RSS

Search results for ‘Writing a Killer Thriller, Part I’

Guest Blogger: Jodie Renner: Writing a Killer Thriller, Part III

Jodie is back with the final post of her three-part series on writing killer thrillers.

Writing a Killer Thriller, Part III
by Jodie Renner

 
More techniques for writing a compelling suspense-thriller…or any other page-turner.
In Part I of this series, I passed along some tips for creating a compelling opening, complex characters, and a tight point of view. In Part II, I discussed creating a riveting plot with lots of conflict and suspense and a tight, to-the-point writing style. This final post in this series covers tension, dialogue, pacing, passion, and crafting a satisfying ending.

 
Put tension on every page.

 
This applies to all fiction, but even more so for thrillers. As Jack Bickham says, “Virtually all the high points of most stories involve conflict. It’s the fuel that makes fiction go. Nothing is more exciting and involving.”

 

Bickham continues, “In fiction, the best times for the writer—and reader—are when the story’s main character is in the worst trouble. Let your character relax, feel happy and content, and be worried about nothing, and your story dies. Pour on all sorts of woes so your poor character is thoroughly miserable and in the deepest kind of trouble, and your story perks right up—along with your reader’s interest.

 

“The moral: Although most of us do everything we can to avoid trouble in real life, we must do the opposite as writers of fiction. We must seek out ways to add trouble to our characters’ lives, putting just as much pressure on them as we can. For it’s from plot trouble that reader interest comes.”

 

In his chapter called “Tension All the Time,” Donald Maass emphasizes giving your protagonist (and other characters) conflicting emotions and inner conflict.

 
All dialogue needs tension, too.

 
As Ingermanson and Economy say, “Dialogue is war! Every dialogue should be a controlled conflict between at least two of the characters with opposing agendas. The main purpose of dialogue is to advance the conflict of the story.” So definitely leave out the “How are you? I’m fine. And you?” blah-blah-blah, and cut to the chase. Unless of course you’re trying to show seething resentment or subtle tension boiling up from under surface politeness. As Donald Maass says, “Conflict in dialogue can be as polite as poison, or as messy as hatchets. The approach is up to you. The important thing is to get away from ambling chit-chat and get right to the desire of two speakers to defeat each other.” So follow James N. Frey’s advice: “Decide you will have fresh, snappy dialogue and not a single line of conversation.”

 

Vary the pacing.

 

Although thrillers are generally fast-paced, it’s important to slow down the pacing from time to time, to give your readers a break. As Jessica Page Morrell says, “because readers need to put down a book from time to time, and because pacing can’t be as relentless as a runaway train, you need to bring down the temperature and tension in a story at intervals. A win for your character, as well as a slower or interlude scene, provides the pauses and quieter moments needed.”

 
Give your scenes conflict, intensity and intrigue.

 
Start and end your chapters and scenes with questions and intrigue. James N. Frey’s advice is to end each scene or section of dramatic narrative with a bridge, a story question to carry the reader to the next one.

 

Every scene, according to James Scott Bell, needs a degree of intensity. A moving force in the scene is trying to make something happen. Opposition or obstacles are keeping the POV character from meeting his objective. And the outcome is often not entirely satisfactory. In fact, Bell advises us, “Design your scenes, for the most part, so the lead is in a worse position after the scene is over.” This will keep the reader reading to find out how the protagonist tackles the new challenges and survives her new predicament.

 

Put passion into your writing.

 
Donald Maass, in The Fire in Fiction, feels that the key ingredient to a page-turner is passion. “What do I mean by passion? … A passionate author has us in her grip. Passionate fiction is not bogged down, wandering, low in tension, or beset by the many bugbears of by-the-numbers novel writing, like stereotypical characters, predictable plots, cliché-ridden prose, churning exposition, buried dialogue, and so on.[…] When the purpose of every word is urgent, the story crackles, connects, weaves, and falls together in wondrous ways.”

 

How to develop that passion as a writer? Maass believes in learning from others. “Everything we need in order to understand the techniques of passion lies within the covers of novels that you will currently find on the shelves.”

 

Create a thrilling, satisfying climax.

 
Frey points out, “In almost all damn good thrillers, the hero is nearly killed in the climax, but then manages to kill or capture the villain and to foil his evil plot. Audiences find this motif satisfying….” An effective, satisfying climax has a surprise or two, good prevails over evil, and often the hero discovers something about himself or gains insight into the human condition. Don’t disappoint your readers by having a nebulous, wishy-washy, or tragic ending. Leave that to literary fiction, not your killer thriller!

 

Resources:

James Scott Bell, Revision and Self-Editing

James N. Frey, How to Write a Damn Good Thriller

Donald Maass, The Fire in Fiction

David Morrell, The Successful Novelist

Jessica Page Morrell, Thanks, But This Isn’t for Us

 

 

Jodie Renner is a freelance editor specializing in crime fiction. Check out her website at: http://www.jodierennerediting.com.

 
7 Comments

Posted by on December 18, 2011 in Guest Blogger, Writing

 

Guest Blogger: Jodie Renner: Writing a Killer Thriller, Part II

Jodie is back with Part II of her three-part series on writing killer thrillers.

Writing a Killer Thriller, Part II

Some key techniques for writing a compelling suspense-thriller…or any other page-turner.

In Part I of this series, I offered some tips for creating a killer opening; staging intriguing, complex characters; and engaging your reader in your hero’s story through a tight, riveting point of view. Those techniques, used well, will set the stage and grab your readers early on, making them bond quickly with your hero, and start worrying about his plight.

How to keep your readers involved right through to the end of the book? Plan for conflict, tension and suspense on every page, and deliver it with a tight, to-the-point writing style. Don’t allow your reader’s attention to wander for a moment!

“Once the inciting incident threatens the protagonist, the writer’s job is to prolong the trepidation for as long as possible.” (J.P. Morrell)

Plan a riveting plot, with lots of conflict and tension.

Conflict drives all fiction. And more conflict and higher stakes are of course necessary for a successful thriller. Put your protagonist in hot water right away. Then up the stakes and create more problems for him. Then more.

As James N Frey says, “Have your characters in terrible trouble right from the beginning, and never let them get free of terrible trouble until the climax. Keep the clock ticking and the excitement mounting right to the climactic moment.”
Unlike some other genres, in a thriller, you need high stakes and an urgent mission, and you need to keep the plot moving along briskly. Don’t bog it down with explanations and digressions and backstory. Add those in in small doses, marbling them into your story only when needed. And color any exposition (internal monologue) with plenty of tension, anxiety, inner conflict, questions, all expressed with a distinctive voice and lots of attitude.

Jessica Page Morrell, in Thanks, But This Isn’t For Us, has this advice for creating effective conflict:

Give characters opposing goals, agendas, and strong motivations.
Make sure the stakes for each character are high.
Stage confrontations as if they’re happening/unfolding in real time.
Embed dialogue with tension, subtext, and power exchanges.
Know your protagonist’s deepest fears.

Stir in lots of suspense.

As Morrell says, “Suspense forces a reader to stay engaged and is part anxiety, part curiosity. Suspense unsettles the reader, plunges him into nail-biting angst. … Suspense builds and satisfies when the reader desperately wants something to happen and it isn’t happening.”

Suspense is usually caused by threats, when the protagonist whose head we’re in is in danger, his life is about to become a living nightmare, and we have to keep reading to find out how it all turns out.

Some techniques to use to increase the suspense are subtle foreshadowing, delaying information, subterfuge, threats to the protagonist, time running out, inner conflicts, surprise twists, and cliff-hangers. All of these techniques involve delaying the resolution of the hero’s problems, piling on new challenges, and hinting of even worse dangers to come.

Use a tight writing style. Make every word count.

In a suspense-thriller (or any compelling fiction), it’s important to write economically. As Steve Berry says: “Shorter is always better. Write tight. It makes you use the best words in the right way.” Succinct, to-the-point writing produces the predominantly fast pace demanded by thrillers.

Don’t meander or ramble. Don’t wax eloquent. Don’t use highfalutin words that sound pompous and will send your readers to the dictionary. Direct, sensory, evocative words are much more powerful. As Jessica Page Morrell says, “Simple words are close to our hearts and easily understood.” Avoid the convoluted, erudite sentence structure popular in previous centuries. And don’t say the same thing three or four times in different ways – we got it the first time! Also, stay away from those stale clichés.

As Harlan Coben says about writing his thrillers, “I want it to be compulsive reading. So on every page, every paragraph, every sentence, every word, I ask myself, ‘Is this compelling? Is this gripping? Is this moving the story forward?’ And if it’s not, I have to find a way to change it…. No word really should be wasted.”

For more details on effective writing styles for fiction, see my article titled “Style Blunders in Fiction.”

In Part III of this series, I’ll discuss effective dialogue, varied pacing, scene structure, and a satisfying climax and conclusion.

Resources:

Steve Berry’s 8 Rules of Writing, Writer’s Digest, September 05, 2008

Harlan Coben, in an interview by Jessica Strawser published in Writer’s Digest, “Straight Talk with Harlan Coben,” November 29, 2010.

James N. Frey, How to Write a Damn Good Thriller – A Step-by-Step Guide for Novelists and Screenwriters.

Jessica Page Morrell, Thanks, But This Isn’t for Us, A (Sort of) Compassionate Guide to Why Your Writing Is Being Rejected

Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor, specializing in thrillers, romantic suspense, and mysteries. For more info on Jodie’s her editing services, visit her website at www.JodieRennerEditing.com

 
1 Comment

Posted by on December 15, 2011 in Guest Blogger, Writing

 

Guest Blogger: Jodie Renner: Writing a Killer Thriller, Part I

To inspire you to do a little holiday writing, let’s welcome back Jodie Renner. She will post a three-part series on writing killer thrillers.

Writing a Killer Thriller, Part I

by Jodie Renner

Some key techniques for writing a compelling suspense-thriller…or any other page-turner.

Seems like all I’ve been reading for the past few years are thrillers, romantic suspense, mysteries, and other crime fiction, as they provide just the escape I’m looking for after a long day of … editing crime fiction! Here are some tips I’ve gleaned from writing gurus and my own editing experience on writing a suspense-thriller—or any other story—that will keep your readers up until the wee hours.

First, what’s a thriller, anyway? See my article on Thrillers vs. Mysteries. In a nutshell, as James N. Frey says, “the main ingredient of a thriller is pulse-pounding suspense.” The time-honored formula for successful thrillers is, according to Frey: “A clever hero has an ‘impossible’ mission to foil evil. The hero is brave; he or she is in terrible trouble; the mission is urgent; the stakes are high; and it’s best if the hero is self-sacrificing for others.”

So what makes a compelling suspense-thriller, the kind you can’t put down? Most thriller writers and readers would agree that some of the essential ingredients for a thriller that sizzles are:
An opening that grabs you by the collar and drags you in
A likeable, resourceful hero
A ruthless, cunning villain (or more than one)
A riveting plot with a powerful story question and lots of intrigue
Plenty of tension and conflict
Fast pacing, with tight, to-the-point writing
An unexpected, satisfying conclusion

But how do we achieve all that and more? In this post and two more to follow, we’ll discuss some techniques that can help you create a page-turning, adrenalin-inducing thriller.

To start with, As Frey, says, “To write a damn good thriller, you need a killer attitude.”  For Part I, we’ll just touch on your opening (first page), characters, and point of view.

Write an opening that hooks ‘em in.

Put your protagonist on stage right away, in media res – in the middle of things. As James Scott Bell says, “Give us a character in motion. Something happening to a person from line one. Make that a disturbing thing, or have it presage something disturbing.” Start with a powerful story question, and get that inciting incident, the first threat, in there quickly. Don’t open with a description of the setting or weather, or with interior monologue. A dialogue with tension and some action is much more dynamic. But don’t stress over getting the perfect opening for your first draft – just get your story down, then come back at a later date to revise and spice up your first paragraph and page. For more on writing compelling openings, click on my article “Act First, Explain Later.”

Create complex, compelling characters.
Your lead character, according to James Scott Bell, needs “grit, wit and it,” so make him or her gutsy, smart, witty and charismatic. Your hero should be strong, resourceful and likeable, but not perfect. As Bell says, “Leads, to be realistic, must also have flaws and foibles.”
According to Jessica Page Morrell, “Your characters can be neurotic or despicable, vain or shallow, but they must always be vivid, fascinating, and believable, and their actions, decisions, and motives must propel the story to an inevitable conclusion.”

James N. Frey takes it a step further: “All damn good dramatic characters are larger than life, theatrical, determined to overcome the obstacles that are put in their path. They are an extreme of type, larger than life, and they have a ruling passion that defines who they are.” This applies to both the hero and the villain.

Frey advises us to create characters that, “in addition to being multifaceted, are interesting in the way real people are interesting. They’ve done things, they’ve been places, and they have unusual views. In other words, they’ve ‘lived.’ Such characters have an individuality that stamps them as fresh.” And give your characters internal conflict, moral dilemmas, and tough decisions and choices to make, as these help develop and define them.

And make your antagonist a nasty but believable villain, powerful, cunning, relentless, unpredictable, selfish, immoral, and cold-hearted. But not 100% evil – give him depth and complexity by showing us how he explains and justifies his actions.

For more on this topic, check out my blog post, “Creating Compelling Characters.”

Zoom in on your hero.
Limited viewpoint, where we experience the story from the point of view of the protagonist(s),  gets us “up close and personal” with the main character, so we start to identify with him right away, and get emotionally engaged fast, which is critical for effective fiction.

As Maass says, when discussing the weaker manuscripts his agency rejects, “Too many manuscripts begin at a distance from their protagonists, as if opening with a long shot like a movie. That’s a shame. Why keep readers at arm’s length?

“Novels are unique among art forms in their intimacy. They can take us inside a character’s heart and mind right away. And that is where your readers want to be. Go there immediately. And when you do, show us what your hero is made of. If you accomplish that, then the job of winning us over is done.”

And as David Morrell points out, “Modern readers have a mania about credibility. To the extent that the omniscient narrator intrudes with godlike information, the illusion of actuality is broken.” Steve Berry says, “Don’t let you, the author, enter the story.”

So for more impact and to draw your reader in more to your story world, get us into the head and heart of your protagonist right away. Then express each scene, including the setting, from your viewpoint character’s point of view. Colour the description with their feelings, attitude, reactions, etc., rather than stepping back and describing the scene from a more impartial, distant, descriptive authorial stance.

Resources:

James Scott Bell, Revision and Self-Editing – Techniques for transforming your first draft into a finished novel

Steve Berry’s 8 Rules of Writing, Writer’s Digest, September 05, 2008

James N. Frey, How to Write a Damn Good Thriller – A Step-by-Step Guide for Novelists and Screenwriters

Donald Maass, The Fire in Fiction

David Morrell, The Successful Novelist

Jessica Page Morrell, Thanks, But This Isn’t for Us, A (Sort of) Compassionate Guide to Why Your Writing Is Being Rejected.

 

Jodie Renner is an independent editor specializing in crime fiction. Check out her website at: http://www.jodierennerediting.com/.

 
2 Comments

Posted by on December 12, 2011 in Guest Blogger, Writing

 

Guest Blogger: Leonardo Wild: The Birth of Paradigm Shift Thrillers

The Birth of Paradigm Shift Thrillers
THE GALAPAGOS AGENDA
By Leonardo Wild

GAgenda

Ten years of writing commercially went by and one day I felt that I needed to make a shift in my career. It took me another ten years to figure out how to do it, and then five more before the result—THE GALAPAGOS AGENDA—saw the light of publication.

The details of how and why I felt the need to change are not part of this story.

Maybe another time.

This is the story of what I decided to do when I decided to shift. In short, I decided to create a new sub-genre within the thriller genre. Or rather, I discovered that, what I had to do, was find a vehicle for the topics that I wanted to write about—to share my discoveries—a format that would allow me to follow the rules of publication without, well, actually being stuck in a jail of my own making!

One of the first rules is that if you wish to be successful in a writing career—besides writing well and telling a damn good story—you must choose a genre to write in.

A genre that your name will be attached to.

“Oh yes, he writes ‘medical thrillers’” or “She writes ‘vampire stories’.”

As a quick side note, the “jail of my own making” thing was something I’d seen happen to others over the years: they became successful in a given genre, but because of the genre’s canons, they were more or less forced to write a similar book every time, and that led to something they probably hadn’t bargained for.

Many of them I admired, but stopped reading them. And many of them even stopped writing their books themselves.

What did I come up with to avoid this pitfall?

In short: Paradigm Shift Thrillers.

Stories where not only the protagonist goes through a character arc, but readers as well. Stories where readers will (I hope) experience a shift in their understanding of something—of an aspect of our world—which they most likely didn’t know or weren’t aware of. Something potentially monumental. Something to make them “shift” their paradigm about an aspect of society and the world we live in.

In The Galapagos Agenda—the first book in the series—the topic is politics. Or rather, the profile of people in positions of power—political or otherwise … though they have always been very closely linked (behind the scenes).

The science is called “Political Ponerology,” as coined by Andrew Lobaczewski, a Polish psychologist who wrote a book with that name. Basically, Lobaczewski recognized that the percentage of people in positions of power that are psychopaths is larger than we might think.

First of all, about one percent of the population are “true” psychopaths—clinical psychopaths and criminal psychopaths.

Another three percent—mostly known as sociopaths—are also psychopaths, yet social and personal experiences have been the reason why their ability to feel empathy and have a conscience has been destroyed, why they are compulsive liars and disregard laws, social mores, the rights of others and fail to feel guilt or remorse.

In other words, four percent for the world’s population are psychopaths, yet they seem to be called to positions of power like moths to light.

For example, about ten percent of employees working in Wall Street are considered to have psychopathic traits, and about twenty percent of top CEOs, according to Robert Hare (Without Conscience), are clinical psychopaths.

Basically, the people who have found their way to top tiers of management and basically call the shots in the world—in one way or another—are not necessarily criminal, but there is definitely something wrong with them.

Because they can do anything at all. Stuff, we normal mortals, couldn’t. Or will not unless utterly forced to. Maybe not even then. But four percent of humanity … no problem at all! In fact, they are the main single cause for deliberate mass human extermination, paling the social effects provoked by serial killers.

My question was, though, How can they not only survive but thrive in our society, throughout millennia, to the point where they are the ones basically calling the shots in our society?

You see, if something isn’t right in Nature, it doesn’t last. If certain limits are surpassed, destructive behavior as well as self-destructive behavior will turn itself against the species that is causing the harm. Yet these folks have somehow managed to appear again and again in our history, and we don’t seem to learn the lesson. We actually vote for the Hitlers of the world to rule over us. We actually admire those who have made their millions—if not billions—by sheer ruthless behavior. They are with us all the time, but just haven’t realized it.

How can that be?

The answer to my question came from biology, from something called “stigmergy,” where an action leaves a trail or mark in the environment—such as the chemical trails left by insects—giving rise to apparently intelligent, coordinated and complex behavior.

These agents—psychopaths—have been leaving a trail in an environment—bureaucracy—and now we are stuck with a system that not only supports their kind, but nurtures them.

This, I thought, would be a great subject to kick off my new sub-genre.

In The Galapagos Agenda, the son of a clinical psychopath—a corporate tycoon—ends up having to face not only the truth about what his father is, but how such people have managed to rise to top positions throughout history being the main cause for the recurrent man-made sufferings of humanity.

Because they can remain invisible … until it’s too late.

The Galapagos Agenda’s launch date is November 17, 2015 (http://amzn.com/B016Z3EYV6) and it is the first book in a series of Paradigm Shift Thrillers that will touch upon subjects of similar social impact. The victims, in all of them, can be many.

And you probably didn’t even know it. Hell, you might even be one of them!

LWild

 
6 Comments

Posted by on November 3, 2015 in Writing

 

Guest Blogger: Jodie Renner: Thrillers vs. Mysteries

 

Writing a Killer Thriller_May '13

 

by Jodie Renner, editor, author, speaker

Until the last decade or so, most readers were more familiar with mysteries than thrillers. In fact, my small neighborhood library has a section called “Mysteries” but no section called “Thrillers,” which seems weird to me! Mysteries of all sorts (cozy, hardboiled, suspenseful, etc.) are still going strong, but thrillers make up more and more of the bestsellers these days.

How exactly do thrillers differ from mysteries, anyway? Both are fiction stories involving criminal activity, catching the bad guy(s), and at least one murder.

Two main differences stand out. First, in a mystery, neither the reader nor the protagonist knows who the killer is. The whole idea is to figure out “whodunit,” then apprehend the bad guy. In a thriller, the reader often knows who the villain is early on, and sometimes the hero does too. The object is for the hero to outwit and stop the killer before he kills others, including the hero, or endangers the world. Also, in mysteries, the protagonist is not usually in danger, whereas in thrillers, the protagonist is almost always directly threatened, fighting for his life as he matches wits with a clever, determined, amoral villain.

The other main difference between mysteries and thrillers is in the delivery—how they are told. Mysteries are usually more cerebral, for readers who enjoy solving puzzles, whereas thrillers are more heart-pounding, adrenaline-raising, appealing to the emotions and a yearning for excitement, a desire to vicariously confront danger and defeat nasty villains. A mystery, especially a “cozy” one, can unfold in a leisurely fashion, but thrillers need to be much more fast-paced and suspenseful.

