Everything I Ever Learned
I Learned From Potboilers

My signed first edition of Arthur Hailey's The Moneychangers.

My signed first edition of Arthur Hailey’s The Moneychangers.

“A great book should leave you with many experiences, and slightly exhausted at the end. You live several lives while reading.” — William Styron

By PJ Parrish
We moved around a lot when I was a kid, and like a plant with shallow roots, I was always sending out feelers toward solid ground. I found it in libraries. I couldn’t always count on having the same address every year, the same classroom or even the same friends for very long. But I always could count on finding old faces and familiar places in the local library.

Paradoxically, it was in libraries where my love of exotic places and travel was born. No matter what was going on in my little life, I could escape to somewhere else by opening a book. My library card was my first passport.

Novels took me around the world, but they also taught me things — about history, religion, politics, philosophy, human psychology, medicine, outer space – filling in the gaps left by my spotty education. Even after I went to college, made my own money and settled down, novels remained my autodidact keys.

I learned about the American Revolution through John Jake’s Kent Family Chronicles. I studied medieval Japan through James Clavell’s Shogun. I was able to wrap my brain around the complex politics of Israel and Ireland after reading Leon Uris. James Michener taught me about Hawaii and Edna Ferber took me to Texas. Susan Howatch’s Starbridge series sorted out the Church of England for me. Ayn Rand made me want to be an architect for a while, or maybe a lady reporter who wore good suits. (I skimmed over the political stuff.)

And Arthur Hailey taught me to never buy a car that was made on a Monday.

I got to thinking about Hailey and all the others this week for two reasons: First, was an article I read in the New York Times about the Common Core teaching controversy (more on that later). The second reason was that while pruning my bookshelves, I found an old copy of The Moneychangers. This was one of Hailey’s last books, written after he had become famous for Hotel, Wheels, and that quintessential airport book Airport. I interviewed Hailey in 1975 when he was touring for The Moneychangers. I remember him as sweet and patient with a cub reporter and he signed my book “To Kristy Montee, Memento of a Pleasant Meeting.”

I had read all his other books, especially devouring Wheels, which was set in the auto industry of my Detroit hometown. Hailey, like Michener, Clavell, Uris et al, wrote long, research-dense novels that moved huge, often multi-generation casts of characters across sprawling stages of exotic locales (Yes, Texas qualifies). Hawaii, which spans hundreds of years, starts with this primordial belch:

Millions upon millions of years ago, when the continents were already formed and the principle features of the earth had been decided, there existed, then as now, one aspect of the world that dwarfed all others.

How could you not read on after that? But the main reason I loved these books was for their bright promise of cracking open the door on something secret. Here’s some cover copy from Hailey’s The Moneychangers:

Money. People. Banking. This fast-paced, exciting novel is the “inside” story of all three. As timely as today’s headlines, as revealing as a full-scale investigation.

Shoot, that could be copy written for Joseph Finder now.

Many of these books were sniffed off as potboilers in their day. (Though Michener and Ferber both won Pulitzer Prizes). But the writers were, to a one, known for their meticulous research techniques. Hailey spent a full year researching his subject (he read 27 books about the hotel industry), then six months reviewing his notes and, finally, about 18 months writing the book. Michener lived in each of his locales, read and interviewed voraciously, and collected documents, music, photographs, maps, recipes, and notebooks filled with facts. He would paste pages from the small notebooks, along with clippings, photos and other things he had collected into larger notebooks. Sort of an early version of Scrivener.


For my money, these books were a potent blend of entertainment and information, and they endure today as solid examples for novelists on how to marry research with storytelling. In his fascinating non-fiction book Hit Lit: Cracking the Code of the Twentieth Century’s Biggest Bestsellers, James W. Hall analyzes what commonalities can be found in mega-selling books. One of the criteria is large doses of information that make readers believe they are getting the inside scoop, especially of a “secret” society. The Firm peeks into the boardrooms of Harvard lawyers. The Da Vinci Code draws back the curtain on the Catholic Church. Those and all the books I cited delivered one thing in spades — the feeling we are learning something while being entertained.

Which brings me to Common Core.

