to get in the spirit of my ThrillerFest panel next week, here are 6 general must-haves that I think can and should be found in most contemporary thrillers.
First, let’s define a thriller and how it differs from a mystery?
Although thrillers are usually considered a sub-genre of mysteries, I believe there are some interesting differences. I look at a thriller as being a mystery in reverse. By that I mean that the typical murder mystery usually starts with the discovery of a crime. The rest of the book is an attempt to figure out who committed the crime.
I see a thriller as being just the opposite; the book often begins with a threat of some kind, and the rest of the story is trying to figure out how to prevent it from happening. And unlike the typical mystery where the antagonist may not be known until the end, with a thriller we pretty much know who the bad guy is right from the get-go.
So with that basic distinction in mind, let’s list a few of the most common elements found in thrillers.
1. The Ticking Clock. Without the ticking clock such as the doomsday deadline, suspense would be hard if not impossible to create. Even with a thriller like HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER which dealt with slow-moving submarines, Tom Clancy built in the ticking clock of the Soviets trying to find and destroy the Red October before it could make it to the safety of U.S. waters. He masterfully created tension and suspense with an ever-looming ticking clock.
2. High Concept. In Hollywood, the term high concept is the ability to describe a script in one or two sentences usually by comparing it to two previously known motion pictures. For instance, let’s say I’ve got a great idea for a movie. It’s a wacky, zany look at the lighter side of Middle Earth, sort of a ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST meets LORD OF THE RINGS. If you’ve seen both of those movies, you’ll get an immediate visual idea of what my movie is about. High concept Hollywood style.
But with thrillers, high concept is a bit different. A book with a high concept theme is one that contains a radical or somewhat outlandish premise. For example, what if Jesus actually married, had children, and his bloodline survived down to present day? And what if the Church knew it and kept it a secret? You can’t get more outlandish than the high concept of THE DA VINCI CODE.
What if a great white shark took on a maniacal persona and seemed to systematically terrorized a small New England resort island? That’s the outlandish concept of Benchley’s thriller JAWS.
What if someone managed to clone dinosaurs from the DNA found in fossilized mosquitoes and built a theme park that went terribly wrong? You get the idea.
3. High Stakes. Unlike the typical murder mystery, the stakes in a thriller are usually very high. Using Dan Brown’s example again, if the premise were proven to be true, it would undermine the very foundation of Christianity and shake the belief system of over a billion faithful. Those are high stakes by anyone’s standards.
4. Larger-Than-Life Characters. In most mysteries, the protagonist may play a huge role in the story, but that doesn’t make them larger than life. By contrast, Dirk Pitt, Jason Bourne, Jack Ryan, Jack Bauer, James Bond, Laura Craft, Indiana Jones, Dr. Hannibal Lecter, and one that’s closest to my heart, Cotten Stone, are all larger-than-life characters in their respective worlds.
5. Multiple POV. In mysteries, it’s common to have the story told through the eyes of a limited number of characters, sometimes only one. All that can change in a thriller. Most are made up of a large cast of characters, each telling a portion of the story through different angles. Some thrillers are so complex in their POVs that you really need a scorecard. But even with multiple POVs, it’s vital to never let the reader lose sight of whose story it is. There should be only one protagonist.
6. Exotic Settings. Again, in most murder mysteries, the location is usually limited to a particular city, town or locale. But a thriller can and usually is a globetrotting event. In my latest thriller, THE PHOENIX APOSTES, co-written with Lynn Sholes, the story takes place in, amount other locations, the tomb of an Aztec emperor, Sao Paulo, Brazil, the sub-basement burial vaults of Westminster Abbey, Red Square, the Bahamas, a small island off the coast of Panama, and the Paris catacombs. Exotic locations are a mainstay of the thriller genre.
Like any generic list, there will always be exceptions and limitations. But in general, these are the elements you’ll usually find in mainstream commercial thrillers. But the biggest and most important element of all is that a thriller should thrill you. If it doesn’t increase your pulse rate, keep you up late, and leave you wanting more, it probably isn’t a thriller.
Are there any characteristics of a thriller not on my list? What do you look for in a good thriller?
After reading Clare’s post yesterday about e-publishing’s Radiohead moment, I read an LA times article that noted a disturbing new trend in the world of Kindle books: spam.