David Morrell, http://www.davidmorrell.net/ , author of about 28 thrillers, explored the difference between mysteries and thrillers several years ago. His detailed description included this: “Traditional mysteries appeal primarily to the mind and emphasize the logical solution to a puzzle. In contrast, thrillers strive for heightened emotions and emphasize the sensations of what might be called an obstacle race and a scavenger hunt.” (David Morrell, http://www.crimespreemag.com)

James N. Frey, author of How to Write a Damn Good Thriller and How to Write a Damn Good Mystery, among other “damn good” books on writing, describes the differences like this:

“In a mystery, the hero has a mission to find a killer.

“In a thriller, the hero has a mission to foil evil.”

Frey goes on to elaborate, “a thriller is a story of a hero who has a mission to foil evil. Not just a hero—a clever hero. Not just a mission—an ‘impossible’ mission. An ‘impossible’ mission that will put our hero into terrible trouble.”

According to International Thriller Writers, a thriller is characterized by “the sudden rush of emotions, the excitement, sense of suspense, apprehension, and exhilaration that drive the narrative, sometimes subtly with peaks and lulls, sometimes at a constant, breakneck pace.”

ITW defines thrillers as a genre in which “tough, resourceful, but essentially ordinary heroes are pitted against villains determined to destroy them, their country, or the stability of the free world.”

Part of the allure of thrillers, they say, comes from not only what their stories are about, but also how they are told. “High stakes, nonstop action, plot twists that both surprise and excite, settings that are both vibrant and exotic, and an intense pace that never lets up until the adrenaline-packed climax.”

Here are some distinctions James Scott Bell makes between the two, in his book, Conflict & Suspense:

Mystery = Who did it?  Suspense = Will it happen again?

Mystery is about “figuring it out.”  Suspense is about “keeping safe.”

Mystery is a puzzle.  Suspense is a nightmare.

Mysteries ask, “What will the lead character find next?”

Suspense asks, “What will happen next to the lead character?”

I asked some friends, clients and colleagues what they thought the main differences were between these two genres. According to thriller and horror writer Allan Leverone, “In a mystery, the crime has already been committed, but the hero and the reader must figure out by whom. In a thriller, the crime (at least the biggie) hasn’t been committed yet, but the reader knows who the bad guy is; the question is whether he can be stopped.”

My friend, bestselling suspense-mystery and thriller writer LJ Sellers, tells me she recently read that in a thriller, the villain drives the story, versus mystery, in which the protagonist drives the story.

And finally, another friend and colleague, bestselling thriller and horror writer Andrew E. Kaufman says, “Here’s a less conservative, completely off-color definition, coming from a less conservative, completely off-color mind: A thriller is like mystery on Viagra. Everything’s more amped up, fast-paced, and frenetic. A good thriller should keep your heart racing, your fingers swiping at the pages, and your rear on the edge of its seat. Of course, those lines can be blurred. Many authors straddle the fence between the two. Nothing is in black and white, and gray is a beautiful color.”

True – there are those fast-paced mysteries that seem to straddle both genres. For suspense-mysteries, I love Harlan Coben’s Myron Bolitar stories and Robert Crais’s Joe Pike and Elvis Cole stories, among others.

Which do you prefer, mysteries or thrillers?

It probably depends on your mood, but personally, I usually prefer the adrenaline rush and pulse-pounding suspense of thrillers!

Who are some of your favorite contemporary thriller or mystery writers?

What about your favorite thriller characters?

For series, I love Robert Crais’ Joe Pike and Elvis Cole, Lee Child’s Jack Reacher, Harlan Coben’s Myron Bolitar, Michael Connelly’s Mickey Haller and Harry Bosch, and Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum and the two men in her life — both hunks!

For more on this topic, check out Tom Sawyer’s recent post over at The Thrill Begins blog: “Mysteries & Thrillers – The Differences”: https://thethrillbegins.blogspot.ca/2013/10/mysteries-thrillers-differences.html

Jodie Renner, a freelance fiction editor specializing in thrillers and other fast-paced fiction, has published two books to date in her series, An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: WRITING A KILLER THRILLER and STYLE THAT SIZZLES & PACING FOR POWER (Silver Medalist in the FAPA Book Awards, 2013). Both titles are available in e-book and paperback. For more info, please visit Jodie’s author website or editor website, or find her on Facebook or Twitter.

 

 Jodie blogs

 
23 Comments

Posted by on November 5, 2013 in Guest Blogger, Writing

 

Guest Blogger: Jodie Renner: Essential Characteristics of a Thriller Hero

 

 

ESSENTIAL CHARACTERISTICS OF A THRILLER HERO

The hero or heroine of a suspense-thriller, like the protagonist of any popular bestseller, has to be impassioned, unique, and likeable enough for the reader to want to jump in and follow them through their journey, worrying about them and cheering them on through their challenges. So it’s important to take the time to create a charismatic, passionate, complex, sympathetic main character, one that readers can connect with immediately.

Heroes in novels and movies haven’t really changed a lot over the centuries since the days of Robin Hood and Maid Marion, but they continue to have universal appeal because through them, readers can vicariously participate in exciting adventures and confront and defeat evil to win the day and restore justice. Makes for a very entertaining, satisfying read. Get the adrenaline flowing with worry and fear, then triumph over adversity together, just in the nick of time!

Like the heroes of tales of long ago and, more recently, western and action-adventure stories and movies, the hero of a thriller is usually larger than life, and because of his cleverness, determination and special skills, can accomplish feats most of us cannot, including finding and crushing the bad guys before they get him! But unless you’re writing a James Bond-type story, don’t make your hero perfect or too cocky! Give them some inner conflict, weak spots or insecurities to keep readers on the edge of their seats worrying about them.

What’s the basic recipe for a suspense hero or heroine that sells books? James Scott Bell says a Lead character worth following must have these three attributes: “Grit, Wit, and It.”  As Bell says, “Grit is guts in action.” The ideal hero is tenacious and courageous under pressure. “Wit” refers to the character’s cleverness and humor or ability to laugh at himself, and “It” is all about personal magnetism and charisma, even sex appeal.

What else? Think white knight or cowboy with the white hat, defeating the bad guys. The classic hero may be (and often is) a rebel who defies society’s rules, but he has inner integrity and a personal code of honor, and will risk his life for a worthy cause. Readers want to cheer him on to defeat evil, so they can get a sense of satisfaction that they, too, could stop the bad guys, help innocent victims, and restore harmony to their scary world.

From my various reading of craft-of-fiction books and bestselling thrillers and my own editing of suspense fiction, I’ve come up with this list of desired qualities for the hero or heroine of a page-turning suspenseful mystery, romantic suspense, or thriller novel.

Heroes and heroines of bestselling thrillers need most of these attributes:

~ Clever. They need to be smart enough to figure out the clues and outsmart the villain. Readers don’t want to feel they’re smarter than the lead character. They don’t want to say, “Oh, come on! Figure it out!

~ Resourceful. Think MacGyver, Katniss of The Hunger Games, Harry Potter, Indiana Jones, Jason Bourne, or Dr. Richard Kimble of The Fugitive. The hero needs to be able to use ingenuity and whatever’s at his disposal to get out of any jams he finds himself in and also to find and defeat the bad guy(s).

~ Experienced. They’ve done things and been places. They’ve had a variety of tough life experiences that have helped them grow. They’ve “lived” and are stronger and more resilient for it. They’re definitely not naïve.

~ Determined. Your hero or heroine needs to be tenacious and resilient. They keep going. They don’t cave under pressure or adversity. They’ve got “grit.” They have a goal and stick to it, despite personal discomforts like fatigue, hunger, injuries, and threats.