This is an educational initiative, sponsored by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers that details what K–12 students should know in English language arts and mathematics at the end of each grade. I read this week that as part of the Common Core mandate, English teachers must balance each novel they teach with “fact” material –news articles, textbooks, documentaries, maps and such.

So ninth graders reading The Odyssey must also read the G.I. Bill of Rights. Eight graders reading Tom Sawyer also get an op-ed article on teen unemployment. The standards stipulate that in elementary and middle school, at least half of what English students read must be supplemental non-fiction, and by 12th grade, that goes up to 70 percent.

Now, I’m not going to dig into the politics of this. (You can read the Times article here.) And I applaud anything that gets kids reading at all. What concerns me is that in an effort to stuff as much information and facts into kids’ heads, we might not be leaving room for the imagination to roam free. As one mom (whose fifth-grade son came home in tears after having to read the Universal Declaration of Human Rights), put it, “If you look at the standards and what they say, nowhere in there does it say, ‘kill the love of reading.’”

One more thing, I then I’ll shut up:

There was a study done at Emory University last year that looked at what happens to the brain when you read a novel. At night, volunteers read 30-page segments of Robert Harris’s novel Pompeii then the next morning got MRIs. After 19 days of finishing the novel and morning MRIs, the results revealed that reading the novel heightened connectivity in the left temporal cortex, the area of the brain associated with receptivity for language. Reading the novel also heightened connectivity in “embodied semantics,” which means the readers thought about the action they were reading about. For example, thinking about swimming can trigger the some of the same neural connections as physical swimming.

“The neural changes that we found…suggest that reading a novel can transport you into the body of the protagonist,” said Gregory Berns, the lead author of the study. “We already knew that good stories can put you in someone else’s shoes in a figurative sense. Now we’re seeing that something may also be happening biologically.”

Maybe those poor eighth graders just need to crack open some Jean Auel, SE Hinton or Cassandra Clare.


Exploiting Strengths and Weaknesses


(Image courtesy of Gualberto107 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

I never really paid much attention to birds until I met and married my wife Lisa. She is — and there is no other way to put it — obsessed with birds. We have hard drives figuratively bursting at the seams (and backed up, of course) with photographs of grackles, canaries, yellow whatever’s, and red these or those. While I have been observing her interest, and the subject of same, the area in which we live has experienced a marked increase in the presence of hawks. The reason doesn’t take an understanding of the nuts and bolts of nuclear propulsion to understand. We have what I will politely call more than our fair share of Canadian geese in our locale (which is not, I hasten to add, in Canada). The eggs of Canadian geese are considered by hawks to be a delicacy, in the same way that I regard the presence of a Tim Horton’s, Sonic, IHOP, or Cracker Barrel. The attitude of a hawk toward a goose egg could best be summed up by the statement, “If you lay it, I will come.” Or something like that.

Hawks will of course eat other things as well, and I’ve had opportunity to see them in the act of catch-and-not-release prey on a number of occasions. What they do is fairly highly evolved. If they catch a ground animal, they immediately take it into the air, where it is helpless and cannot run away. If they catch a bird, they bring it to ground, where it is at a disadvantage, and pin it so that it cannot fly away, while they kill it. One could say that a hawk is at a disadvantage on the ground, but I haven’t noticed squirrels, chipmunks, cats, or even other birds coming to the aid of one of their fellow and less fortunate creatures as the hawk goes about its business. No, things get really quiet for a while as the hawk exploits the weakness of its dinner.

Successful genre fiction utilizes the exploitation of strengths and weakness to succeed as well. This is particularly true when the author takes a personality trait that might, and indeed would, be considered a virtue and exploits it. We have a real world model for that, as well. Think of Ted Bundy. Those of us who are raised to be kind and polite and to assist others in need instinctively hold a door for the elderly or the infirm or pull down a top shelf grocery item for someone in a wheelchair. Bundy knew this and would wear a cast or walk on crutches while carrying a package to attract unsuspecting women. There’s a word for that: monster. But he was very, very good at it, and turned a virtue into a fatal weakness. Those who prey on children frequently do so with the premise of seeking assistance with locating a lost dog. What could be more heartwarming than reuniting a dog lover with his pet? Children are inclined to help, especially when it comes to dogs and such, and it’s a virtue that a parent would want to cultivate, but also to curb.

