Thriller, Thriller Time!

Alma T. C. Boykin

I confess, I no longer read thrillers. I used to read Frederick Foresyth, (Day of the Jackal, The Odessa File), Alistair Maclean* (Goodby California, The Satan Bug, The Guns of Navarone) and novels like The Wild Geese, Hunt for Red October, and so on. At some point, I either lost my taste for them, or they wandered away into “too many gizmos not enough character.) It could well be that my preference for pacing has slowed, which right there collides with thrillers as a genre.

By definition, a thriller is fast-paced with a lot of tension and high stakes. Sort of the anti-cozy in some ways, if you will. It overlaps with adventure stories by having a strong hero and strong villain or antagonist. There will be a collision, at least one, between characters in the story. Plot twists are standard and things happen quickly, both in the story-world and in the book. Thrillers race from event to event. They are full of emotion, adrenaline and tension and edge-of-the seat stuff. And the good guy is good, and wins, and there might be a lesson about maturity and mission.

The main characters need to be well drawn and complicated. Note that character development isn’t always important in the story as told, although it may be shown as background (Capt. Marko Ramius in The Hunt for Red October doesn’t show that much growth. Neither does Jack Ryan, although he does grow.) I still remember the main characters in The Wild Geese even though it’s been at least thirty years since I read it. They are flawed men, but interesting men, who make some terribly hard choices to accomplish the final goal of the mission. (That one has elements of tragedy in it, at least as I recall. Ditto H.M.S. Ulysses.)

Heads will butt and characters collide. The conflict may be between the hero and villain, perhaps, or between the hero and the villain’s forces, between the good-guys as they argue over the best course of action (“She’s a spy.” “No, she’s not, she’s a victim.” Think of the girl in movie of The Guns of Navarone, and the conflicts.) Or both/and, because often the hero of a thriller will have disagreements with her bosses over priorities or methods. The over-arching conflict tends to have high stakes – life and death, California will get nuked**, the enemy will get the super weapon, the hostages will die. The conflict is what drives the story, and probably should be sorted out in advance, if you can. That also lets you add motivations to certain characters.

Plots in thrillers don’t go in a straight line. The overall plot of H.M.S. Ulysses is “escort convoy from Scappa Flow to Murmansk.” In winter, without air cover, while the German Navy is trying to sink everything, and there’s a personal conflict among the crew and the weather gets worse and worse, and . . . Twist that plot like you were wringing out every bit of water you can. If the protagonist needs to zig, zag. For once have the gizmo actually work . . . and then something else breaks instead. The hero needs fog to hid his movements. The setting is Seattle, or San Francisco. And the fog burns off at the wrong time, or you have one of those rare clear days so everyone goes to the waterfront to see the sunset just as . . . The spy’s contact is hit by a car, and . . . (Tom Clancy used that one to great effect.)

Pacing, pacing, tight, tight. You keep the usual tension-release-greater tension-less release pattern, but things move faster with less “down time.” This means most exposition probably needs to be at the start of the story, so you can get any techno-dumps, er, excuse me, introduce the McGuffin in loving detail. The fight on the edge of the canyon in the next-to-last chapter is not the time to discuss the economic significance of the mineral formations in the mountain that the bad guys want to blow up.

Emotions run hard and high in a thriller. It is supposed to thrill, excite, send pulses racing. Any slow, gentle romantic elements are going to be early on, then at the end, not in the middle. I associate thrillers with tension, but a different kind than in horror. The hero has to find and eliminate the assassin before he kills President Du Gaul. The team must grab the former African leader and whisk him away from the CIA before he’s eliminated or coopted. The Soviet sub could wipe out the eastern US and no one would ever know the boat was there – is the captain really defecting or is it an elaborate trap? If the super-gun is finished and fires, British convoys are doomed and North Africa will fall to the bad guys. Tension is the driving emotion, or so it feels to me.

And thrillers tend to have a bit of a lesson. That lesson might be “don’t mess with the wife and kids of a dangerous man,” or “sometimes you do need to trust a former enemy if she proves herself,” or “betraying your country is a Bad Idea.” The team has to work as a team to accomplish the mission, and sometimes sacrifices are needed.

I write slow stories, with lots of details and quiet moments. In other words, not thrillers. You can’t go wrong reading the classics, and some of the newer ones. There are lots of sub-genres, including family-thrillers (tension within a family – will it survive the revelations and solution of the problem?), techno-thrillers (shiny things!), military thrillers (submarines and Special Forces missions and firearms oh my!), and more. As with all sub-genres, you will need to know your stuff, especially for techno and military. People who read those Know Things. You cannot get away with a fully automatic revolver handgun in a military thriller unless 1) you make it a joke, or 2) you invent one or dig up a real one to use, because someone will look. Airplanes as well. Not to name names, but a piston engine plane can only go Mach 2 once. Downhill. Probably in pieces.