It seems that everyone and his brother is now uploading e-books to Amazon. Many of those books are e-wrapped versions of books that are no longer under copyright–others are pirated versions of original works, with new covers. The article cited one author who discovered that one of her books had been copied and sold on Kindle
I suppose it was only a matter of time before the spammers who flood our email in-boxes with Viagra ads and solicitations to collect inheritances in Nigeria would figure out a way to inundate the Kindle world with literary dreck. Amazon will have to find a way to filter out the spammers. There are a number of ways to do it: They could create a “verified publisher or author” seal, a la Twitter. They could develop better filters. They might have to–gasp!–act like a publisher and wade through the e-slush pile before unleashing it on the world. Any way you look at it, Amazon will have to spend some time and money figuring it out–which will probably raise the price of Kindle books fdown the line. (I hear the dead-tree book contingent laughing in triumph).
As a reader, so far I haven’t yet encountered much spam on Kindle, probably because I use filters when I browse. The only time I’ve been had was when I thought I was downloading a novel, only to discover that my “book” was only a few chapters, which had been bundled and sold as a bait.
Have you encountered spam on Amazon? Have you ever paid for a Kindle book and then discovered that it wasn’t what you thought it was?
I received a Kindle for Father’s Day 2010. I loved it. I still do. It is the junkie’s dream come true, instant gratification in a tool that will fit in Captain Kangaroo‘s pocket. On Father’s Day night, I looked at the stacks (yes, stacks) of books next to my bed that await my terminal illness (I figure I’ll have lots of time to read everything if I’m too ill to do anything else. Well, maybe not lots of time…) and told myself that there was no longer need for me to grab a book off of a store shelf that I didn’t have time to read, just so I’d have it when I wanted to read it. Since I could have a book when I wanted it just by pressing a couple of buttons, I didn’t need to create a backlog. I would load a book, read it, and then buy another. Never again, I told myself, would I need to hoard books. Right.
At last count, one year later, I have thirty or so books that have accumulated on my Kindle. I mean, why would I pass up the complete works of Sax Rohmer for a couple of bucks? Or a new Marcus Wynne novel for ninety-nine cents? I drop ninety-nine cents in change on the floor of my car when I’m exchanging bucks for ambrosia in the Sonic Drive-through. I’m going to resist buying Lawrence Block books, which have been out of print for decades, for less than the cost of a Venti espresso that I will purge within an hour? I’m going to pass that up?
So I ask…how many of you out there have an accumulation of unread books on your Kindle? If you have such an accumulation, how many do you have? And do you have any idea why you are doing it, since, well, it’s not like Amazon is going to run out of a particular title? Is there something really, really wrong with us? Or are we okay and it’s just the guy who collects virtual beer cans who needs an intervention? You tell me.
By John Gilstrap
I’m no expert in young adult fiction, but over the past ten years or so, I’ve consumed more of it than I ever did when I was a young adult. (I don’t think that “young at heart” counts in this context.)
I’m an avid Harry Potter fan—in fact, I already bought my tickets for the July 15 opening. I love the concept of the boy wizard who has no idea who he is, but even more than that, I love the interaction of the characters. They seem very real to me. They’re not the best-written books in the world (J.K. Rowling loves adverbs enough to create brand new ones on the fly), but that doesn’t matter because the stories are so compelling. The characters are so compelling.
There’s no doubt in reading the Potter books that it’s Harry’s story. Still, the secondary characters really sing. Hermione Granger is among my favorites. Smarter than any of the boys, she has a strong moral center, and she’s willing to fight for what she believes. Cupid delivers her a few tough blows along the way, but never once does she go to that self-destructive place that seems popular in other YA stories I’ve consumed recently. She never ties her self-actualization to the whims of a jerk.
Then there’s Bella of the Twilight series—whiner in chief. Never mind that she has no interest in Jacob, the guy who actually loves her and treats her like, well, a human being. Never mind that Edward is constantly pushing Bella away. Let’s concentrate for a moment on the fact that Bella has to die to be with the one she loves. Yeah, I know, dying is part of the construct of the whole vampire craze, but in the second of the Twilight stories (or, at least the second movie I watched), Bella sees self destruction—multiple suicide attempts—as the only way for Edward to pay attention to her.
If you’ve read this blog for any time at all, you know that I am 100% against censorship in all of its forms, but is this really the message with which American girls bond so thoroughly? Is there a purer form of narcissism than the gambit of “If you don’t pay attention to me, I’ll hurt myself”? How is this remotely empowering to young girls?