In the world of fiction, however, exploiting weaknesses of this type makes for a great story, and not just for mysteries or thrillers, either. Many science fiction novels and stories sprung from a seed of an advanced civilization bringing advancement to a primitive, or weaker, one with the best of intentions. Disaster inevitably ensued, for one side, or the other, or both. James Tiptree, Jr., was a master of this type of situation, as was the original Star Trek series. Romance novels? Think of a woman who is physically attractive to the extent that no one will approach her, out of fear of rejection. That idea has launched a thousand books and will undoubtedly launch a thousand more before this sentence is completed. As for mysteries and thrillers, the possibilities are endless and replicable: think of a strength, or a virtue, and find a weak spot to exploit. Create an antagonist to probe it and you’re on your way.

Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley comes to my mind most immediately as someone who was excellent at exploiting the best of others. Who comes to yours?

And…I would be remiss if I did not wish a Happy Mother’s Day tomorrow to those among our readers who celebrate the event . Bless you. You are the best.




Where There’s a Will…

The Girl in the Spider's WebI regret to inform you that I am eternally behind the curve. My seventeen year old daughter would happily reveal that state of affairs, and does so at every opportunity (notwithstanding that it was I who first told her about Leon Bridges). So it is that it was only yesterday when I learned that this coming September 1 we’ll be seeing The Girl in the Spider’s Web, a fourth installment in the Lisbeth Salander canon (also known as The Millennium Trilogy) which began with the now world-famous The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson.  The new volume will be written by David Lagercrantz, who has been retained to write it by Larsson’s estate, which consists of Larsson’s father and brother. And therein lays the rub.

The lead up to the publication of the Salander books has been covered exhaustively elsewhere and can be had with Google search. For our purposes today we’ll touch only on the high (or low) points. Larsson conceived the Salander canon as consisting of ten books. He wrote three, substantially completed a fourth, and outlined volumes five through ten. Larsson died of a heart attack in 2004, however, before any of the books were published.  A will which Larsson drafted in 1977 was discovered after his death, but his signature had been unwitnessed. The will was thus declared invalid under Swedish law. Worse, Larsson’s longtime companion, Eva Gabrielsson, could not inherit from him under intestate succession, which is the order in which relatives can inherit from someone who dies without a will. Larsson’s intellectual property — the Salander books — thus passed to his father and brother, who were his nearest living relatives but from whom, by most accounts, he had been estranged for many years.

last-will-and-testamentMany of us — me included — believe that we are going to live forever, or at least at a point far enough in the future where it won’t make any difference, and don’t have a will as a result. While Larsson went through the motions, he didn’t go through enough of them. It is doubtful that Larsson contemplated the possibility that he would be toasting marshmallows with Karl Marx and Leon Trotsky about the time that The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was hitting the top of the bestseller charts all over the world. The result is that Larsson’s closest blood relatives  received his entire kit and caboodle.  Ms. Gabrielsson, with whom Larsson shared home and hearth, and who may well have contributed substantially to the creation and expression of Larsson’s work, will never receive so much as a krona of royalties, or have any say as to how her partner’s property is handled going forward. That is now up to Dad and Bro. If you were hoping that one day your child might go to school with a Lisbeth Salander lunchbox, or you were planning to obtain a removable dragon tattoo to spice things up on some weekend, don’t lose hope. It still could happen.

Don’t let this happen to you. If you have created a piece — or several pieces — of intellectual property, be they published, recorded, or otherwise, have a will drafted in which a specific bequest of that property — and everything else you have — is made. Spend the money and go to an attorney who specializes in such matters; your attorney will/should make sure that your will is executed properly and in accordance with the laws of your state. Please believe me: this is much better than writing it out on a cocktail napkin on the third night of Bouchercon. Insist that your will explicitly states 1) to whom you are giving, or bequeathing, the specific intellectual property and 2) that you are granting to your beneficiary full administrative rights over the property. Should there be something that you do not want done with the property (such as action figures or computer game licensing) this would be the time to mention as well: put your restrictions in writing. If while bestowing your property you exclude someone who would otherwise be the natural object of your bounty, state why you are making the choices you are making. Yes, you might hurt someone’s feelings. If, however, you state that you are leaving your intellectual property to your brother because you feel that your brother is better able to deal with business matters, contesting your will successfully will be problematic for your sister.