~ Courageous.  Bravery is essential, as readers want to look up to him/her. Any heroes who are tentative or fearful early on should soon find courage they didn’t know they had. The challenges and dangers they face force them to be stronger, creating growth and an interesting character arc for them.

~ Physically fit. Your heroine or hero needs to be up to the physical challenges facing her/him. It’s more credible if they jog or work out regularly, like Joe Pike running uphill carrying a 40-pound backpack. Unless you’re writing a comic book, graphic fiction, or a James-Bond-type scenario, don’t lose reader credibility by making your character perform feats you haven’t built into his makeup, abilities you can’t justify by what we know about him so far.

~ Skilled. To defeat those clever, skilled villains, they almost always have some special skills and talents to draw on when the going gets rough. For example, Katniss in Hunger Games is a master archer and knows how to track and survive in the woods, Jack Reacher is great at shooting and fighting, and Joe Pike has multiple talents, including stealth.

~ Charismatic. Attractive in some way. Fascinating, appealing, and enigmatic. People are drawn to him or her. They’ve got “It.”

~ Confident but not overly cocky. Stay away from arrogant unless you’re going for less-than-realistic caricatures like James Bond.

~ Passionate, but not overly emotional. Often calm under fire, steadfast. Usually don’t break under pressure. Often intense about what they feel is right and wrong, but “the strong, silent type” is common – “a man of few words,” like Joe Pike or Jack Reacher or Harry Bosch.

~ Unique. They have a special world view, and a distinctive background and attitude that sets them apart from others.

~ Complex. Imperfect, with some inner conflict. Guard against having a perfect or invincible hero or heroine. Make them human, with some self-doubt and fear, so readers worry more about the nasty villains defeating them and get more emotionally invested in their story.  Remember, even Superman could be defeated by kryptonite.

~ Wounded. Had a tough background that toughened them up somewhat. But they’re still vulnerable because of it. Lucy Kincaid, from Allison Brennan’s romantic thriller series, was brutally attacked and nearly killed by a rapist, but she’s determined to overcome the emotional scars and become an FBI agent; Joe Pike was repeatedly beaten by an abusive father; Elvis Cole was abandoned by his mother; Jack Reacher was an army brat who was constantly in fights and lost his parents and brother. How these characters deal with their emotional and physical wounds touches the reader’s heart and draws us in.

~ Self-sacrificing. The thriller hero, while never a pious goody-goody, is ready do whatever it takes to help innocent people who are threatened, protect an individual or family being terrorized, or rescue a child who’s been kidnapped. Being self-sacrificing is often what separates a quasi-hero from a villain. For example, Rick in Casablanca is a cad-type antihero who ultimately sacrifices his own personal needs/wants/desires for the greater good and turns into a hero at the end. Similarly with Walt, the gruff, racist Clint Eastwood character in Gran Torino.

~ Idealistic, Honorable. This is probably the most important attribute – pretty much a requirement. The thriller hero or heroine my lie, cheat, steal, even kill, but they do it for the greater good, to stop threats and defeat evil. A sense of honor is what distinguishes the flawed hero from the villain. According to Bell, “It is an inner quality that motivates right action, even in the face of terrible odds.” Will Kane (Gary Cooper) in High Noon demonstrates this strength of character.

~ Independent. Often a loner. Might even be an outlaw. Your hero works well – even best –alone, especially if an undercover agent or on a mission or assignment. Heroes often find themselves in situations where they can’t really depend on others – they need to solve the problems through their own resourcefulness, physical effort, and courage. As a result, and because of their inner makeup, heroes often make their own rules. Some examples of this are Robin Hood, Jesse James, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Jack Reacher, and Joe Pike.

~ Unpredictable. Will often act in surprising ways, which keeps their adversaries off-balance and the readers on edge.

~ Usually likeable. But not always. Exceptions are those really rough, gruff antiheroes who redeem themselves somehow at the end, like Rick in Casablanca, Harry Callahan in the movie Dirty Harry, or Walt Kowalsky, the crotchety old Clint Eastwood character in the movie Gran Torino.

Also, it’s a good idea to give your hero or heroine:

~ An Achilles heel. A weakness or phobia. Maybe they’re afraid of heights or are claustrophobic. Maybe they’re afraid of snakes, like Indiana Jones. And Superman had to stay away from kryptonite. Give your hero a phobia or weakness, then of course put them in a scene where they’ll have to face their fears and overcome them!

~ A soft spot. Show a softer, more caring side to your tough hero now and then, to make him more human and appealing. Maybe he cares about the underdog, a minor character, an animal, or a child or baby.

Who are some of your favorite heroes and heroines of thrillers, on paper and on-screen? What makes them so likeable? What special talents or attributes do they possess?

Resources:

James Scott Bell, Revision & Self-Editing

James N Frey, How to Write a Damn Good Thriller

And Jodie’s fiction reading and editing:

 

 

Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor who specializes in thrillers, mysteries, and other suspense and crime fiction. For more information on Jodie’s editing services, please visit her website. Jodie’s two craft-of-fiction e-books in her series, An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction, Writing a Killer Thriller and Style that Sizzles & Pacing for Power, are both available on Amazon-Kindle. And you don’t need a Kindle – you can read their books on your PC, Mac, smartphone or tablet. 

 

 
14 Comments

Posted by on October 18, 2012 in Guest Blogger, Writing

 

Guest Blogger: Jodie Renner: Pacing For Power, Part II

Pacing for Power, Part II – Increasing Tension & Suspense

Using style and pacing techniques to increase tension and suspense:

In Part I, we discussed techniques for picking up the pace in your novel to create a real “page turner.” But at some of the most critical, tense or emotional moments of a story, you actually want to slow things down, in order to give the reader a chance to realize the significance of the problem and appreciate the challenges the character is facing to overcome the obstacles. This stretching-out technique also increases the tension, draws out the suspense and intrigue, and emotionally engages the readers to get their adrenaline flowing. So don’t zip past those crucial pivoting moments of the story. Milk them for all they’re worth.

Here are some techniques to maximize the tension, suspense and intrigue in nail-biting scene.

Tips for increasing tension and suspense by slowing down pacing:

* Write longer, more involved sentences. This forces the reader to pay more attention and concentrate on every word.

* Use more description to show exactly how and why the setting, circumstances, and characters are significant and ominous.

* Exploit setting details to maximum effect by using darkness, shadows, harsh weather, eerie stillness, ominous sounds, suspicious smells, etc.

* Make time pass in slow motion to create anticipation, anxiety, and rising tension.

* Move the camera lens in close and show minute details that seem off or could be important in some way.

* Heighten the senses of the POV character and show the results—tell us every little sight, sound and smell they’re picking up, since what they perceive could be critical to their survival.

* Let us know what the POV character is thinking and worrying about, analyzing and planning.

* Show your characters’ increased apprehension and other heightened emotional reactions to what’s going on around them.

 

An extreme but very effective example of this is when bestselling thriller writer, Lee Child, goes into slow-motion to show a pivotal scene in his novel, Worth Dying For. Our hero, Jack Reacher, is approaching a suspicious-looking guy in a deserted parking lot. He needs to make a split-second decision, and if it’s the wrong one, it will very likely cost him his life, and the bad guys will continue terrorizing the town and harming innocent people, including children. Lee Child uses five pages in Chapter 32 to show/describe an action that literally takes seconds, including Reacher’s thought processes, decisions, actions, and reactions. Child uses lengthy, highly detailed sentences and long paragraphs that rivet our attention as we zero in on every word. One sentence actually goes on for a page and a quarter, and several others are half a page long.

