Do you make these seven thrill-killing mistakes in your writing?
by Andy Maslen
Thriller. The clue is in the title. If this is your chosen genre – and it is mine – then you have set up certain expectations in your reader’s mind. I am a year into my career as a writer of action thrillers, having spent the preceding 30 writing copy, first as a corporate marketeer, then as a full-time copywriter, running my own communications agency. And it’s fair to say that, having completed three novels and published one, I am learning fast. I’ve always loved thrillers, and it was reading Lee Child’s Reacher books that prompted me to have a try at writing my own character-based thriller.
I am fortunate enough to have great teachers and a truly excellent group of first readers. From them – and the reviewers kind enough to write their thoughts down on Amazon – I have learned a lot about what makes a good thriller. I’m going to run through what I see as the seven deadly sins of thriller writing, and what to do about them.
1. Invulnerable Hero
Every story needs a hero – or to use a longer but less loaded word, a protagonist. Thriller heroes actually are heroes, doing things that us mere mortals can only dream about. They can fly planes, drive cars like racing drivers, shoot machine guns, use martial arts, infiltrate impregnable fortresses… well, you get the picture.
But the hero still needs to be believable. If he or she is just a terminator, totally impervious to knives and bullets, able to jump off buildings without a scratch and defeat hordes of enemy combatants, it starts to get a bit boring. Why root for a character you know is going to shrug everything off? It’s one of the golden rules of storytelling that you give your heroes flaws, and the heroes of thrillers are no exception.
In my novels, the hero is Gabriel Wolfe, a decorated war veteran from the British SAS (Special Air Service). He has fighting skills, and I have endowed him with semi-mystical Oriental skills including the ability to lower his heart-rate at will and an invented technique called Yinshen fangshi, which translates as ‘the way of stealth’. But I’ve also given him psychological problems in the shape of PTSD and a deeply-buried secret from his past. He copes with meditation and alcohol in equal quantities but they don’t always work. He has gruesome nightmares, flashbacks and hallucinations of a dead comrade.
Thinking about Jack Reacher, who is virtually superhuman in strength and deductive powers, he nevertheless has had problems with relationships and is sometimes adrift in the world of modern technology. Sherlock Holmes was a drug addict; James Bond lost his wife to an assassin’s bullet.
So give your hero not just external challenges but internal ones too. And maybe resist the temptation to make him or her an alcoholic.
2. Villain of Pure Wickedness
Just as we should avoid the invulnerable hero, there’s a longstanding rule that villains should have virtues. That might be a stretch if you’re taking aim at a serial killer, but even serial killers have a rationale for what they do. Maybe they were abused or tortured as a child. Think of Dexter, from the TV series based on Jeff Lindsay’s novel, Darkly Dreaming Dexter. Although he was the anti-hero protagonist, his struggle was trying to reconcile his killer instinct with his desire to be a normal family man and good father.
When you set up the enemy for your hero to fight against and, presumably, defeat, it makes for a more exhilarating contest if your sympathies aren’t entirely with the hero. There’s an additional level of tension you can weave into your thriller if your reader isn’t quite sure they despise the villain. In my second novel, Blind Impact, the villain is a Chechen called Kasym Drezna. His past is littered with great cruelty, but he is fighting for a free Chechnya against Russians who destroyed his family.
The question I think you need to ask is, “Why is the villain acting this way?”. Motivation makes for strong characters, good and bad. If your villain is pure, unadulterated evil, they are reduced to the status of a target in a shooting range. There are lots of reasons why your villain might be doing the things they are doing: betrayal, love, hate, envy, politics, religion. Pick one, or more, and you create a three-dimensional character who will be easier to write and more fun to defeat.
3. Mistaking Motion for Action
This is a line I read in a book about filmmaking: it was a criticism of directors who believe that by throwing enough explosions and car chases into the movie they can make it exciting. Yet we’ve all sat through films where the events on screen, while visually dazzling, become progressively less exciting. Once you’ve seen one skyscraper exploded by an alien spaceship, you’re bored by the time you see number ten get the same treatment.
My definition of ‘action’ is something, anything, that moves the story forward. That could be a firefight, a building search, a torture scene or a car chase. But it could also be a scene between two characters who are arguing. Or a clue glimpsed through an upstairs window. Think of the famous scene in Michael Mann’s film, Heat, between Neil McCauley, a professional thief, played by Robert De Nero and Lt. Vincent Hanna, played by Al Pacino. Until this point they haven’t been onscreen at the same time. The scene is all dialogue but it crackles with tension. With action.
This isn’t to say that thrillers don’t need a bit of kinetic action from time to time. But make sure, when you’re writing your big scenes, that they move the plot along. Maybe the hero learns something. Or overcomes a minor obstacle on the way to the final showdown.