You laugh. But you never know. There are any number of authors who didn’t live to see, and thus enjoy, their success. Do you really want someone you don’t even like deciding how your work will be treated, or — even worse — a government official choosing who will control things? The answer of course is “no.” Don’t let your loved one, whoever they may be, end up like Eva Gabrielsson.


How Story Arcs Can Add Depth to Your Plot


Close-up of kissing lips

Yesterday, Joe Moore had an excellent post “Tips for Pacing Your Novel.” It made me think of subplots and story arcs that are other tools to punch up a story line with pace while the main plot enjoys a much needed rest for character development.

In a story arc, whether it is the arc of a romantic relationship or the personal journey of your main character, it might help you think of the arc using these key points:

5 Key Movements in a Story Arc:
1. Present State
2. Something Happens
3. Stakes Escalate
4. Moment of Truth
5. Resolve

Present State –  Set the stage with the character or the relationship at the start of the story. This can also include a teaser of the conflict ahead or the characters’ problems that will be tested. If this is a thriller with a faster pace, you can start with a scene that I call a Defining Scene, where you show the reader who your character is in one defining moment of introduction. The reader can see who this character is by what he or she does in that enticing opener. Don’t tell the reader by the character’s introspection (internal monologue). Set the stage by his or her actions. These scenes take thought to pull together but they are worth it. Imagine how Capt. Jack Sparrow of Pirates of the Caribbean first steps onto the big screen. He wouldn’t simply walk on and deliver a line. He’d make a splash that would give insight into who he is and will be.

Something Happens – An instigating incident forces a change in direction and a point of no return. Your character and/or relationship often will move into uncharted territory that will test their resolve. Sometimes you can set up a series of nudges for the character to reject, but in the end, something must happen to shove him or her over the edge and into the main plot.

Stakes Escalate – in a series of events, test the characters’ problem or the relationship in a way that forces a conflict where a tough choice must be made. Make your character/couple earn the right to play a starring role in your novel. Don’t forget that this is not simply the main action of the plot or a conflict with the bad guys. This can also mean escalating the stakes of the relationship by forcing them into uncomfortable territory.

Moment of Truth – When push comes to shove, give your character or couple a moment of truth. Do they choose redemption or stay the course of their lives? When the stakes are the highest, what will your character do? I often think of this moment as a type of “death.” The character must decide whether to let the past die or a part of their nature die in order to move on. Do they do what’s safe or do they take a leap into something new?

Resolve – Conclude the journey or foreshadow what the future holds to bring the story full circle. I love it when there is a sense of a character coming through a long dark tunnel where they step into the light. A character or couple don’t have to be the same or restored in the end. Make the journey realistic. If a character survives, they are more than likely changed forever. What would than mean for your character? How will they be changed?

Apply this arc structure to individual characters or to a romantic love interest between two characters. These arcs are woven into the tapestry of your overall plot. The plot can be full of action and have its own arc, but don’t forget to add depth and layering to your story by making the characters have their own personal journeys.

Characters have external plot involvements (ie the action of the story), but they can also have their internal conflicts that often make the story more memorable. As an example of this, in the Die Hard movies, we may forget the similar plots to the individual movies, but what make the films more memorable is the personal stories of John McClain and his family. These personal arcs are important and need a structured journey through the story line. They can ebb and flow to affect pace. Escalate a personal relationship during a time when the main plot is slowing down. Make readers turn the pages because they care what happens to your characters.

For Discussion:
Share your current WIP, TKZers. How do you integrate your main character’s personal journey into the overall plot? Share a bit of your character and how his or her “issues” play into your story line.


