How to write the perfect thriller
How to write a thriller by Anna Blundy
For the past ten years I’ve been sitting at home trying to write thrillers. I try not to read them while I’m writing them so that I don’t a) get demoralised because someone’s doing it better than me or b) start stealing someone else’s devices. For five books my heroine was Faith Zanetti, a war correspondent based loosely on myself, my father (who really was a war correspondent – killed 20 years ago in El Salvador) and the kinds of people I sat with in seedy Jerusalem bars when I was little, wishing my dad would take me back to the hotel.
The logo on the front of my first Faith book, The Bad News Bible, was ‘Courage Without Equal. Truth Without Bullshit. Vodka Without Tonic.’ The covers were kind of 70s and James Bond-ish and I thought of Faith as a female James Bond, hiding her complexity with grit. My editor for the Faith books, Rosie de Courcy told me that the secret to a good character is that he or she should represent the writer’s fantasy self so that you end up writing a fantasy autobiography. The art of good thriller writing, she said, was to let the reader know that an axe is hanging over our hero’s head but not to tell them when it’s going to fall. She says you have to ‘show not tell’ and that your hero or heroine can be as vile as you like as long as there’s one undeniably good thing about them – Scarlett O’Hara, Rosie points out, loved her mother and father.
I tried to follow Rosie’s advice but I do always get led astray by my characters and drawn into their inner lives and motivations, wrapped up in the psychological drama. My Faith books always have a big emotional event around which the plot is constructed – the death of a close friend, falling in love, an ex-lover on the prowl, a resurrected relative, the safety of a child. But then I read a Dan Brown book and see that his success lies in entirely ignoring characterisation for a tight plot constructed around an inanimate object.
This week, for The Browser, I interviewed thriller writer James Twining and he had five key rules that he felt must be followed to come up with the perfect thriller – Dan Brown’s core concept is one of them. If only I’d known…
First, Twining says, you’ve got to have a fantastic central character, like James Bond: ‘What Fleming does is he has a central character who’s totally compelling – a fantasy figure who men want to be like and women want to sleep with. He’s sophisticated and charming with a slight brutality. It dates a bit now some of that, the language and the racial depictions perhaps don’t work so well. But you’d have to struggle to look at literary fiction over the past 50 years and come up with a character who has really inhabited the popular consciousness.’ Another classic character is Sam Spade in the Maltese Falcon. You can’t think about Sam Spade without thinking of Humphrey Bogard, Twining reminded me.
Ian Fleming, of course, has an immediately recognisable writing style and this is obviously fairly key and perhaps the most difficult thing for anyone considering writing a thriller to achieve. In some ways you either have a good writing style or you don’t. This might not be something that can be learnt.
You also, as noted above, need the action to revolve round an inanimate object that provides motivation for the human characters. Twining again: ‘The Maltese Falcon itself is this artefact covered in jewels that has been painted black to disguise it, but it’s a complete mcguffin! It doesn’t actually matter at all, except to provide motivation for the characters. I’ve used this device in my new book about the illicit trade in antiquities – I’ve used an ivory mask that really was found in London and had been dug up in Italy. I mean, think of Pulp Fiction. We never do find out what’s in the bloody briefcase. You could say it’s a cop out, but it’s no more of a cop out than your best friend dying and having to find out who the murderer is.You need something to get the story in motion.’
Another thing that Twining suggests is key is to have some element of reality in your novel so that readers can think; ‘Ooh, I never knew that.’ ‘I think Dan Brown’s books are often like a lecture embedded in a chase story,’ Twining told me. Another example of this is Frederick Forsyth’s Day of The Jackal: ‘This has a real historical character, General Charles De Gaulle. It’s an amazing trick really because we all know De Gaulle wasn’t assassinated, but the whole way along we’re thinking: ‘Shit! Is he going to die!’ ‘Silence of the Lambs also has elements of reality in it. Thomas Harris has based Lector on Ed Gein, a serial killer who robbed graves and killed woman in order to flay the corpses for their skins. Greene was also the basis for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Norman Bates in Psycho. He also uses the real murderer Garry Ridgeway who dumped women’s bodies with objects inside them.’
In Day of the Jackal Forsyth uses another of the devices that Twining recognises as key in that he actually breaks a news story. Forsyth in this book exposed the practise of applying for passports in the name of dead children. ‘People would go to graveyards and look for the graves of children. The government actually had to change the law on the basis of his research,’ Twining said. Thomas Harris does the same in Silence of the Lambs: ‘Like Forsyth in Day of the Jackal, Harris breaks a story in that he popularised or exposed the workings of the FBI’s criminal profiling unit. He put them on the map. Nowadays they are always in any crime drama.’
So, James Twining and I concluded between us that to write a good thriller you need: a brilliant central character, a recognisable writing style (Fleming has his distinctive short sentences and muscularity), some link to reality like a real event, character or detailed research, an inanimate object around which the human story revolves, and a news story that breaks as a result of the novel. Easy.