When did it become cool for girls to hand their emotional future over to some guy who treats her like crap?
Most recently, I read the first book in the Hunger Games trilogy, in which young Katniss Everdeen (a girl) has to fight 23 other teens to the death in a contest that is televised as a sporting event. The Hunger Games is the new Big Thing in YA fiction. Having read and enjoyed Battle Royale—a Japanese version of a story that is strikingly similar—I thought I’d give Katniss and her adventures a whirl. It’s actually a pretty good book.
Katniss is no Bella. She can thread a needle with a bow and arrow at 50 yards, and she doesn’t take crap off anybody. As luck would have it, one of her opponents in the games is Peeta, a boy her age who fell in love with her at first sight back when they were both six or seven years old.
MILD SPOILER AHEAD
Peeta repeatedly saves Katniss’s life at the risk of his own, and he announces his love for her on national television, but she pays little attention because her heart belongs to another guy. It’s the conceit of the story that Katniss suspects that he’s merely using professed love as a strategy, but in the author’s hand, Katniss just comes off as obtuse at best, moronic at worst.
I know it’s all fiction, but for these stories to resonate as they have, there has to be some element of universal truth. Is this really how the adolescent female mind is wired? Do good guys have any chance at all—and in this case I mean that literally, as in guys who are good to others?
Okay, don’t answer that. Good guys are doomed—at least among adolescents and certainly in YA fiction. The romance of the “bad boy” is at least as old as the printing press. Certainly, as far back as my own high school days, really hot girls have always been drawn to the guys who treat them like crap. The good news is that like everything else about adolescence, most people outgrow the roles they play as teenagers and ultimately get their heads straight.
During that transitional time though, when the out-growing is underway, I hope there are some strong parental hands on the tiller.
When all is said and done, though, Hermione will have been a lot more help creating well-balanced young ladies than Bella ever was.
My last topic here was on The Self-Pub Adventure. Here are my conclusions so far.
By: Kathleen Pickering
That, of course, got me thinking, well why not? Not writing wouldn’t kill me. I’d feel less pressure to perform, my days would free up and I could enjoy all those characters in my head as imaginary playmates. But, then I realized why I reacted so uncomfortably to Clare’s question. Simply put, we all have basic human needs. For me, writing fulfills all six of the basic human needs Anthony Robbins says every person craves for personal happiness. No wonder we authors are addicted to the craft!
Here are the needs as Tony Robbins lists them. I’ve shown how they fulfill my need to write:
1. Certainty – We all want to feel safe in our world. As a writer, I know the world I create is my own, no one can hurt it, change it, take it. I feel safe in my writing cocoon.
2. Uncertainty – We all crave variety, surprise and spontaneity or we’d get bored. Well, heck, do we or do we not get uncertainty and surprise from our characters? They always take us somewhere we don’t expect. Also, the uncertainty of the publishing industry and reader/editor opinion offers no small adrenaline rush in working towards success.
3. Significance – We all need to feel important in our world and often carry a fear of “not being enough.” Writing offers me a sense of significance, in that I feel unique in my craft and how I tell my stories. Being an author gives me a sense of worth.
4. Growth – If we don’t grow, we die. The richness of every book experience, from creating the work to selling, to networking, to celebrating and sharing, all contribute to my personal growth as an author. I feel an internal shift upwards with every book I write.
5. Connection/Love – We all need to bond and feel grounded with others. We all understand this. A perfect example for me was at this year’s Sleuthfest conference. I asked Dennis Lehane what inspired him to write Shutter Island and how he conducted his research. I was rewarded with a smile, an in-depth and heartfelt explanation that ended with, “this book describes me the best.” We all need connection and welcome the recognition in others.
6. Contribution – We act to make the world a better place. I’m not alone when I say I am an author with more than just a story to tell. (My brand.) Every book I write has a purpose, a theme, and mine is redemption. My world view is that we were born perfect onto a perfect planet, and somewhere along the line we lost that understanding. I write hoping my stories will get folks thinking towards shifting our perceptions back to a place of dancing and joy and connection with ourselves, each other and our precious world. I tell you, writing rocks!
My urban fantasy, Mythological Sam – The Call, embodies all six basic human needs of which Robbins speaks. That’s why I love writing and could never stop. Who else gets the opportunity to get their message across with a hilarious, demon-busting call to adventure while meeting their own human needs?
So, I ask you, as an author and a reader . . . how does writing/reading meet your human needs? And which two are most important?