Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Rick Daley on Suspense/Thriller Writing

This week The Literary Lab presents a series of guest posts exploring the conventions of different genres and what writers love and loath about each of them. We're continuing with Rick Daley on...

Suspense and Thriller Writing

First off, thanks to The Three Moderators for considering my contribution to this blog, and to all the readers who lurk and participate in the group discussions. I’ve been following The Literary Lab for quite some time, and it’s really starting to take off. You done good, Davin ;-)

Now to the point: Genre Fiction – Suspense / Thrillers.

Suspense novels and thrillers are similar to mysteries. The main difference is that in a mystery, the reader is trying to figure out whodunit, but in the suspense novel you may know all along whodunit and how. The protagonist in a suspense / thriller faces dire consequences should they fail against the antagonist. The antagonist may be a person, but it may also be an abstract such as time. There are many sub-genres for Suspense / Thriller. Medical, legal, financial, spy, supernatural…the list goes on and on.

These novels are your quintessential page-turners. They are fast paced, and while they do not need to be devoid of rich descriptions of people and places, they typically contain more action and dialogue than lyrical prose. It’s all a part of the pacing. In a thriller, you don’t stop to sniff the daisies- they will either poison you, or you’ll get shot because you stopped moving.

The plot is the key driver, and the challenge to the writer is to know what to reveal and when. Tell too much at the beginning, and you kill the suspense. Wait too long, and you fail to generate suspense in the first place. Too much non-stop action and the reader gets exhausted. Balance is paramount.

There are several things to be cautious of when writing in this genre:

Unappealing characters. If your protagonist is in a race against time to save his life, you’d better be sure your readers want him to live!

Slow Pace. This story needs to move. White knuckles gripping the edge of the book. Page corners torn because they were turned with such fervor. Eyes red because “one more chapter” turned into five more chapters and your readers were up to the wee hours of the night.

Dues Ex Machina. This is an ending where the protagonist is saved at the last minute by something that did not exist in the story beforehand. Don’t do it. Ever.

Predictability. This challenge is for the established author, who is on Medical Thriller Number Seven and is really just retelling Number Four, but with the Protagonist from Number Three and the Antagonist from Number Five. Oh, and the twist is from Number Two. The reader has it all pegged at the end of Chapter One.

Flat writing. This is a pitfall for all writers, really. Genre fiction should be written as well as literary fiction. Symbolism, high concept themes, and characters with layers can all be incorporated into a good thriller.

Suggested Reading

Harlan Coben- TELL NO ONE, GONE FOR GOOD are two of my favorites. His plotting it top notch, and his endings have plausible twists.

John Grisham- THE RAINMAKER. Witty prose, endearing characters, and a very realistic story.

Tom Clancy- WITHOUT REMORSE. This is a tale of vengeance that Dirty Harry would be proud of. You want the bad guys to get it. And do they ever.


  1. Rick, great summary of this genre! You have picked two of my favorite authors there at the end - although I haven't read The Rainmaker yet! I need to. Without Remorse is one of my all-time favorites.

    I love this genre. It's the genre that gets me excited - almost as much as literary. Combine the two and I'm a goner. Oh, wait, can you do that? Because I'm trying to with my book. It's a weird combination, as one generally seems to work with more character-driven plots, and the other with more plot-driven plots. But I like how you point out that this genre does not have to be poorly written. I agree! And with many of my favorites in this category, the authors are masters at what they do - in storytelling, and in prose.

    Thank you for volunteering! We certainly appreciate your time, and this week off has been nice so far. :)

  2. I love a well written suspense thriller. I think it is a difficult balance to strike know I could never do it well -- but I sure do love reading books like that!

  3. In Donald Maass's The Fire in Fiction he discusses thrillers quite a bit. One thing which struck me was the different handling of infodumps in thrillers vs sf. I always thought in thrillers, infodumps (detailed explanations of some technical thing) must be avoided like someone else's toothbrush, but Maass explains, on the contrary, some infodumping early in the story is often needed to overcome doubt about a book's premise.

    Likewise, the characters, as you say, have to be built up carefully as likable before they are put in mortal danger. (Or *as* they are put in mortal danger?)

    Any thoughts on how to do this without making it boring? Because, as you say, it has to be a page turner from the get-go...

  4. Thanks everyone! Tara, I have an answer for you, but due to a busy day job I'll have to wait until later to post it ;-(

  5. Great post! I was waiting for that one. I write romantic suspense, so I wanted to see how different they are. Ah... not too different, except for the romance, of course.

    Lynnette Labelle

  6. LOL at predictability!!! And thank you for the reading suggestions. Great post.

  7. Thanks for this post, Rick. You gave more information on how to write a suspense/thriller, and I thought that was very interesting. This genre fall into a weird category for me. I'm usually not in love with it because the stories aren't as memorable (based solely on the books I've read), and yet once you're caught up in, you can't put it down. That idea of wanting to stay up just a little bit longer, is something I have experienced with these books. For me, that's something I want to learn, so that I can apply it to my own literary fiction. It's definitely a good skill to have.

