Steven James is the national best-selling author of The Pawn, The Rook and The Knight. With more than 250,000 copies in print, he has established himself as one of the rising stars on the thriller-writing scene. The Rook won a 2009 Christy Award as best suspense, and Suspense Magazine named The Knight one of the top ten books of 2009, with John Raab, the editor, writing, “Steven James sets the new standard in suspense writing.” Steven lives near the Blue Ridge Mountains with his wife, three daughters, a cat, and a python named Buddy. Visit Steven at his website: http://www.fbithrillers.com.
Crafting Killer Thrillers
If a thriller does not thrill, if it doesn’t give readers an adrenaline rush, it’s not a thriller. As you craft suspense novels, it’s vital to remember the essentials of storytelling and the secrets to creating reader interest.
Below are four keys to writing high-octane thrillers that will grab readers’ attention and keep them flipping pages late into the night.
Key #1 Shape your stories around struggles rather than events.
Over the years as I’ve taught at writers’ conferences throughout North America and abroad, I’ve found that too many people think of stories as a series of events—things that happen. But stories are much more than that.
When I was in elementary school, every year when we returned to school in the fall, the teacher would give us the same inane assignment: Write about what you did during the summer.
You probably had to do it, too.
And we would write things like, “I went to camp and then I played video games and then I went swimming and then I fought with my brother . . .”
They might have been records of events, but they were certainly not stories.
So, a few years ago when I was asked to speak to a fourth grade class on writing and telling stories, I said, “Kids, please do not tell me what you did over the summer, but could someone tell me about something that went wrong?”
A boy raised his hand. “My cousin came over to my house and we were having a contest to see who could jump the farthest off my bunk bed.”
A great opening line. I waited, he went on, “He went first and he got pretty far, and I said, ‘I can get farther than that.’ So I backed up and jumped off the top bunk. The ceiling fan was on and I got my head stuck in the ceiling fan and it threw me against the wall—”
By then, the rest of children in the class were cracking up. Then he concluded by saying, “But I got farther!”
Now, if I would have asked him what he did, he would have said that he played with his cousin, but because I asked him what went wrong, he told me a story.
This is one of the most important keys to telling any story. I call it The Ceiling Fan Principle: You do not have a story until something goes wrong.
Key #2 Include less action and more promises.
At its heart, a story is about tension, and tension is created by unfulfilled desire. So the secret to writing a story that draws readers in and keeps them turning pages is to create more and more tension not to make more and more things happen.
So plotting stories is not a process of asking what should happen next, but what would tighten the tension.
This shift in perspective will forever change how you shape and tell the stories you write, whatever the genre.
Romance stories are not about romance; they are about romantic tension. As soon as the actual romance happens, it is the end of the story.
Action stories are not about action; they are about resolving problems. Once the conflict is resolved, the story is over. One exciting event happening after another does not make an intriguing action story. In fact, it gets boring unless the reader can see what is at stake, unless he can understand and identify with the unfulfilled desire of the main character.
Thrillers are not stories about scary things happening, they are about the promise of pain. Suspense happens between the promise of something dreadful happening and the actual event itself. So when writing suspense, the key is to include less action and more promises.
And then, as the story escalates, keep all the promised you’ve made.
So all of this means that as you write a story, you’ll save time and write better stories if you stop asking yourself, “What should happen next?” and start asking, “How can I make things worse?”
It also means that stories, at their essence, are neither character-driven nor plot-driven. All stories are tension-driven.
For example, you can write a fascinating description of a character or have thirty chase scenes in your novel, but after a while readers will grow tired of hearing about what the character is thinking or eating or wearing or doing if they do not know what his or her unfulfilled desire is. And we will get bored of seeing car chases unless we know what the people chasing (or being chased) want.
Readers need to know what the character wants.
Readers need to know where the action is leading.
Key #3 Always give the reader what he wants or something better.
Thrillers fail when they don’t deliver both believability and surprises. Every time a character does something unbelievable, the reader begins to lose trust in the storyteller. And yet, if the story does not contain satisfying twists, the reader will become dissatisfied. So your goal when writing thrillers is to write stories that end in ways that are both unexpected and inevitable.
If they are not both, they will fail on an essential level.
Key #4 Include both internal and external struggles.
Typically, the strongest stories will be centered on a protagonist who has both an internal struggle and an external struggle.
The internal struggle is a question that needs to be answered; an external struggle is a problem that needs to be solved.
Whether a story is considered character-driven or plot-driven, historical romance, cozy mystery, techno-thriller, or literary fiction, this dual focus on the internal and external struggles of the main character will help snag readers’ interest and keep it. Genre will dictate which struggle takes precedent in the story, but all commercial fiction today needs both internal and external struggle.
Thrillers, despite the danger, action, and suspense, must include a satisfying internal struggle or readers will not be drawn as deeply into the emotion of the story and will not be as thrilled, on an essential level, as they should be.
When I work on shaping one of my thrillers I’m constantly asking myself how I can make things worse within the context of the character’s primary struggle. So if the character’s struggle is despair, I have to lead them to the very edge of depression, the deepest and most hopeless situation imaginable. If her struggle is loneliness, I need to sharpen that loneliness to its most extreme limits.
To summarize, stop asking what should happen and focus instead on tightening the tension—making things worse.
Typically the worse you make things for your protagonist (within the contexts of these two types of struggles), the better the story will be for your readers.
Put these four keys into practice, and you will see your stories begin to improve immediately. And your readers will keep coming back for more.