Here’s the second half of one of those sentences, after Reacher decides to slug the guy hard in the gut:

“…his head snapping forward like a crash test dummy, his shoulders driving backward, his weight coming up off the ground, his head whipping backward again and hitting a plate-glass window behind him with a dull boom like a kettle drum, his arms and legs and torso all going down like a rag doll, his body falling, sprawling, the hard polycarbonate click and clatter of something black skittering away on the ground, Reacher tracking it all the way in the corner of his eye, not a wallet, not a phone, not a knife, but a Glock 17 semiautomatic pistol, all dark and boxy and wicked.”

I don’t think it’s necessary to slow the action down this much to be riveting, and you certainly wouldn’t want to write or read a whole novel with lengthy, minutely detailed sentences like these! But used well, this technique can be very effective. Not everyone can successfully pull off this kind of stretching out of a moment for maximum effect, but it’s useful to read bestselling thrillers to find different successful renditions of this technique.

Do you have any really good examples to share of novels where time is slowed down for pivotal scenes?

 

 

 

Copyright © Jodie Renner, www.JodieRennerEditing.com, August 2012

Jodie Renner is a freelance editor specializing in thrillers and other crime fiction. Her craft-of-fiction articles appear here and on five other blogs. For more information on Jodie’s editing services, please visit her website or blog.

Jodie’s popular 42-page e-booklet, Writing a Killer Thriller – An Editor’s Guide to Writing Powerful Fiction, is only $0.99 on Amazon or PDF.

 

 
7 Comments

Posted by on August 22, 2012 in Writing

 

Guest Blogger: Jodie Renner: Pacing For Power, Part I

Pacing for Power, Part I – Picking up the Pace

We’ve probably all read (or at least started) novels that just seem to drag in parts, where the author has spent too much time on static description, lengthy backstory, analysis and rumination, or other explanatory lead-ups instead of grabbing our attention and hooking us in with compelling characters faced with critical challenges, and lots of action and dialogue. Most readers these days have little patience for an overly leisurely, analytical style, and it definitely doesn’t work for suspense-thrillers and most other best-selling fiction.

On the other hand, I’ve seen movies where it’s nonstop car chases, with buildings, cars, and people being blown up left and right. Too much of that gets old fast, making us just feel exhausted or just numb.

Readers’ tolerance or desire for either a leisurely pace or lots of action depends on the genre, of course. A literary fiction will usually have slower pacing than an action-thriller, for example. But in any successful novel, the key is to vary the pacing, and of course in “page-turning” suspense fiction, the pace should be generally brisk, with lots of conflict and tension. But even if you’re writing a fast-paced thriller or action-adventure, you don’t want to write your whole book at a break-neck pace, as that can be exhausting for the reader. Give them a chance to catch their breath from time to time before the next onslaught.

Successful writers use a variety of techniques to either slow down or speed up a story. Here in Part I, we’ll start with some tips for picking up the pace for faster, more exciting action scenes.

You can first find ways to increase the pacing of your story on a macro level, by considering scenes and chapters—do you have passages where not much is happening? Any slow-moving, boring scenes should be condensed, rewritten, or even deleted. Next, analyze the pacing at a micro level and tighten up your paragraphs and sentences, eliminating repetitions and reducing convoluted phrasing and excess wordiness. And while you’re at it, replace abstract, vague or obtuse words with more concrete, powerful, sensory, to-the-point words.

Some Tips for Picking up the Pace in Your Story:

* Keep chapters and scenes short, and change scenes rapidly.

* Show compelling action scenes in real time, and skip over slower transition scenes. If you’re writing a fast-paced thriller or action-adventure, summarize, reduce or omit the “reaction/reflection/regrouping” type sequels so integral to romances. Also summarize to condense long passages of time where not much happens.

*Start each scene or chapter as late as possible, not with a lengthy warm-up. Your story and every scene and chapter should start with some kind of question, conflict or intrigue, to arouse the curiosity of the reader and make them want to keep reading.

* End each scene or chapter as early as possible, rather than spending a lot of time wrapping up. And it’s best to end most scenes and chapters with a “cliff-hanger”—some kind of twist, revelation, story question, intrigue, challenge, setback or threat to make the reader want to turn the page and start the next chapter.

* Action scenes need to be “shown” in real time, to make them more immediate and compelling, rather than “telling” about them after the fact. (See my article “Show, Don’t Tell.”)

* Limit descriptive passages, backstory, and analyses.

* Use short, powerful sentences, with strong verbs, to-the-point dialogue, and lots of internal and external reactions.

* Keep transitions short from one scene to another. Use a sentence or two to take the reader from one telling scene to the next. Or just cut directly to the next scene.

* Add tension, conflict, intrigue, and change to every scene. This will keep the readers turning the pages to find out what happens next. See my article, “Every Scene Needs Conflict and a Change.”

* Use rapid-fire dialogue, with short questions, abrupt answers, lots of tension, and little or no description, deliberation or reflection.

* Use concrete words, strong nouns and powerful verbs, and shorter sentences and paragraphs. Write tight—take out all unnecessary, repetitive words and phrases.

* Use active voice to add urgency: “The detectives questioned the suspects,” rather than “The suspects were questioned by the detectives.” Or “The tornado damaged buildings,” rather than “Buildings were damaged by the tornado.”

Writers and readers—do you have any suggestions to add for picking up the pace in fiction?

In Part II, we’ll discuss techniques for using a slow-motion, heightened style of pacing to increase tension and intrigue.

Copyright © Jodie Renner, www.JodieRennerEditing.com, August 2012

Jodie Renner is a freelance editor specializing in thrillers and other crime fiction. Her craft-of-fiction articles appear here and on five other blogs. For more information on Jodie’s editing services, please visit her website or blog.

 

Jodie’s popular 42-page e-booklet, Writing a Killer Thriller – An Editor’s Guide to Writing Powerful Fiction, is only $0.99 on Amazon or PDF.

 
8 Comments

Posted by on August 19, 2012 in Guest Blogger, Writing

 

Taking the Mystery Out of Writing Mysteries

NOTE: This is a repost of an article by Dennis Palumbo that appeared in Psychology Today.

