One of the greatest fiction genres of the twentieth century is the thriller (crime fiction) and there seems to be no sign of it slowing in its development or appeal. From a new writer’s point of view, it’s attractive because agents know what they’re getting, publishers know how to market a thriller and book shops know which section of the shelves to stock it. These things can make all the difference to a writing career.
- Take a moment to think about your favourite thriller if you have one. Scribble privately around why you like it. What are your favourite moments in that book? Why not read it again, making notes? It won’t be wasted time.
- Describe your favourite villain, dead or alive, real or fictional in a scribble-portrait for five or ten minutes. What do you enjoy about that character? What hooks you in?
- What’s your favourite resolution or twist in any thriller? Why? How does it make you feel?
- Why do you think we like thrillers?
- Conversely, what do you dislike about thrillers? What puts you off most? Why do you think that is?
Let yourself free-write around this for a while, over several days if you like.
The fact is that, love or leave them, thrillers are perennially popular. Why? Here are some thoughts that came up in a chat with my Cambridge writing group:
- They are usually accessible page-turners. Even if you’re not a fan of the genre, they can teach any fiction writer a lot about keeping readers hooked in.
- They bring us into a world where order and justice are valued.
- The outcome usually feels safe and moral. For a few moments at least, our world feels like a better place.
- There are thrills and cliff-hangers along the way of course in a series of logical, though tantalising steps; we love all that. In the hands of a good author, we are in for escapism and plenty of safe thrills.
How real is Thrillerland?
Have you ever had news that someone close to you has passed away? Please pass by this exercise if you want to but if you can bear it, take ten minutes or so to describe your feelings and actions at that time. Include dialogue if you’d like to. Go as deep as you want but stop any time you become uncomfortable with going into the past in this way.
Compare what you’ve written with how this is portrayed on television and film. Try giving yourself another ten minutes to pot-hole around this subject, the reality versus the conventions that we accept.
Above all, we are after emotional truth in whatever we write. These exercises will help you become alert to clichés and make your fiction stronger.
When was the first thriller?
The Bible is a great source of stories and right there in the Apocrypha are two ‘thrillers’, written in the 1st and 2nd centuries BC:
Susanna is an attractive lass. On her way home, she’s accosted by two elders who say they’ve seen her having sex with a young man. They threaten to ruin her reputation by spreading the story unless she has sex with both elders. Their story is not true so Susanna calls them liars and tells them to go away and leave her alone. Good for her. But in no time, they have told everyone their lie and she is distraught. What can she do?
A young man called Daniel (destined for later fame) intervenes. He sets about interrogating the two elders about what they say they witnessed. She’s supposed to have been with a young man under a tree – what kind of tree? Exactly where? The elders give conflicting answers and hey presto, their lies are exposed. Susanna is free, and they’re not.
Young David (also destined for later greatness) is trying to persuade the priests of the ancient deity Baal that his God is superior and should be worshipped above all other gods. The priests show David the mounds of offerings brought daily to their temple, all of which vanish in the night, leaving room for more the next day. Surely if Baal did not exist, this daily miracle could not happen so David must abandon his own God and see the error of his ways. David spends a night in the Temple of Baal. Before he settles for bed, he dusts ash over the floor around the altar laden with offerings. He prays, lies down and has an excellent night’s sleep. In the morning, the offerings have disappeared and … the ash reveals a host of footsteps belonging to the priests and their families, nipping in to help themselves. Problem solved and again the story proves that no-one is above justice.
Credit for the first modern detective story goes to Edgar Allan Poe whose Murders on the Rue Morgue was published in 1841. A pair of bloodthirsty murders seem to be unsolvable until the detective cracks it: the culprit is an escaped orang-utang, not human after all.
The story was immediately greeted as having invented an important new genre: the detective story had arrived. Despite Poe telling us that teeth marks at the scene of the crime couldn’t possibly fit any human, and that the hairs found there couldn’t possibly be human either, readers complained that the ending was too much of a surprise. However, many of the now familiar tropes of the detective novel were firmly in place: a genius detective runs rings around the police and has his story narrated by his nice, dependable side-kick. Remind you of anyone?
