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.

 

How to create the perfect villain!

Today is World Book Day! To celebrate I’m going to talk to the children in Year 3 at Sefton Park School, in Bristol, about villains! Seems like a suitable topic for seven year olds! Actually, though, it’s a pretty critical topic for any writer.

So why do you need a villain? Well, without a baddie, basically, your story lacks drama. There will be no uncertainty, excitement or tension. An antagonist can provide conflict, which will help create this drama. The antagonist will also elevate your protagonist, the central character in your story, by stretching him or her because they’ll need to grow, change, and summon deep inner resources to defeat the villain – as long as your baddie is a worthy opponent.

However, an antagonist need not be a person: if you’re writing a supernatural or  horror story then your villain could be a creature or a ghost or a wizard. But in other genres, your villain could be a force, a concept, a trait or a psychological state. For instance, in 1984 the antagonist is ‘the Party’, the human (or inhuman) face of ‘Big Brother’. In spy thrillers, there is often a conspiracy or a government cover up; in LA Confidential, the hero is battling his own alcoholism; in Sense of an Ending, the opponent, seems to be Vanessa, but it’s actually the anti-hero, Tony’s, own character flaws; in Solar it’s global warming.

My two tips on creating a decent villain are first, have empathy. Get inside your baddie’s head. Almost no one thinks they’re doing the wrong thing or that they’re immoral – everyone can justify their actions.

And secondly, the villain isn’t always who you think it is. Check out my thrillers – in all three, Bone by Bone, The Stolen Child and My Mother’s Secret – the bad guy isn’t who you think it is.

For more on villains and for some writing exercises, please sign up to the Arvon Foundation’s newsletter and look for my writing tips on Antagonistic Antagonists.

 

Just write!

category_diary80JUST WRITE! – I’ve been thinking about what advice to give someone who is starting to write – I’m going to be teaching a course on beginner’s fiction at the Arvon Foundation in October – so it’s been on my mind. You can still book a place if you’d like to come: it’s a wonderful, week long retreat in Devon with time to write, writers to talk to and workshops run by me and fellow novelist, Christopher Wakling.

So what would I say to someone who wants to write a novel and is just starting out?

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