Taking the Mystery Out of Writing Mysteries

If you saw the season-ending episode of The Mentalist, do you remember the clue that helped catch the killer?
Me, neither.
In the movie version of The Lincoln Lawyer, what was the mistake Ryan Phillippe made that proved he was guilty?
You got me.
In the more recent film, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, what led Blomkvist to identify the serial killer?
Who remembers? I’m just glad Lisbeth Salander got there in time to save Mikael!
My point, and I do have one, is that often TV and film writers think the most important aspect of a good mystery is the the ingenuity of the crime, the unraveling of the clues. Which is why many Hollywood writers are scared to death of even trying to write a mystery or thriller.
Fear no more.
Yes, viewers of mysteries and thrillers like tightly-plotted narratives, clever red herrings, and a certain element of surprise. And you should always strive to weave as many of these aspects into your whodunnit or crime script as possible.
But these factors are not what makes an onscreen mystery memorable. Think of TV’s Castle, or The Closer. Or a classic series like The Rockford Files. Think of films like Chinatown and Silence of the Lambs. Or iconic Hitchcock films like Rear Window or North By Northwest. As best-selling crime author Michael Connelly wrote, “The best mysteries are about the mystery of character.”
But what does that mean?
Let’s start with the basics: What is a mystery? In simplest terms, it’s a story about the disruption of the social order. A crime against society is committed: A man is murdered, a bank is robbed, whatever. We, the viewer, want to know two things: Who did it, and why.
At least that’s what we think we want.
What do we really want? We want order restored. We want the violator of the social compact—the killer, the thief, the blackmailer—to be caught, so that things in our world are set right once more. And who do we want to do this? Our surrogate, that’s who—the smarter, wittier, and more doggedly determined version of ourselves: the detective hero.
Whether a street-wise cop like Popeye Doyle in The French Connection, an obsessive-compulsive homicide detective like TV’s Monk, or a tea-drinking, sweater-knitting old lady like Miss Marple (in innumerable BBC reboots), we want this one thing from our mystery protagonist above all others: we want order restored.
But not just social order. The best mysteries, whether TV’s Prime Suspect (with Helen Mirren) or cinema’s Anatomy of a Murder, are also about the exploration and resolution of psychological tension. In other words, how do the characters interact? What do they want?
For example, in most mysteries, whether a suspect is guilty of the crime or not, he or she invariably has a secret. A clandestine relationship, a trauma from the past that haunts them still, perhaps even a connection with the killer (or the victim) that helps complete an entire mosaic of possible motives, entanglements and intrigue.
Henry James famously said: “Plot is characters under stress.” Well, nothing ramps up the stress level of a group of characters like the murder of one among them. A further “turn of the screw” results when the murder comes under investigation by an outside agent—the hero or heroine, the cop or private eye—determined to ferret out the truth.
How does that apply to the mystery screenplay or TV pilot you’re trying to write? A reasonable question.
Remember what it felt like when some kid broke a window at school and the principal gathered you and all your classmates together? Remember the mounting tension as the principal went down the line, interrogating each of you, sometimes even feigning humor or sympathy, but always with the relentless, eagle-eyed determination of a predator searching for his prey?
Well, do the characters in your mystery or thriller script feel that way? How do they show it—to the camera, to each other, and to the detective? Or, perhaps more importantly, how do they attempt to conceal it?
In most memorable mysteries, or in the best thrillers, this context of mutual suspicion and misdirection of motives is pivotal. It’s what keeps the suspense mounting for the viewer.

Moreover, it’s the crucial element that keeps the laying-in of necessary clues from seeming like a mere litany of exposition. By the time we’re halfway through Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (both the British miniseries and the recent feature), the lies told and attitudes expressed by the suspects has us convinced that pretty much anyone could be the culprit. Which is exactly what you, the mystery writer, wants most of all.
Another important aspect of these types of films, as vital as that of the deceptive nature of the suspects, is the world the story inhabits. All renowned cinematic mysteries, from Laura to Diabolique to Witness for the Prosecution, take place in a specific arena of life. The cutthroat design industry, a private boarding school, the be-wigged world of British courtrooms. Whatever.
If you consider a film like All the President’s Men a mystery—and I do, since it meets all the criteria—then the roiling turmoil of Washington politics is the backdrop. As is the economic resurgence of Japan in Rising Sun. As is the sequestered life of the Amish in Witness.
Recall, too, how the key to success for TV’s Columbo was the interaction of our rumpled hero with the nuances of the various worlds into which he ventured, from that of classical music to computer science, from Hollywood studios to military schools. His comfortable, familiar character was our vehicle of entry into the specifics of each of these very particular ways of life.
But what does all the above have to do with you, and the film or TV script you’re writing? Let’s see if we can break it down.
First, let’s look at your protagonist. And here’s where many new mystery writers get discouraged, and for a very understandable reason. When it comes to the hero—whether hard-boiled private eye or spinster librarian, cop-turned-lawyer or criminal-turned-cop—they’ve all been done. How do you make your sleuth unique?
For me, there’s only one answer: ask yourself, what makes you unique? What scares you, interests you, makes you angry? What do you yearn for, or wish to avoid? What are your hobbies, passions? What’s the aspect of your own character about which you’re most conflicted, unhappy, even embarrassed? Believe it or not, this is where the seeds of an interesting, unusual protagonist are first sewn.
For example, my friend Earlene Fowler likes to make quilts. As does her amateur sleuth, Benni Harper, now on her 12th or 13th novel in a hugely successful series. I cite this mostly to prove that you don’t have to be a forensics pathologist in your day job to create a popular or believable hero.
In my own case, the hero/narrator of my series of crime thrillers, Dr. Daniel Rinaldi, is a therapist, as I am. And while I currently live in Los Angeles, Rinaldi’s adventures take place in Pittsburgh, my home town. In both the debut novel, Mirror Image, and its sequel, Fever Dream, I weave aspects of my personal biography, my clinical training, and my views about the current state of the mental health field into the narrative.
This concept operates as well for TV and film as for prose. Many writers of popular TV crime shows and recent film thrillers are patients in my private practice, and I’ve witnessed first-hand how their own issues, prejudices and concerns are woven into their on-screen characters.
The point is, the closer the hero or heroine of your mystery script is to you, the more vivid and engaging he or she will be to the viewer. After all, as Emerson said, “To know that what is true for you in your private heart is true for everyone—that is genius.”
Next, let’s look at the “world” of your mystery story. What is the world you inhabit? Suburban soccer mom or single father? Former football coach, magazine editor, or Rhodes scholar? Travel agent, computer specialist, or kindergarten teacher?
After all, you know the details of your particular world so clearly. You know the ins and outs, what goes on “behind the curtain.” It’s those details that create the backdrop for the crime, that make possible the intrigue, the collision of misleading, back-stabbing, or painfully naïve characters. Think of the casino gambling background in the movie Ocean’s 11. Or that of the legal profession in The Firm. Or that of a police precinct in Internal Affairs.
Why is the background so important? Aside from being crucial to our sense of the reality of the story, and presenting us with a view of a world with which we may be unfamiliar (or that we think we know, but in fact really don’t), a particular arena provides valuable help to the script writer when it comes to building narrative and planting clues.
How? To put it simply, the best clues in a classic mystery involve misdirection. A clue usually seems to point in one direction, when actually, looked at from a different angle, it reveals something else. A typical example is the clue that appears to confirm a certain character’s guilt, when in fact it’s been planted to frame that person.
For the writer, trying to develop the narrative and plant significant clues along the way, it’s much easier (and, I think, more organic) if the clues emerge from the world of the story. For example, if the bad guy uses some antique pistol to commit the crime, I’m much more likely to believe it in a mystery script set behind the scenes at Colonial Williamsburg.
In fact, one of the smartest things a crime writer can do is develop the clues and red herrings out of the world in which the story is set. Case in point: Most used car salesmen don’t know where to get their hands on lethal yet undetectable poisons. But they may know how to cut the brake lines of a car. (Or, failing that, how to blackmail a mechanic to do it for them.)
I’m stressing the use of a vivid background and the investment in character development for two reasons. First, because without these two crucial aspects, no viewer will really care how clever or intricate the plot is. (For example, as much as I admire the plotting in the film The Last of Sheila, I don’t love the movie because I don’t care about anyone in it.) And second, because of the happy fact that most good mysteries only have two or three pertinent clues in them anyway.
This is really important. Most new writers of mysteries seem to think the plot has to be filled with clues. It doesn’t. One or two gems—the misleading planted evidence, the comment a suspect makes that belies his alibi—are all you need to put the villain away. Or all your hero or heroine needs.
Remember, too, that many clues are just as likely to indicate something that’s missing as they are to reveal something that’s present: the unfound murder weapon, the missing wedding ring on the victim’s finger. Remember this classic exchange from Conan Doyle’s story Silver Blaze:
Sherlock Holmes to the Inspector: “I refer, of course, to the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”
The Inspector: “But, Holmes, the dog did nothing in the night-time.”