Arthur Conan Doyle was a young medic at the time, which gave him useful insight into human anatomy and murder clues. He wrote sixty stories about Holmes and Watson, the first published in The Strand magazine illustrated by Sidney Paget. I love Watson’s body language in Paget’s drawing below.
Thanks to film and television, the Holmes and Watson magic continues to thrive.
Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone (1868) brought a turning point in the well-made detective novel – the detective is a police sergeant this time.
Dickens, never one to leave a good plot line unturned, left The Mystery Of Edwin Drood sadly unfinished when he died.
By the time the twentieth century was well under way, so was the thriller. In cinema Alfred Hitchcock was the master of suspense and spilled gore. On the page Agatha Christie led the field in the UK, Raymond Chandler in the States.
Ingredients of the perfect thriller
- An initial puzzle, usually an unexplained corpse. Death means high stakes.
- A quirky detective. He or she needn’t be officially police, in fact the more ordinary he or she is, the more we empathise.
- A nice steady side-kick to be the reliable narrator and safe company for readers through the rollercoaster ride.
- A lovely location always helps. In the UK locations range from Oxford to the Shetland Isles. Is where you live asking for the thriller treatment?
- There’s the usual pattern of tension and release as the stakes rise. Serial murders – are they linked or not? – increase danger in the community.
- A red herring or two helps stretch the story and raise the stakes: an innocent person is accused until the detective works out the truth. Unless he’s the detective in Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap where (spoiler alert) he is the one who winds up in handcuffs. Which brings us to
- The twist! The murderer is the last person we’d suspected but of course …
What makes thrillers different from other plots?
- The hero/ine who solves the problem is not usually part of the main story. Though they can be affected by what they’ve experienced, they usually live to detect another day.
- The puzzle story can be another type of plot altogether eg. Ghost story, quest, love story, revenge etc.
- Murder happens in all sorts of stories, from The Orestia to Jack and the Beanstalk, without any puzzle about whodunit or whydunit. Thrillers are about solving the puzzle.
- Although murder is high on the list of thoroughly antisocial crimes, the simplest thrillers do not go in much for moral discussion or debate about how society should respond. Usually murder just happens. But that doesn’t have to be the case. The beauty of the thriller structure is that it’s linear and beautifully straightforward. And you can pack in around that anything you like.
Where does Oedipus Rex come in?
I’ve said that Miss Marple and her crew are usually not part of the main story. The exceptions are psychological murder tales where the guilt is not in doubt; the puzzle is why murder happened. In these stories the murderer might be the narrator, a trick that is fertile ground for twists.
But the complex psychological thriller with the perpetrator as protagonist is far from new. Oedipus was given the job of finding out who killed King Laius and discovered to his and everyone’s horror that, not only was he the murderer himself but that the king was his own father. Two things about this are relevant to us:
- Sophocles’ play was full of debate about the implications for the society of what Oedipus had done. How far should Oedipus take the blame when the Sphinx had prophesied, when Oedipus was a boy, that his destiny was to kill his own father and marry his mother and everyone had gone to considerable lengths to make both geographically and in every other way impossible? This beautiful picture of young Oedipus with the Sphinx comes from a kylix or drinking cup, c. 470 BCE, in the Gregorian Etruscan Museum in the Vatican.
- Was Oedipus Rex perhaps the first ever thriller where the investigator is guilty of the crime? Who knows? Very few stories are new under the sun and Oedipus did not stop Agatha Christie giving us The Mousetrap (where the detective is the murderer) which has run as a play in London for 66 years and 27,000 performances by 2018.
Where Christie leads, we can follow. Let any of these great stories inspire you in whatever way works best, not forgetting the words of Val McDermid:
‘The contemporary crime novel is, at its best, a novel of character. That’s where the suspense comes from.’
Have a happy writing week!