Image: Image by Szilárd Szabó from Pixabay

*We can argue all day if H.M.S. Ulysses is a thriller or “just” a war novel. It is a classic, whatever you call it, and one of the coldest books I’ve ever read.

**I’d be curious to see if this would still work as a plot element, or if “threat to nuke the place” has been overused.

30 thoughts on “Thriller, Thriller Time!

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    1. These days, if I woke up and heard Thanos had snapped that state into dust I’d think: “Well, I’ll miss Nick Cole and Nicole, but even they’d probably agree it’s for the best.”

      Sort of like how the new Ghostbuster’s movie HAD to be set in Small Town America, because if a demon lord was going to drag present day New York City into hell 1) would anyone care and 2) would anyone even notice?

  1. What romance subplots I’ve seen (in books by Dean Koontz, people like that), tend to be: two people who might vaguely have seen each other before and found each other attractive, end up on the run together, and bond during the stops to eat/change cars/figure out their next move.

    Personal pet peeve I’m venting about without regard to the original post: “Is he defecting or is he just going to blow stuff up?” is a perfectly fine thriller plot but with regard to Red October, it’s post-hoc Epileptic Trees theorizing. In the book IIRC we have access to the Russian officers’ thoughts and can see their intentions. The film was made at a time when every English-language person interested in that type of story could be presumed to have read the book; it cast a well-known star who rarely went darker than charming anti-hero as Ramius; and did not have him play the character in a particularly sinister (Sword of the Valiant) or grandiose (Man Who Would Be King) kind of way.

      1. Agreed, but this one does not; all the tropes, from the casting to the “wholesome young family man CIA analyst versus stodgy upper brass” scenes, point to Ryan being right about Ramius defecting. “Soviet big shots might be telling America the truth about Ramius’ intentions” is American commies engaging in a bit of wishful thinking. (Or, possibly, Alec Baldwin’s PR at work trying to whitewash one of his more politically incorrect films.)

          1. *Shrugs* I dunno. Admittedly I grew up in a Tom Clancy reading, Sean Connery watching household, and we went to Red October on initial release knowing pretty well what to expect. But Ryan and Ramius and the people sympathetic-ish to them are portrayed as appealing figures in one way or another: Pelt’s wit, Painter’s gnomic wisdom, Greer’s dignity, Borodin’s longing for Montana. The people straightforwardly against them, meanwhile are either ugly, stodgy old VIPs or Tupolev skulking in his Alfa sub with its sinister lighting.

            (The Dallas captain and crew are the only sympathetic party we see hunting the Red October, but they align pretty quickly, if grudgingly, with Ryan’s plan after he’s on board.)

            There are filmmakers that could have sUbVerTed eXpeCtaTionS to the extent of flipping that around on the audience, but usually you can detect the underlying note of sadism which goes along with that attitude from early on in a film or book.

  2. I read Walter Wager’s “Telefon” some time ago. In spite of the somewhat outdated plot (everything depends on land lines, there were no cell phones), I really enjoyed it. The author did a nice job of lampshading the time element by pointing out that the agents’ targets, in many cases, were no longer valuable. A well-written thriller may date, but not by all that much. The stakes are still high and we still root for the good guys.

  3. Trouble is a lot of the thick thrillers can feel a little padded. If the action scene doesn’t change anything, then what was the point of having it?

    Ira Levin’s thrillers were short, and sharp, but now that I think of it: did he really write thrillers? There was always tons of suspense and looming menace, but sometimes not much action. Almost a cross between a cozy and a thriller.

    1. I have a feeling that publisher demand is part of that. “Tom Clancy wrote fat books that were best sellers, so you need to write a fat book!” (No, not all of his books were fat). That, and wanting a high page count to justify the price of the book. [Ah, for the days when a pocket-paperback of 400 or so pages cost $3.99 or less.]

    2. I’ve been reading some of the Alistair McLean books, where are the “pocket paperbacks” that actually fit in a pocket. I don’t know that there are any of his that I have that are much over 200 pages.

  4. I’ve read a few of James Rollins’ Sigma Force books, but a thriller series can suffers from a problem: If the whole world is threatened in every book, it can get ridiculous. I always thought it more effective in series to mix up books with higher and lower stakes, or build up to something big over the course of two or three books.

    But there’s still some character growth. It’ was kind of fun when Seichan, former assassin and all-around killing machine, ends married to the main hero and is adjusting to being an expectant mother – which makes her just as much of a killing machine if the bad guys are threatening.

    1. That’s a problem in a lot of genres. “We’re saving the world again, Pinkie!” gets a bit old, no matter how much you love the characters and writing (unless it is very tongue in cheek). It is a version of scale-creep, where you start with the character rescuing a dog from a pond and end up saving the universe – again. At a certain point, either you have to completely shift gears in a series, or just sign off and start something new.