“That is the curious incident.”
Okay, let’s wrap this up. The three things to keep in mind when writing mysteries are: 1) establishing the unique character of the protagonist, 2) making narrative use of the world in which the story takes place, and 3) planting clues (remember, only a few) that derive from the particular aspects of that world.
One final hint, to spark your creativity when thinking about writing a mystery or thriller script: is there a little-known fact, an oddity of history or natural science, that you were taught or stumbled upon and has always intrigued you?
For example, I was blown away years ago when I learned that after famed psychologist Carl Jung broke with his mentor Sigmund Freud, Jung founded a clinical journal devoted to “non-Jewish” psychoanalysis. I’m still trying to figure out a way to weave that painful chapter in the history of psychoanalysis into a mystery story.
What’s in your background that you can use? What’s filed away in that mental Rolodex in your head that might serve as the germ of an idea for a mystery or thriller? Maybe your grandfather was the first guy in his town to own a car. Or the guy who bought the last Edsel. Maybe your cousin ran a betting pool in the seminary while studying for the priesthood. Maybe your mother tells the story of getting hit on by some dorky guy at a bar who went on to become Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.
Everybody has some story, some incident, unique to them and them alone. All a writer has to do is “twist” that story a little bit—the “what-if” that inspires all storytelling—and a terrific new movie thriller or TV mystery series emerges.
The recipe is simple: all crime stems from conflict, and conflict stems from strong emotions. Kind of like life.
Because, in the end, that’s where all the best stories come from. Life itself. The greatest mystery of all.

 

Formerly a Hollywood screenwriter (My Favorite Year; Welcome Back, Kotter, etc.), Dennis Palumbo is now a licensed psychotherapist and author of Writing From the Inside Out (John Wiley). His work helping writers has been profiled in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, GQ and other publications, as well as on CNN, NPR and PBS. He also blogs regularly for The Huffington Post and Psychology Today.

 

His mystery fiction has appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, The Strand, Written By and elsewhere, and is collected in From Crime to Crime (Tallfellow Press).  His crime novel, Mirror Image (Poisoned Pen Press), the first in a new series, featured psychologist Daniel Rinaldi, a trauma expert who consults with the Pittsburgh Police. The sequel, Fever Dream, is on sale now.

 

For more info, please visit www.dennispalumbo.com

 
10 Comments

Posted by on March 21, 2012 in Guest Blogger, Writing

 

Guest Blogger: Jodie Renner: Heightening the Suspense, Part III

Specific Techniques to Ratchet up the Suspense

 

* Use the setting to create anxiety and suspense. This is the equivalent of ominous music; harsh, stark, or very low lighting; strange camera angles; or nasty weather in a scary movie. This applies to both indoor and outdoor settings, of course. Also, appeal to all senses, not just the visual… breaking glass, a dripping faucet, footsteps on the stairs, a crash in the basement, rumbling of thunder, a sudden cold draft, an animal brushing the skin in the dark, a freezing cold, blinding blizzard, a putrid smell coming from the basement…

* Mood and pacing: Thrillers and other suspense fiction generally need a tense mood and fast pacing throughout most of the novel, with “breathers” in between the tensest scenes.

* Compelling, vivid sensory imagery. “Show, don’t tell.” Invoke all five senses to take us right there, with the protagonist, vividly experiencing and reacting to whoever/whatever is challenging or threatening her.

* Raise the stakes. As the author of a thriller or other crime fiction, keep asking yourself, “How can I make things worse for the protagonist?” As the challenges get more difficult and the difficulties more insurmountable, we worry more and more about whether he can beat the ever-increasing odds against him, and suspense grows. And as a bonus, “Increasing pressure leads to increasing insight into the character.” (Wm. Bernhardt)

* Add a ticking clock. Adding time pressure is another excellent way to increase suspense. Lee Child is a master at this, a great example being his thriller 61 Hours. Or how about those great MacGyver shows, where he had to devise ways to defuse the bomb before it exploded and killed all kinds of innocent people? Or the TV series, 24, with agent Jack Bauer?

* Add obstacles and complications. The hero’s plans get thwarted; his gun jams or falls into a river during a scuffle; he’s stuck in traffic on a bridge; he’s kicked off the case; her car breaks down; her cell phone battery dies just when she needs it most; the power goes out, leaving the room in total darkness; a truck blocks the only way out of the alley… You get the picture. Think Jack Reacher, Lucy Kincaid, Elvis Cole or Stephanie Plum in any number of escapades. The character has to use inner resources to find a way around these obstacles or out of this dilemma.

* Incapacitate your hero. Your heroine is given a drug that makes her dizzy and hallucinating; your hero breaks his leg and can’t escape or give chase; she’s bound and gagged; he’s blinded by sand in his eyes…

 
* Create a critical turning point. Which way did the bad guys go? Should she open that door or not? Who to believe? Go up the stairs or down? Answer the phone or let it ring?

* Make the ordinary seem ominous. Zoom in on an otherwise benign object, like that half-empty glass on the previously spotless kitchen counter, and imbue it with extra meaning. Who was here? When? Why?

* Plant something out of place in a scene. Or even something just slightly off, just enough to create a niggling doubt in the mind of the reader. A phone off the hook, an open window, wet footprints on the entranceway floor, an overturned lamp, a half-eaten breakfast, etc.

* Use the occasional omniscient tip-off. The author (omniscient narrator) steps in to clue the readers in on something unknown but ominous that’s about to happen, with a statement something like, “If Henry had known what lurked in the house, he never would have gone in,” or whatever. Can be very effective, but use this one sparingly, as it’s kind of “cheating.” Best to stay in the story world, in the point of view of the POV character for that scene/chapter.

But of course, you can’t keep up tension nonstop, as it’s tiring for readers and will eventually numb them. You need to intersperse tense, nail-biting scenes with more leisurely, relaxed scenes that provide a bit of reprieve before the next sensory onslaught begins.

Resources:

Jack M. Bickham, The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes
Hallie Ephron, The Everything Guide to Writing Your First Novel
Jessica Page Morrell, Thanks, But This Isn’t For Us

See also: 20 Essential Elements of a Bestselling Thriller; Writing a Killer Thriller, Part I, Writing a Killer Thriller, Part II, and Writing a Killer Thriller, Part III
Jodie Renner is an independent editor specializing in crime fiction. For more info on Jodie’s editing services, visit her website at: http://www.jodierennerediting.com

 
1 Comment

Posted by on March 14, 2012 in Guest Blogger, Writing

 
 
%d bloggers like this: