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.

 

I’ll be your coach

 

I’ve just returned to working for charity, First Story, this month. First Story’s aim is to change young people’s lives through writing, particularly those who might be disadvantaged socio-economically, and/or suffer from a lack of confidence. I had my first creative writing workshop with the school I’ll be Writer in Residence for last week. Before I met the group of students I’ll be working with, I was wondering what to tell them. I want to inspire them to be writers, as well as to give them the confidence to flourish, but I’m not sure that I personally feel like a teacher, or even know that creative writing can be taught. In spite of having published twelve books, I don’t have any qualifications in teaching and I have none in English past the age of 15.

So what I said was:

I am your space: I am your space in which to think about and practise the craft of writing. 

I am your permission: I give you permission to be writers. 

I’m never going to say to a single one of these young people that they are rubbish, that they cannot do it, that they need to demonstrate proficiency in key aspects of the curriculum, pass an exam or sit a test. I hope that having the time, space and permission to ‘have a go’ will help them blossom, both now and in the future.

Finally, I said:

I am your coach. 

In most subjects taught in schools today, the educational model we follow is that you attend classes, practise, learn, graduate and then make your way on your own. But in sport, the model is that you are never, ever done. Everyone needs a coach. Even the greatest football player or Olympic athlete needs a coach. There isn’t a fool-proof path to become a premier league player, nor to win a gold medal at the Olympics. What players do is that they learn, they practice and they are coached. It is a never-ending process of attempting to improve under the guidance and tutelage of a person who has your back. The way to become a great cyclist, gymnast, football player or even a writer is with help. It is not, as someone tweeted at me recently, about reading a few articles online and doing it by yourself.

As Atul Gwande, surgeon and author of Checklist, says, ‘Coaches are on to something profoundly important…They build on your skills and address your weaknesses.’ Gwande, who is seen as being top of his field in general and endocrine surgery, hired a coach, thinking that this fellow surgeon, would have little to teach him. After the first session, the coach had made pages of notes on how Gwande could become a better surgeon. Two years later, Gwande’s techniques had indeed radically improved.

For me personally, I’ve benefitted greatly for the coaching I’ve received from my agent, Robert Dinsdale, my many editors over the years, and my writing buddies. In my role as a Royal Literary Fellow, I frequently receive training and coaching from other fellows. I still believe that I could benefit from more help and dedicated coaching for my thriller writing. (Any volunteers?!) As Gwande says, ‘It’s not how good you are, it’s how good you’re going to be that really matters.’

 

Stories within stories: The books mentioned in My Mother’s Secret

I’m delighted to welcome Tasha Locke to my blog this week. Tasha graduated from Bristol University this year with a degree in English Literature. I met Tasha through my role as a Role Literary Fund Fellow at Bristol University. Her insight into literature prompted me to ask her if she’d write the Book Club questions (My Mother’s Secret Book Club Questions) for you. There are a number of  novels mentioned in My Mother’s Secret, mostly by one of the main characters, bookish teenager, Stella Taylor, who is in a Book Club at school.  Stella is obsessed with Jane Eyre, but it’s Henry James’ The Golden Bowl that runs like a leitmotif through my thriller… Over to Tasha.

 

The novels mentioned in My Mother’s Secret provide layers for both the characters and the plot. These novels all present love in an unconventional, often forbidden, light. The debates on these novels in Stella’s book club get us to think about the complexities and themes of My Mother’s Secret. 

Introducing the theme of adultery to My Mother’s Secret, Stella’s book club first read The Golden Bowl by Henry James. The group can’t agree whether the book is about love, sex, or betrayal. Their book club debate invites us to reconsider our own opinions about betrayal and deception in relationships, which becomes increasingly important as the story of My Mother’s Secret goes on. 

The bowl from The Golden Bowl is also symbolic in My Mother’s Secret. In James’ novel Maggie Verver is about to get married and is gifted a golden bowl by her best friend and fiancé (who happen to be lovers) that has a crack in it. The symbolic crack in James’ The Golden Bowl mirrors the secret in My Mother’s Secret – but not just Emma Taylor’s, the mother and main character in the novel. It is not until the final twist of My Mother’s Secret that we realise the significance of Stella’s earlier statement: ‘the only person I know who’s read it is my dad.’

Another novel mentioned in My Mother’s Secret is Jane Eyre. My Mother’s Secret opens with a quote from Jane Eyre and Bronte’s gothic setting of Thornfield Hall resembles Tyntesfield, the estate outside of Bristol, where parts of My Mother’s Secret are set. Tyntesfield, like Bronte’s Thornfield, becomes a place of secrecy, deceit and even ghost-like doubles.  

Jane Eyre is Stella’s favourite book. She moulds herself on Jane, and, appropriately, her Instagram name is Mrs Rochester. Stella’s desire to find out what her mother’s secret is frames her narrative in a Jane Eyre-esque Bildungsroman, and the secret, like the character of Bertha in Jane Eyre, becomes the threat to her teenage romance. 