Careful what you wish for

By Joe Moore

When your first book was published, was the experience everything you dreamed it would be? For me, it was quite different than what I expected. In 2005, when I first walked into a national chain bookstore and saw my brand new novel on the new release table, it was a bananarush. I was proud. I felt like I was on top of the world. I couldn’t wait to see customers gather it up in their arms and rush home to read it. Then I stood back and watched as shoppers picked up my book, glanced at the back cover copy, and put it down with no more interest than in choosing one banana over another at the supermarket.

Didn’t they realize that book cost me 3 years of my life? How could they pass judgment on it within 5 seconds?

Reality set in. Not everyone will want to read my book. Not everyone will like it if they do read it. And I found out rather fast that once a book is published, the real work begins.

Today, I’m about to start (with co-author, Lynn Sholes) my eighth novel. My books have won awards, become bestsellers, and been published in many languages. And yet, every day I face the reality that the true test of my success or failure is what the customer does when they stand over that literary produce bin and pick what they think is the ripest banana. It’s about as scary as it can get.

As a full-time writer, I have the best job in the world. I would not trade it for anything. But a word to anyone dreaming of publishing their first book: be careful what you wish for. You just might get it.

So when your first book came out, was it everything you dreamed of? And if you’re still working at getting that first banana out there, what are you dreaming it will be like?


Coming this spring: THE SHIELD by Sholes & Moore
Einstein got it wrong!


Success is a 4-letter word

By Joe Moore

Okay, it’s really a 7-letter word. But I know a lot of successful authors that would use a 4-letter word when asked what it’s like to be successful. Why? For a couple of reasons. First, success is impossible to obtain. You can obtain “better”. You can achieve “improved”. But you’re always working to be successful. Success can be nothing more than a carrot on a stick just beyond your nose.

Second, success means something different to everyone. It’s a lot like describing an object as being green. Are we talking forest green, lime green, Irish green, puck green, or foam green? How about that green on the Beatles Apple logo or Kermit the Frog green?

I’ll bet if you asked any author who just sold a million copies of his last book, did it make him feel good? The answer will probably be, “Absolutely!” Does he consider himself a success? 4-letter-word no! Why? Because now his publisher expects him to sell 2 million copies of that next book he hasn’t finished writing yet. No pressure there. That’s not success. That’s a problem, albeit one we would all like to have. Now his sales are a bold number on the publisher’s ledger sheet. Now employees’ jobs rely on his success. It’s not just good enough to write another great book that sells lots of copies, he has to worry about the folks that are counting on him for their salary, their jobs, and their future.

So what is success in the publishing industry? Is it when you sell 25,000 copies, 50,000 copies, a million, become a New York Times bestseller? When can a writer kick up his or her heels and declare, “Mission Accomplished”?

Here’s a tip. Success is what you predetermine it will be. It’s what you decide before it comes. If you don’t approach success in that way, you are destined for disappointment. For some, being successful is walking into a bookstore and seeing their novel on the shelf. For other’s it’s the rush of holding a book signing and seeing the line of fans snaking out the door. And for many, it’s money.

But even if it is money, try to remember that it’s more important to predetermine what you’ll do with it, rather than wanting to be “rich”. For instance, determine the amount you’ll need to quite your day job. Or to pay off your mortgage. Or to move to Cape Cod or Palm Beach, or just a bigger house.

The point is, you determine what will make you successful. Be specific, not vague. And if you achieve it, relish it, celebrate it. Because everything after that is the sauce on the steak. And if you do achieve your predetermined success, always say the two most powerful words in the English language: Thank You.

When do you consider a writer to be a success? Have you predetermined your Mission Accomplished criteria? Have you already achieved it?


Coming up Sunday, June 7, our guest blogger will be New York Times bestselling author Sandra Brown. And watch for Sunday guest blogs from Steve Berry, Robert Liparulo, Paul Kemprecos, Linda Fairstein, Julie Kramer, Grant Blackwood, and more.


Start at the end

By Joe Moore

A topic I’ve mentioned here in the past is Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 rules of writing fiction. They’re worth reviewing and taking to heart. But his rule number 5 is the one that made the biggest impression on me. Rule number 5 is: Start your story as close to the end as possible. This is relevant for both the entire book or a single chapter. We often hear that the most common mistake of a new writer is starting the story in the wrong place.

Well, it happens to published writers, too. Lynn Sholes and I are guilty of writing whole chapters that either occurred in the wrong place, or worse, weren’t even needed. Usually they turn out to be backstory information for us, not the reader. We go to the trouble of writing a chapter only to find it’s to confirm what we need to know, not what the reader needs to know.

So if we apply Vonnegut’s rule number 5, how do we know if we’ve started close enough to the end? Easy: we must know the destination before we begin the journey. We must know the ending first. To me, this is critical. How can we get there if we don’t know where we’re going? And once we know how our story will end, we can then apply what I call my top of the mountain technique. In my former career in the television postproduction industry, it’s called backtiming—starting at the place where something ends and working your way to the place where you want it to begin.

7691695But before I explain top of the mountain, let’s look at the bottom of the mountain approach—the way most stories are written. You stand at the foot of an imposing mountain (the task of writing your next 100K-word novel), look up at the huge mass of what you are going to be faced with over the next 12 or so months, and wonder what it will take to get to the top (or end).

You start climbing, get tired, fall back, take a side trip, climb some more, hope inspiration strikes, get distracted, curse, fight fatigue, take the wrong route, fall again, paint yourself into a corner—and if you’re lucky, finally make it to the top. This method will work, but it’s a tough, painful way to go.

Now, let’s discuss the top of the mountain technique. As you begin to plan your book, even before you start your first draft, Imagine that you’re standing on 9944522the mountain peak looking out over a grand, breathtaking view feeling invigorated, strong, and fulfilled. Imagine that the journey is over, your book is done. Look down the side of the mountain at the massive task you have just accomplished and ask yourself what series of events took place to get you to the top? Start with the last event, make a general note as to how you envision it. Then imagine what the second to the last event was that led up to the end, then the third from the last . . . you get the idea. It’s sort of like outlining in reverse.

This takes it a step further than Vonnegut’s rule number 5 by starting at the end and working your way to the beginning while you’re still in the planning stage. Guess what happens? By the time you are actually at the beginning, you will have started as close to the end as possible. And you will see the logic and benefit of rule number 5.

Naturally, your plan can and probably will change. Your ending will get tweaked and reshaped as you approach it for real. But wouldn’t it be great to have a general destination in mind even from the first word on page one of your first draft?

Do you know your ending before you start writing? Or do you have a general idea for the story and just wing it? Remember that there’s no right or wrong answer here. But what works for you?

Coming up on our Kill Zone Guest Sundays, watch for blogs from Sandra Brown, Steve Berry, Robert Liparulo, Alexandra Sokoloff, Thomas B. Sawyer, Paul Kemprecos, Linda Fairstein, and more.


Anatomy of a Thriller

By Joe Moore

One of the author panels I’ll be on at the upcoming MWA SleuthFest is Anatomy of a Thriller (the other is Supernatural Sleuths). I’ll be sharing the panel with literary agent Nicole Kenealy (Aaron M. Priest Literary Agency) and publisher Benjamin Leroy (founder of Bleak House Books). So to follow in Kathryn’s footsteps from her post yesterday, let’s continue discussing thrillers and what makes them so thrilling.

anatomy First, what is a thriller and how does it differ 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.

A thriller is just the opposite; the book 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, 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 built in 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. 731 But a thriller can and usually is a globetrotting event. In my latest thriller, THE 731 LEGACY, co-written with Lynn Sholes, the story takes place in, amount other locations, a medieval castle in one of the former Eastern Bloc countries of the Soviet Union and ends up in Pyongyang, North Korea. Throughout the series, our stories have taken the reader to a lost city in the Peruvian Andes, a remote church in Ethiopia reputed to contain Ark of the Covenant, the Secret Archives of the Vatican, newly discovered Anasazi ruins in New Mexico, inside the royal private residence of Buckingham Palace, secret tunnels below the Kremlin, and many other places most of us will never get to visit. 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?


Fernando’s advice

By Joe Moore

A few days ago, my friend and blog mate, Clare Langley-Hawthorne, asked the question: Can the Introverted Writer Succeed? I think we all agreed that, yes, just about any writer can succeed given the right set of circumstances including big doses of talent and luck. Of course we could say the same holds true for winning the lottery; given the right set of numbers, anyone can be a winner.

