How to write a thriller

In a few days time I’m heading to Ted Hughes’ old house, Lumb Bank, in Hebden Bridge, to teach an Arvon Foundation course on how to write a literary thriller, with fellow author, Adam LeBor. I’m looking forward to meeting guest author, Felica Yap, who wrote, Yesterday, as well as returning to the wilds of Yorkshire where I grew up.

 

 

Most of what one can learn about writing a thriller will apply to any kind of fiction – character, plot, setting, dialogue, language, style and voice are, of course, vitally important. But what is critical in a thriller is information: who knows what, and when and where and how did they or will they find it out? The key is to think about what is going to happen next. If you set up a question in the first few pages, finding out the answer is what will keep readers turning the pages. 

Think of Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, which begins:

Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.

Immediately this raises small questions: what is Manderley? Who is telling us this story? Why aren’t they at Manderley anymore? What is so special about Manderley that our unknown narrator dreams about this place? And then quickly we’re introduced to the larger questions: who was the first Mrs de Winter? What was she was like? What happened to her – and what will happen to our protagonist? These questions are what keep us reading.

The two main ways the writer can heighten this sense of anticipation is through the structure of the novel, and via suspense. The structure of the novel is essentially about presenting information in a particular order. For example, in a psychological thriller, moving the second most thrilling or exciting moment in the story to the prologue can create anticipation because we know that something bad is going to happen, yet in the first few pages, that terrible deed has not yet occurred.

For instance, here’s the prologue of Bone by Bone.

BONE BY BONE Prologue

Another example of how structure can lead to anticipation is through the withholding of information, by delaying telling the reader the answer to a question: leaving a scene early, just before the information is about to be revealed, is one way to do this. The resulting cliff hanger will hopefully make the reader want to find out what happens next. Think of Harry Potter: The Philosopher’s Stone by JK Rowling. When the Dursleys are hiding on a boat at sea and someone beats down the door and steps inside, we’re on tenterhooks – and this is where the chapter ends.  

Of course, endless cliff hangers could well become annoying, so another way of delaying answering the question is by complicating the story. This can be done by adding more information and greater levels of complexity – through a sub-plot, for instance, or by switching the Point Of View to another character.

Suspense, in contrast, is about who knows what at which point. Do the characters know, or only one of them? Does the reader know the secret but the characters do not? For instance, in My Mother’s Secret, the main protagonist, Emma Taylor, knows the secret, and her daughter, Stella, is trying to discover it. The reader finds out the secret about half-way through the novel, but the daughter does not – which is dramatic irony – and, I hope, has readers swiftly turning the pages, hoping against hope that Stella doesn’t do anything too foolish to jeopardise everyone’s safety….

I write, ‘My mother has a secret.’ 

 

If you’re interested in writing novels but missed signing up to my Arvon course, do ask me about assessing your manuscript or work-in-progress.

 

Bone by Bone supports anti-bullying charity, Kidscape

BONE BY BONE SUPPORTS ANTI-BULLYING CHARITY, KIDSCAPE

category_diary80I’m so delighted – Bone by Bone will be out in paperback this week! I’m donating 10 % of any profits I make to anti-bullying charity, Kidscape.

Here’s a short video with five tips for children to help them stop the bullies:

 

 

And here’s a wonderful statement that Kidscape have written for the paperback edition of Bone by Bone:

 

Bullying and abuse can destroy childhoods and damage futures. Kidscape has been working for over 30 years to keep children safe from harm and to give parents and professionals the knowledge and skills they need to ensure that every child is protected. We were the first charity in the UK to tackle bullying and child sexual abuse and remain committed to our mission to support and protect children and help them to grow into happy, confident adults.

 

We are hugely grateful to Sanjida for working so closely with us and donating a portion of the profits of Bone by Bone to Kidscape. Bullying is an issue which can affect anybody, regardless of family background, location or economic circumstance, and Bone by Bone handles these issues in an incredibly thoughtful and incisive manner, as well as being an exciting read. Kidscape supports families through the torment of bullying, and educates teachers and other professionals about how they can prevent it occurring. All the money raised through sales of Bone by Bone will help Kidscape to continue its highly effective early intervention work in schools throughout the country.

