Don’t Kill Your Thrills With Premise Implausibility

Last week I wrote about the most important rule for thriller writers to follow, namely:
Never allow any of your main characters to act like idiots in order to move or wrap up your plot!
I think I spoke to soon. There is a second rule that is of equal import: the overall premise of the thriller must be justified in a way that is a) surprising, and yet b) makes perfect sense. 
This is not easy. Otherwise, everybody would be writing The Sixth Sense every time out. Not even M. Night Shyamalan is writing The Sixth Sense every time out! 
So what can we do to up our chances of getting our thriller ending right?
1. Think About Your Contractual Obligation 
Thriller readers will accept almost any premise at the start. They are willing to suspend their disbelief unless and until you dash that suspension with preposterousness. In other words, the readers are on your side. They’re pulling for you. You have entered, therefore, into an implied contract with them. They suspend disbelief, and you pay that off with a great ending. 
I often hear writers say things like, “Oh, I’ve got a great premise. I don’t know how it’s going to end, but it will have to end sometime. And if I don’t know how it’s going to end, then surely the readers won’t guess!” 
That is called, in philosophical discourse, a non-sequitur (meaning, “it does not follow”). I can name one big-name author right now whose last book was excoriated by readers because it had a great set-up, and hundreds of pages of suspense, and then was absolutely ridiculous at the end. I won’t name said author because I believe in the fellowship, and I know how hard this thriller stuff is to pull off. 
Nevertheless, I’ve heard said writer say (he/she/it) does not worry about how something’s going to end until (he/she/it) gets there. And said author has paid the price for it. 

2. Build the Opponent’s “Ladder”
A thriller or mystery does not begin with the hook, the body, or the Lead character’s introduction. In your story world, it always begins in the past with the Opponent’s scheme. (NOTE: this is not where you begin your book. It’s what you, the author, should know before your book begins). 
Erle Stanley Gardner plotted his mysteries with what he called “The Murderer’s Ladder.” It starts with the bottom rung and runs up to the top. There are 10 rungs:
10. Eliminating overlooked clues and loose threads
9. The false suspect
8. The cover up
7. The flight
6. The actual killing
5. The first irretrievable step
4. The opportunity
3. The plan
2. The temptation
1. The motivation
So what you, the writer, need to work out is, first, the motive for the scheme. This is in the heart and mind of the opponent. He is then tempted to action, makes a plan, looks for opportunity, etc. When Perry Mason gets on the case, with the help of detective Paul Drake, they look for clues along the rungs of the ladder, the place where the opponent might have made a mistake. 
The point of all this is, when you build your own ladder for the opponent, it will not only help your premise makes sense, it will give you all sorts of ideas for plot twists and red herrings.
3. Write the Opponent’s Closing Argument 
This is an exercise I give in my writing workshops. It’s simple yet powerful. At some point in your plotting, whether you are an outliner or a “pantser,” pause and put your opposition character in a courtroom. He is representing himself before a jury, and must now give a closing argument that attempts to justify why he did what he did. 
This step rounds out your opponent, gives him added dimensions, perhaps even a touch of sympathy. It also keeps you from the dreaded moustache-twirling villain. No stereotypes, please. 
I see a pantser in the back row, raising her hand. “Yes, ma’am?” 
“I just can’t write that way! I have to discover as I go along!” 
“And you know what you’ll discover? That you have to force an ending onto all that material you’ve come up with. So you’ll go back and try to change, mix and match, but will then discover there are too many plot elements you can’t alter without changing everything else around it, so you’ll end up compromising at the end. Sometimes you’ll make it, but even popular writers who do it this way only bat around .400 on their endings. But if you follow the three steps above, your pantsing writer’s mind will still be able to play, but play with a purpose.” 
“But . . .but . . .” 
“But me no buts! This isn’t easy, you know. If it was, celebrities wouldn’t hire ghost writers when they try to cash in on the thriller market!” 
Make sense? Have you ever found yourself backed into premise implausibility? What did you do about it? 

29 thoughts on “Don’t Kill Your Thrills With Premise Implausibility

  1. Boy, does this hit home. A contest judge told me the synopsis of my unpublished novel was implausible. I’m trying to figure out if the problem is my synopsis or the underlying thriller. The Murderer’s Ladder gives me a great tool to use.

  2. The ladder. Great idea.
    In my SF novels that’s not such a prerequisite but in my new one I’ll use it to formulate an alternative ending from my current stumbled upon climax.

  3. Jim,

    How timely. Just finished my first book and starting on my second. Instead of counting sheep at night, I work out the premise and characters before I start outlining. I thought I was planning the antagonist’s agenda and character arc. I was climbing his ladder.

    I bought Knockout Novel when you first brought it out. I want to use it for my next book. Is there a place in the program to build the ladder and write the closing argument for the opponent?

    I look forward to learning more in your Quantum Story workshop. See you in Indianapolis.

  4. Excellent, solid advice, Jim, especially for the pantsers in the audience. And as a bonus, you were able to use the word “preposterousness”. You don’t see that every day. 🙂

    • I have been there and it was terrible.

      Discovery writing is a perfectly valid technique used by many published authors. It’s wrong for you to completely discredit it.

      I’ve written with outlines and I’ve written without them. The only difference between the two is that I write much slower with an outline and find writing to be an unbearable chore. The quality of my work is not better or worse with either technique, just less enjoyable.

    • Having used both, I merely point out the costs of each “system.” In the thriller arena, the cost of plausibility or letdown is one of them….however, I recognize that it can be done via pure “discovery,” only it will be a more laborious and time-consuming route. Remember, I’m not advocating a full outline here, but brainstorming on some crucial issues. It’s one of the most enjoyable parts of the writing for me, because it’s discovery on steroids.

  5. There is an old saying, falsely attributed to Buddha, that when the student is ready, the teacher will appear.

    Thanks for appearing every Sunday.

  6. I suggest to students that they write out the bad guy’s plot including the backstory of why they are doing what they are doing.

    If the writer doesn’t understand the logic of the antagonist and his goals, she will end up with a story where the bad guy is doing what the writer wants him to do and that usually doesn’t make a bit of sense.

  7. Another excellent craft article, Jim! I look forward to your insightful and informative posts every Sunday. And the comments are always illuminating, too. I’m off to share this on Facebook and Twitter and wherever else I can think of!

  8. And speaking of implausible premises or setups, I just finished a great thriller by Linwood Barclay that asked a lot of readers at the beginning – we needed to accept the possibility that the main character’s brother was able to memorize every street (every building really) of every major city in the world. That was a hard one to swallow – talk about suspending your disbelief! But I decided to go with it, anyway, and really enjoyed the rest of the story! If I hadn’t been determined to try out this new (to me) author, I might have been put off by the implausibility of someone being able to do that.

  9. You always do this, Jim. Just when I’m struggling with the next step, you tend to blog about it. Thanks for this. excellent to crawl into the killer’s mind and write his/her/their story, even if it’s never in the book. Why do I always forget this until rewrites?

  10. I will file The Murder’s Ladder in with my 13 Signpost Scenes.

    I definitely need to spend time working on my opponent’s story and motivation in my WIP. I’ve been avoiding it because it’s hard, and I’d rather get to the scenes with sauteed rock shrimp. 🙂 But I’ll do it, because I need to.

    Thanks for another good lesson, Mr. Bell!

  11. Sometimes I eat habaneros with my Mexican take-out. Sometimes I fart stars.

    But once in a while consistency hits…and habanero stars light the sky.

    Know whatta mean?


    perhaps not.

    Good article nonetheless….very good indeed.

    oooh….what’s that tumbly rumble all about….Oh My….

  12. This has been so helpful, thanks so much. I love the idea of the testifying antagonist – it’s always the ‘but WHY????’ for me, and this is a great way to formulate the why of your antagonist.

  13. Thank you for such a great post. Reading it gave me one of those ‘I shoulda thought of that’ moments. After all, every novel needs conflict. The antagonist (especially in thrillers)provides that conflict. The more defined and credible the antagonist, the more defined and credible the conflict he creates. Good stuff!

  14. Oooh, love the ladder! I’m plotting right now and this will come in handy. Thanks!

    Oh, and like always, I’m plotting using my fave book Plot & Structure. I’m a total fangirl.

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