But whether you’re introverted and shy or known as the life of the party, I believe the first step to becoming a successful writer is to adapt a successful attitude. By that I mean, if you act like a success, there’s a good chance the world around you will treat you in like manner.

Now, we can get into a heavy discussion of what success means. For some, it’s big money and a slot on the bestseller list while others feel successful in just completing a manuscript. Certainly it’s important that each of us determine what we consider to be a success and then work toward it. But in the end, it doesn’t really matter. I believe that success in a state of mind.

If you don’t feel that you’ve achieved success in your writing yet, it shouldn’t stop you from taking on a successful attitude.

bc Many years ago, the wonderful comedic actor Billy Crystal played a character called Fernando on Saturday Night Live. Fernando’s famous line was “It’s better to look good than to feel good.” I think in many ways we should embrace Fernando’s advice. We should look successful now in anticipation of achieving success later. No, I don’t mean spending thousands on fancy clothes or showing up at a book signing in a stretch limo. Nor do I suggest lying about your success or attempting to deceive anyone.

Having a positive attitude is not deceit. In fact, it’s addictive and usually produces successful results.

Someone once said, “You are what you eat.” I think that concept goes way beyond food. For example, if you complain about the results of your writing or constantly bad mouth the state of the publishing industry, chances are you will quickly develop a self-fulfilling prophecy and those things that you find negative will continue to come your way. Your writing will suffer, your head will become clouded, and at some point, you will consider yourself a failure because you just might be.

Successful writers (or any profession) become so because they believe in themselves and their ability to succeed. And the more they believe, the more they attract success. Act the part, walk the walk, think as a successful writer would think, and before you know it, your writing gets better, your advances grow, your sales increase, and your publisher pays for the stretch limo.

Listen to Fernando.


A Killer Confession

By Joe Moore

missile2 I’ve killed a lot of people. Along with my accomplice co-author, Lynn Sholes, I’ve shot down a fully loaded commercial airliner, set Moscow on fire, infected thousands with an ancient retrovirus, massacred an archeological dig team in the Peruvian Andes, assassinated a Venatori agent, killed a senior cardinal along with a Vatican diplomatic delegation, murdered the British royal family, and even brought down the International Space Station. I know I’m responsible for more deaths–I just can’t remember them all.

kremlin1 So I confess, I’m a killer.

It’s not always easy. Some of these people I really cared about. The dig team members were likable folks except for the chief archeologist who got on my nerves. I didn’t mind seeing him bite the dust. I really grew to like the Venatori agent, but he wasn’t doing what I wanted him to do, so he “slipped in the shower”. And the British Royals? Well, they were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. peru But being a killer comes with the territory when writing suspense thrillers.

In real life, death is serious. Whether it’s by natural causes or violence, it’s not to be taken lightly. If the deceased is a loved one or friend, the emotional impact can be staggering, even debilitating.

But there’s a different level of death that we all come in contact with every day that rarely causes us a second thought: Long distance death.

Several hundred passengers drown in a ferry accident off the coast of India. Thousands are trapped in an earthquake in China. Millions starve in Darfur. A Columbian jet crash kills all on board.

buckinghamDo we care? Of course we do, but unless those victims were family or friends–unless we have an emotional connection with them–we only care for as long as it takes to turn the page of the morning paper or switch channels.

In developing our main fictional characters, it’s vital that the reader care about them enough to show emotion. Whether they’re heroes or villains, the reader must love or hate them. Neutral is no good.

And that’s a problem I see all too often in books, movies and TV shows. Sometimes I just give up reading or watching because I don’t care enough to care. The characters may be interesting but they get buried in the plot (or CGI effects) to the point that it doesn’t matter to me if they win or lose, live or die. And that’s the kiss of death for a writer. The wheels come off the story and the book winds up in the ditch.

We utilize long distant deaths in our books because we write high concept thrillers that span the globe–what my buddy David Hewson calls telescope stories rather than microscope stories like his. We need long distance deaths to support the big threat. But when it comes to the main characters, they better be worth caring about or the wheels just might come off.