 

Basic CMYK

 

Why I’m supporting anti-bullying charity, Kidscape

WHY I’M SUPPORTING ANTI-BULLYING CHARITY, KIDSCAPE

 

Novelist Sanjida Kay has just published her latest book, a psychological thriller called ‘Bone by Bone’. She is donating a percentage of her profits to Kidscape – she explains why.

I went to ten different schools and I was bullied at nine of them. Most kids don’t have such peripatetic education, but otherwise my experience is not uncommon: according to the NSPCC, nearly half of all children and young people are bullied at school. Why was I bullied? Like any child it was because the bullies perceived that I was different. In my case, I was always the new kid and I was different. I’m mixed race and went to schools where most of the kids were white; in Wales I went to an all Welsh-speaking school; when I arrived in Yorkshire, I had a Northern Irish accent (that didn’t last long!). I was also small, shy and smart – and being academically good, poor at sports and short were more reasons some kids felt they could pick on me.

As soon as my daughter was born, I started to worry about her. Would she – mixed race too – be bullied? What could I do about it? Would she be able to stand up for herself when I had not been able to? I started imagining a scenario where a mother discovers that her daughter is being bullied. She wants to help but she feels powerless – yet like any parent she’ll do anything to protect her child. The mum confronts the bully herself, which ends up with tragic consequences for her and her daughter.

 


She felt as if she had no bones, like a jellyfish, hooked from the sea. She walked slowly towards them, her ears ringing, but they ignored her. All except for Levi, who stood at the end of the bridge, his hands in his pockets, smiling. -Bone by Bone


Sanjida Kay 'Bone by Bone' book launch 2

That idea became my first psychological thriller, Bone by Bone, published by Corvus Books, this March. The story is told by the mum, Laura, and by her daughter. I decided to make the child – shy, sweet, artistic Autumn Wild – nine-years-old because there’s something dreadful about the idea that a primary school child will be bullied. Somehow, I think we all think bullying only happens to students at secondary school but, from my own experience, I know it can happen at any age. None of the specific events that happened to me in real life have ended up in the book, but I used my experiences to imagine what it was like for Autumn to be the target of an older bully. Thankfully, when I was growing up, there was no such thing as cyber bullying. When verbal, emotional and physical abuse isn’t enough for the bully in my book, he turns to cyber bullying. According to Ditch the Label, last year 62 per cent of children who were the targets of bullies were cyber bullied.


Autumn began to run. She felt an icy terror flood through her. He must have been waiting for her. He’d followed her all the way here. To this open, empty place. He knows where I live. -Bone by Bone


I would love to live in a world where no child is bullied. It’s a tiny step on this journey, but I’d like to donate a percent of the profits I make from selling Bone by Bone to Kidscape, to help us prevent bullying and protect our children.


Autumn put in the DVD she’d been watching every night. It was Deadly 60. It was all about animals that could be a bit tricky if you tried to catch one. There was something comforting about watching it over and over and over again. You knew what was going to happen. There were no surprises. And even though all those animals bit, squeezed, stung, spat or poisoned, they did it because they were hungry or frightened. They didn’t do it because they thought you were stupid and ugly and they wanted to hurt and humiliate you. -Bone by Bone

 

 

Originally published by Kidscape

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Let’s Stop the Bullies

LET’S STOP THE BULLIES

category_diary80I’m delighted to announce that I’m donating a percentage of the profits from my thriller, Bone by Bone, to the anti-bullying charity, Kidscape.

‘This is a terrific novel which really brings to life the desperate situations families find themselves in when bullying occurs. It shows an extraordinary grasp of the issues and is handled in an extremely perceptive manner’

Kidscape, anti-bullying charity

Bone by Bone is about a mother, Laura, who discovers that her daughter, Autumn, is being bullied.  The bullying has devastating consequences for Laura and Autumn. Sadly, bullying is horribly common: the NSPCC says that almost half of all children are bullied. Three-quarters of those bullied were physically attacked and 62 per cent were cyber-bullied in 2015 according to a report carried out for Ditch the Label. Nearly half of those children who were bullied, didn’t tell anyone about it, but suffered in silence.

kidscape

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