      I suspect that’s why some of the classic authors didn’t do series, but stand-alone novels. Each was complete, and the author could shift to a new project without fans grumbling about “oh, dear, the KGB is threatening world domination again. Yawn.”

      1. I’ve been reading the old Shadow pulp novels, and I’m impressed at the variety in terms of stakes. They’re short – barely 200 pages most of them – and range from mysteries and crime thrillers, sci-fi, globetrotting adventures, and out-and-out supervillains. You’ve got standalones, multi-part story-arcs, etc.

        Walter Gibson was able to have the best of both worlds when he decided to keep the Shadow himself mainly in the background for a lot of these adventures and instead follow surrogate heroes and protagonists through most of the individual books.

      2. In fact, I would offer a rule that if you want to endanger the world, you have to wait until the first book is half over, even if it’s the only book.

        I have yet to see a book that succeeded in convincing me that the world was real enough for me to care that it was in danger when I was told earlier.

        That I only read that in high fantasy may be a factor.

  5. The nuke threat still works, for those of a certain age.
    But those born after the dissolution of the USSR don’t have the “ten minutes to midnight” software installed in their psyche.*
    So you’re narrowing your audience by either grabbing the football and running, or spending at least a chapter trying to condense decades of fearmongering into something that grabs the young.

    *The software was installed, but kludged to inculcate fear of the nebulous “climate”. The effectiveness depends on the individual’s logic circuits.

    1. And some of us Gen X types suffer from “Boy Who Cried Nuclear Wolf” syndrome, where our main response to people having the vapors about the risk of suitcase nukes or tactical nukes in a given geopolitical situation is “Yeah, whatever.”

      1. I’m 60+ and I’m tired of “We’re All Doomed” in the News let alone in Books/Movies. 😈

    2. The Separatist State of California never closed its borders when the HZA-5 infection was first reported in China. They didn’t close the ports when Russia followed through on its threat to close *their* border with the nukes nobody even believed they had.

      Now the Free States have a choice to make. Nuke California. Or allow the infection to take root on North America. The Legion Primus is arguing for the former. The director of the new CDC is arguing for the latter. The Alaskan Navy wants to mine the ports and sink any ship approaching the coast, and is willing to start a third war with the SSC and their allies to do it.

      Will the leader of the Free States call down nukes on what was once American soil? Or will the continent go the way of Old Europe and fall to the most virulent plague in modern times?

      Me, I’m rooting for the nukes.

  6. Best thriller I’ve read in ages was Corpse in Armor by Martin McPhillips. (FYI, I’m not him, I don’t know him, I don’t even know whether he’d appreciate the plug.) This book was mentioned here in comments a year or two ago, and I got curious and bought it. It reads like Tom Clancy without the technobabble, and Alstair McLean without the war background. The POV character is a psychologist, and the book starts with her trying to figure out what’s bothering her about her newest client. It turns out that the client is actually a hostile operative trying to set her up as a patsy, and … she gets swept up into a situation that just keeps getting bigger and shadowy-er and wilder until … well, no spoilers, but I think the ending answers Alma’s footnote question in the affirmative.

  7. I used to read more big-stakes thrillers, too, but I’ve moved on to favor the more personal/small-scale kind instead, e.g. Thomas Perry, (the older non-McGee John D. MacDonald), Michael Connelly, Stephen Hunter, etc. I like the character interactions better than the “villains are scheming to defeat your plans to save the world” variety.

    Though I do still make occasional exceptions for SciFi planetary-catastrophe stuff… 🙂

  8. I’m about halfway through Kurt Schlichter’s Inferno and the nuke (formerly used as the MacGuffin in The Split) gets used again.

    So, the villain using a nuke isn’t quite dead yet.

  9. Can anybody recommend some good resources in outlining a thriller?

    How about some advice is combining the grilled format with sci fi or fantasy? Applying a sci fi element or fantasy element in clever ways that apply to a thriller-themed work?

    1. The more coherent “epic fantasy” sagas have a lot in common with Tom Clancy style cast-of-thousands thrillers. Phillip C. Quaintrell’s books are the ones I’ve read most recently in that style. (Note: not suitable for children.) Tolkien read Golden Age murder mysteries (although he disliked Peter Wimsey for unsurprising reasons), and I’ve seen people say that they see traces of that in the way he hints at or withholds information in LOTR before revealing it. (Denethor’s motivations and Aragorn’s backstory/lovelife were cited as examples).

      For outlining, this strikes me as a good “generic” starting point.
      https://www.savannahgilbo.com/blog/thriller-structure
      I know it’s fashionable to diss on the three-act structure in some circles, but sometimes the boring conventional approach is helpful when one is starting out.
      There are spreadsheets available elsewhere on the web that use this 3-act format and will give you wordcount milestones for each plot development if you fill in the overall words-in-novel target.

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