4. Slow Start
One of the most frequent criticisms of thrillers, my own early drafts included, is that “it took me a while to get into it.” Now, if you have a patient reader, they may forgive you and keep going till the story lights up. But they might bail on you. Especially if it’s a free e-book you published to create a loyal readership.
The easiest mistake to make is having a prologue. It feels like a good idea, to create a bit of backstory or a setup, so that when the ‘real’ story kicks off, your reader knows why things are happening the way they are. But why make them wait? As my writing teacher, novelist Tom Bromley, says, “A prologue is like having two starts.”
Far better to plunge headlong into the story, preferably into the action, and then circle back later, once your reader is hooked, to reveal details they need to make sense of a character’s motivations. I recently did this with Blind Impact, deleting the prologue altogether and using part of it as a flashback.
5. Poor Research
Like a lot of genre fiction, like a lot of fiction full stop, thrillers need a certain amount of research before you commit your words to print (or screen). In my research for Trigger Point, my debut novel, I spent a morning with the Commanding Officer of MOD Kineton, the British military base where every bullet, bomb and bazooka is stored. He’s a friend, and gave me the tour, which included holding every kind of weapon from a Browning semi-automatic pistol to a Kalashnikov, to a Browning M2 heavy machinegun – the famous Fifty Cal.
If you’re writing a medical thriller, a trip round a hospital may be in order. Police procedurals almost demand you have a friendly law enforcement officer whose brains you can pick. And there’s always the Internet. I recently wanted to write a description of the Russian President’s office. Type it into Google and you can even see the kind of pencil pot he uses. (It’s made of Malachite.) But…
Wear your research lightly. You may have found out the number of grains of smokeless powder in a .338 Lapua Magnum round, but do you need to tell your reader? Remember, that as with action, you are trying to maintain momentum. Stopping while you describe the full array of items on a detective’s desk may be surplus to requirements.
6. Problems with Pacing
Thrillers need to contain thrills. But if you set too frenetic a pace, two things will happen. One, you will get exhausted writing them. Two, your reader will get exhausted reading them. Give your hero essential work to do between showpieces that doesn’t involve abseiling down the outside of the Chrysler building or shooting down a helicopter with a handgun. It makes the next big set piece action scene that much more exciting.
Think about James Bond. He has time for card games, dinners and the odd dalliance with an attractive female, who might be an enemy spy or not. Make sure your quieter episodes aren’t devoid of action though. Sending your hero for a drive in the country or to the supermarket will switch off your reader.
7. Under-Powered Climax
If getting a gripping opening is the first really important job of the thriller author, then finding a suitably enthralling climax is the second. You want your novel to end with a bang, possibly literally. I think the best climaxes involve just two people: the hero and the villain. I use as my model the climactic scene in the 1938 film The Adventures of Robin Hood. At the end of the film, Errol Flynn as Robin Hood, chases Sir Guy of Gisbourne, played by Basil Rathbone, through the shadows of Nottingham castle. After an epic swordfight, Robin kills Sir Guy. It’s mano a mano and all extraneous detail is stripped away to present the viewer (for which we can substitute reader) with the elemental contest between good and evil.
My tips here are, one, take your time. Let the tension build before you detonate the bomb, pull the trigger, bring down the rabid dog or whatever your hero needs to do to triumph. Two, don’t take too long. Your reader wants closure not an endless chase down yet another dark corridor. Three, pack the climactic scene with as much power as you can. This is no time for weak descriptive language or bland emotion. How does your hero feel at the moment of victory? What are they smelling? Tasting? Seeing? Hearing? Touching?
Just like westerns need horses, romances need love, science fiction needs robots and police procedurals need forensics, thrillers need thrills. Follow these tips – as I myself am trying to do – and I think you’ll be well on your way to one of those books that people email you about saying they couldn’t go to sleep till they’d turned the final page.
Find more writing and publishing tips at Nothing Any Good.
About the Author
Andy Maslen is the author of the Gabriel Wolfe thrillers (novels and short stories). Trigger Point (novel) was published in October 2015. Reversal of Fortune (short story) in November 2015. Blind Impact (novel) is due out in March 2016. Condor (novel) appears in September 2016.
Andy was born in Nottingham, in the UK, and has worked in a record shop, as a barman, as a door-to-door DIY products salesman and a cook in an Italian restaurant. He eventually landed a job in marketing, writing mailshots to sell business management reports. He spent ten years in the corporate world before launching a business writing agency, Sunfish, where he writes for clients including The Economist, Christie’s and World Vision.
As well as the Gabriel Wolfe series of thrillers, Andy has published five works of non-fiction on copywriting and freelancing with Marshall Cavendish and Kogan Page. They are all available online and in bookshops. He lives in Wiltshire with his wife, two sons and a whippet named Merlin.
You can find Andy’s wonderful insights and musings on his website, Twitter, Facebook, and email at firstname.lastname@example.org.