Seven Questions You Must Answer Before Your Thriller Will Work

The playing field upon which writers wrestle their stories to the ground is defined by genre, confined by boundaries, littered with principles disguised as rules and complicated by waves of conventional wisdom colliding in workshop conference halls like peals of ominous literary thunder.

Established pros regard these questions as pillars of the novel, internalizing them to the extent they become second nature. They know that until those questions have compelling answers, the writing process isn’t over.

How one pursues these answers is up for grabs.

Answers to these questions may come prior to a first draft, or somewhere along the drafting process itself. Both are simply different paths toward the same destination, one that doesn’t care how you get there but will shred your story if you stamp the word “FINAL” onto the cover page before you do.

Here, then, are those seven questions in an introductory context. I’ll dive deeper into each in future Kill Zone posts.

1. What is conceptual about my story?

Every novel has a premise, for better or worse. But every premise does not necessarily have something conceptual within it. They are separate essences, and both are essential.

The goal is to infuse your premise with a conceptual notion, a proposition or setting that fuels the premise and its narrative with compelling energy.

The hallmark of a concept is this: even before you add a premise (i.e., a hero and a plot), something about the setup makes one say, “Wow, now that sounds like a story I’d like to read!”

2. Do I have an effective hook?

A good hook puts the concept into play early, posing a question so intriguing that the reader must stick around for an answer. It provides a glimpse of the darkness and urgency to come. It makes us feel, even before we’ve met a hero or comprehend the impending darkness in full.

3. Do you fully understand the catalytic news, unexpected event or course change that launches the hero down the path of his/her core story quest?

Despite how a story is set up, there is always an inevitable something that shows up after the setup that shifts the story into a higher, more focused pace. In three-act structure this is the transition between Act 1 (setup) and Act II (response/confrontation), also known as the First Plot Point, which launches the dramatic spine of the story.

Once that point in the story is reached there is no turning back, either for the hero or the reader.

In any genre it is easily argued that this is the most important moment in a story, appearing at roughly the 20th to 25th percentile mark within the narrative.

4. What are the stakes of your story?

Thrillers especially are almost entirely stakes-driven. If the hero succeeds then lives are saved and villains with dire agendas are thwarted. Good triumphs over evil and disaster. If the hero fails people die, countries crumble and evil wins.

The more dire the impending darkness, the higher the stakes.

5. What is your reader rooting for, rather than simply observing?

In any good novel the hero needs something to do – a goal – which can be expressed as an outcome (stop the villain, save the world) and a game plan (what must be done to get to that outcome).

A novel is always about the game plan, the hero’s journey.  The outcome of the quest is context for the journey.

Great thrillers invest the reader in the path toward that outcome by infusing each and every step along the way with stakes, threat, danger and obstacles the hero must overcome.

It is the degree of reader empathy and gripping intrigue at any given moment in the story that explains a bestseller versus an also-ran.

6. How does your story shift into a higher gear at the Midpoint?

In a novel, pace is synonymous with change, unexpected twists that the hero must confront. I’ve mentioned the First Plot Point already, but nearly as critical is the Midpoint context shift, which as the name implies occurs squarely in the middle of your narrative.

Here the astute author pulls back the curtain of the hero’s awareness, or if not, then at least the reader’s comprehension of what is really going on. It is a reveal, a true twist, because now we know that things weren’t quite what they seemed.

From here the hero proceeds with more proactive intention, rather than the previous phase of stumbling through the weeds of not knowing.

7. Do you have an ending?

Many organic (pantser) writers claim to not know how their novels will end as they begin to write. Fair enough, that’s a process, one that works for many who use their drafts to discover and vet possible ideas and outcomes.

But before a draft will work at a publishable level, the author must know how the story will resolve, which leads to yet another draft once the best possible ending becomes clear.

If the writer does not do that next draft, and if they stamp FINAL onto the draft that finally nails an ending… well, this explains a great many of the rejections that befall otherwise excellent authors.

Because the ending becomes context for a draft that works, beginning at page one.  Foreshadowing, setup and pace become impossible to optimize without knowing how it all ends.

Story planners develop an ending before they start, allowing them to pepper the narrative with foreshadowing and on-point exposition that avoids side trips and pace-strangling narrative lulls, as well as fewer exploratory drafts. Drafters use their story sense to discover their end game, then go back in and cut out the fat, adding tasty bits of foreshadowing and necessary setup as required.

Seven questions… leading to a novel that works.

When you read about an author who went though 22 drafts to finish (sometimes bragging about it), know that, for 21 of those drafts, having less-than-stellar answers to one or more of these questions is the reason.

Just as amazing are authors who, armed with a keen understanding of these questions and an even keener sense of what works and what doesn’t, nail their novel in two or three drafts.

Your process is your process.  When these questions drive the criteria you apply, how you get to “final” no longer matters.

Now your process, whatever it is, has a checklist to work from in this regard.

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This is Larry Brooks’ first Kill Zone post.  He’ll be posting here every other Monday.  See the About TKZ page for some backstory on his writing books and his novels.

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