  8. This was my favorite category of books in high school. I used to want to write novels that were suspense/thriller, but I am terrible at plotting, so there went that idea.

  9. Kudos, Rick. Job well done.

  10. Rick: This post interests me a lot because my next book is something of a suspense book. Not quite the action-packed thriller as you've described, but certainly I'm going to have my protagonist going into danger the reader knows all about.

    About infodumps: I watched the latest Bond film a week or so ago, and there was an early scene that was nothing more than the villain giving the audience necessary exposition. It was almost literally, "I'm going to do this and this and this, and nobody can stop me. Bwahahahaha!" Luckily, a speedboat chase followed immediately after this infodump.

  11. Ha ha. Scott, ya ole dog! That's funny stuff. Maybe I should start every novel of mine with the villain saying, "Dear reader, I want to slay so and so and steal such and such. I sure hope heroes don't try to stop me!"

  12. Justus: That's just how "Pride and Prejudice" begins!

    "Reader, be warned that I shall be taking the house from the Bennet family, and indeed also have my eye on young Jane. Nothing can stop me!" Mr. Collins said, running a pale hand through his oily black hair. "I have such plans; plans nearly so grand as those of Lady Catherine de Burgh, of which she has several!"

  13. No, I'm serious. Haven't you read "Pride and Prejudice?" There's a great pistol duel near the end. Okay, I'm making all of this up. There are no zombies in the book either, despite what you may have heard.

  14. How dare you expose me as a lowbrow!

  15. Justus: LOL! Congrats! Great post!

  16. Sorry I couldn't jump into the mix earlier, I had to go out of town today so I wasn't glued to my two laptops like normal.

    Michelle: I do believe that one can produce genre fiction that has traditional literary merit. For an easy example, how about NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN?

    Tess: It's a rare find, unfortunately, but I know Michelle and I are working toward that goal!

    Justus: Thanks, you lowbrow, you...

    Tara: Make the info dumps active. What follows may not be the best example ever, but I hope it will help illustrate the point. It is an excerpt from my manuscript. In the prior draft, the backstory of Greta's life was 2 pages and over 500 words (and all telling). Here it's condensed to 84 words, and it's only half telling.

    It is important to include because it affects the motivations of several other characters, but she is a minor character so she doesn't warrant too much press.

    I'm providing a little bit of text before and after to help frame it (the ghost of the Troubadour attacks and devours her souls right after she dies):

    When Greta’s soul rose from her body, the Troubadour struck, wrapping himself around her like a serpent squeezing the breath from its prey. She began to struggle, but he could tell that the fight would be over quickly. She was weak.
    The light appeared, and the Troubadour tightened his grip. He absorbed her soul, and as he did he felt the pull of the light dissipate, the beacon extinguish. As the light receded a flood of Greta’s memories swamped his mind. Her teenage years were filled with strife; she spent time as a prostitute. Her marriage to Will Flaherty was a sham, a loveless union inspired only by pregnancy. Her love for her daughter played second fiddle to her alcoholism. Will had the sense to quit drinking when she got pregnant. She tried, but could not do it. Once Julie was born, the stress of parenthood made the affliction worse than ever before.
    The Troubadour allowed the memories to settle, and he turned his attention to Will, who had made his way to the kitchen.

    Lynette: A lot of best practices can cover multiple genres.

    T. Anne: The polar opposite of predictability is the Dues Ex Machina. A clever twist is not easy to produce!

    Davin: Thanks for providing the platform to extol my opinions. Oftentimes the stories are not memorable, but the writing is...for all the wrong reasons! I think one reason why the stories lapse in our minds is that we're not intended to recall them in detail, at least not to the minutia of the action. The greater themes of the works, though, can have a significant impact. The struggle for abstinence in TWILIGHT; the "what if..." questions raised in THE DAVINCI CODE; the "wow, I bet it's really like that" sense you get from reading a Tom Clancy novel- these thoughts stick with you, even if the particulars of the story fade fast.

    Anne: Practice makes perfect. Don't give up.

    Scott: Thanks.

    The Honorable Mr. Bailey: Whatever, dude. Ha! Just kidding. We could have another full post on the distinctions between thriller and suspense. While action is typical in the thriller genre, it can be a lack of action that creates suspense. You toyed with this effectively in your short story about the bee sting.

  17. Rick, nice points. My favorite readings tend to be suspense/ thriller books. You points were right on the money. Might I add any numbers of author Dean Koontz's books to the list of great suspense/ thriller books.

  18. Nice post. I love suspense. And Grisham and Koontz are two of my favorites. I would love to try and write it someday. I guess it wouldn't take me too long to discover if I actually could write it. Thanks. ;)


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