Stella’s teenage crush Adam – MaddAddam on Instagram – builds an unlikely connection between Jane Eyre and Margret Atwood’s novel Oryx and Crake. Whilst placing teenage love on social media is fitting, Atwood’s post-apocalyptic dystopia seems worlds away from Bronte’s 19th century England. But the twist in Stella and Adam’s love story – the reason their love must remain forbidden – draws these two novels together.

My Mother’s Secret invites a re-reading of one of Jane Eyre’s most famous lines, which Stella quotes:

No woman was ever nearer to her mate than I am: ever more absolutely bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh.

Stella will regret wanting love like that… like Adam says of Atwood’s ‘speculative fiction’: ‘it means that everything could happen right now’.

Stella’s book club, and the books they read, provide a platform for the reader to speculate on the relationships in My Mother’s Secret. But the constant twists prove that these books cannot be relied on; the complexities of love in My Mother’s Secret is utterly new.

 

 

Cover reveal for My Mother’s Secret in paperback!

I love the new cover for the paperback of My Mother’s Secret. It’s not radically different – apart from Sam Carrington says, ‘Brilliant!’ on the front cover – but the colours are really eye-catching.

It’s out 4 October. The audio version is here already, if you feel like giving that a spin!

And in other news, The Stolen Child, will be published in Poland in autumn, with a gorgeously atmospheric cover.

 

 

 

In a thriller, nowhere is safe…

This is a blog post I wrote on the importance of setting for The Asian Writer, and I thought would be most appropriate as I’ve just got back from a quick trip to the Lake District, where My Mother’s Secret is partly set.

 

There’s a thin band of cream silhouetting the cranes that hover over the half-built office blocks in the city centre. I head home, below an arc of houses that will be bright as jewels when the sun comes up. At this time of the day, it’s beautiful; the river is still, and seagulls fall above it, like flecks of confetti. 

 

I love Bristol, where I live, as anyone who’s read my first thriller, Bone by Bone, might be able to guess! For my third, My Mother’s Secret, I’ve returned to Bristol as a location, but also placed another character – Lizzie Bradshaw – in Leeds and the Lake District. The settings in my novels are extremely important to me, but I’m certain a well-drawn location enhances any book. Can you imagine Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children without the blooming buzzing confusion of Delhi, or Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney without the smell of money and crack-hustle of New York?

A detailed backdrop in fiction helps create a tangible world for one’s characters, as well as being a tool the writer can use to heighten tension or thicken the atmosphere. My main character, Emma Taylor, lives in a leafy suburb of Bristol: Long Ashton. The ‘world’ this woman inhabits tells us a lot about who we think she is: middle class, comfortably off, the kind of person who shops in M&S for a treat and takes her youngest daughter to ballet lessons. It seems calm, safe, secure. Emma, though, is tense and anxious: she’s hiding a secret from everyone she knows, so Long Ashton appears the perfect place for her. Similarly, her job as a baker makes us believe she’s in a cosy, comforting cafe, filled with the scent of bubbling yeast and buttery croissants. When the reader discovers the bakery is actually in a tunnel beneath a train station, it might, perhaps, start ringing alarm bells. In contrast, Belle Isle in Leeds city centre, where Lizzie Bradshaw works, really is a dark and dangerous place.

 

A couple of boys around thirteen, but already taller than her, were hanging about on the street corner, and there was another group of young men in the centre of the housing estate, smoking and swigging from cans. She could hear the wind, boxed in by the flats, moaning round the corners. Chocolate wrappers and newspapers rustled across the ground, and a Staffordshire terrier tied to a bench with rope growled at her through bared teeth. 

 

 

Stella, Emma’s fourteen-year-old daughter, is determined to discover what her mother’s secret is. She’s a spiky, book-obsessed girl, and constantly reads Jane Eyre to make herself feel less anxious. Many of the Bristol scenes take place at Tyntesfield, a gothic mansion near Long Ashton.

William Gibbs’ collection of curiosities is stacked up and draped in sheets, but my torch picks out a few that haven’t been covered up: a glass dome with tiny, stuffed hummingbirds, the smooth carapace of an ostrich eggshell, a jade-green ammonite. This would be the perfect place for someone to stalk us. There are so many hiding places. 

The architecture and the claustrophobia of the rooms mirror both Stella’s gothic obsession, and the escalating tension in Emma’s life. The suburbs and the city centre are densely populated: as Emma says, ‘I like being surrounded by people – it feels safe;’ Lizzie, who lives in a remote village in the Lake District, feels safe precisely because there is no one around. She tells DI Simon Duffield, ‘You can walk for miles and never see a soul. Please, let me go home. I’ll be safe there.’ But, of course, in a thriller, nowhere is safe and the places we feel most secure are often the most dangerous.

 

The editor of The Asian Writer interviewed me for her new podcast. I was her first guest! It’s here if you’d like to listen: