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Paul Finch: How to Write a Thriller

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Paul Finch

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One of the things my thriller writing has won most praise for is its creation of terror and suspense. If true, this obviously works in my favour: I’m a career writer, thrillers are my forte, and thrillers wouldn’t be thrillers if they weren’t able to keep their audiences on the edges of their seats.

But how do you go about doing this? How do you make your readers too frightened to turn the page but at the same time desperate to know what happens next?

Well … I can only respond by outlining my own experience and process.

The reality is that, as with any mood a writer is seeking to evoke – be it romance, mystery, comedy – you need to work on it thoughtfully, and construct it with attention to detail. Sometimes of course, you get lucky, and stumble on scenarios that are tense and frightening simply because they are. But most of the time it doesn’t work like that. You’ve got to remember that your readers aren’t privy to your innermost fears and doubts, so a lot of the time situations you happen to find discomforting won’t have the same effect on them; it’s basically about leaving nothing to chance, and the masters of the form do exactly that.

Stephen King’s chilling short story, The Ledge, tells the tale of an ordinary man who falls foul of the mob and is forced to walk around the exterior of a skyscraper penthouse along a seven-inch shelf. It’s a nightmare scenario by any standards, but King works it for everything he can, page after page, ensuring we are with this guy each foot of the way, experiencing his every near-slip, his every stab of pain as pigeons peck at his ankles.

paul finchFor the sheer stress it puts the reader through, this is one of the great pieces of thriller fiction. It is literally exhausting to read it. But what are the ingredients of successful scenes like this? Well, there are four essential boxes I always feel I need to tick.

Character.

Threat.

Situation.

Atmosphere.

In terms of character, it’s never going to work if the readers don’t like your protagonist. By that, I don’t mean you have to like them, as in make them someone you’d enjoy going on a dinner date with. You can be repelled by them; they can be thoroughly objectionable. But they’ve got to be real, someone whose personality and motivations are clear and accessible, otherwise it won’t be possible for the reader to invest emotionally in their fate.

Now, if the characters concerned are central figures in your book or script, this is probably going to happen anyway because you’ll have had plenty time to develop them. However, many characters in thriller and horror writing are short-lived. These are the victims, the guys in red shirts who always go down to the planet surface in the Star Trek landing party so they can serve the purpose of being killed while Kirk and Spock get away. Those faceless he-men in red shirts worked fine back in those days because it was all so new. Trust me, it wouldn’t be so effective now – audiences are more sophisticated.

If your character is to be short-lived, a victim just waiting to get the chop, you’ve still got to give him or her a back-story. I don’t mean you should overload it chapter on chapter, but take a little time to give us a glimpse of their humanity. They may have a spouse waiting for them, they may have kids at home, they may be struggling at work, or to find work – above all, they have feelings, they can be hurt.

All this makes them much easier to sympathise with and root for.

And they don’t have to be overtly vulnerable. A confused OAP or a lost child will always win your readers’ vote; it’s easy to fear for them. But look at John Boorman’s movie, Deliverance, in which the heroes were four red-blooded guys on an outdoors adventure, and yet we got to know them so well that we empathised with them hugely as they fought desperately for survival.

(And this is another thing. Don’t be frightened to strip your characters down to their raw emotions. Think of the impact the opening scene in Jaws had, when the poor lass, whilst under attack by the shark, screamed hoarsely for God to help her. It’s a tragic and frightening scene even today, the sight of this modern, free-spirited girl plunged into this nightmare of nightmares from which she instinctively knows there’ll be no escape – don’t be afraid to upset your readers; that’s what they’ve bought your book for).

With regard to threat, this will be the keystone of your thriller anyway.

I’m not here to tell you how to create a great villain; that’s an art-form in itself. And you certainly won’t need me to advise you about scenarios of indescribable horror; they are around us all day, on news bulletins. I will say this – whether your threat be a person, an animal, a supernatural entity, or an everyday predicament – you can’t make it too terrible.

Remember how this works. You’re asking your readers to follow these characters they now know and love, as they walk unwittingly into peril. The readers, of course, will have an idea what’s going to happen because you’ve prepared the ground for them, but shout and scream though they may, the characters can’t hear them. And yet this intense experience is only going to occur if the menace is real and tangible. So for example, in Susan Hill’s The Woman In Black, if Arthur Kipps was being forced to spend time alone at Eel Marsh House and there was lots of mist around and he felt very isolated – sure, it would be spooky. But how much more spooky is it when the audience know in advance that this house is the abode of a hateful spirit that will seek to destroy him?

Yet, while I say don’t be shy about making your threat monstrous, that doesn’t mean you can’t be subtle as well. In fact, subtlety can raise the stakes dramatically – and this lesson goes back to the earliest days of thriller writing. In the poem Beowulf, which dates to the 6th century, the monster Grendel is never physically described; it is simply an unstoppable something that comes out of the darkness, and on one occasion leaves 30 butchered victims. That you don’t know what it looks like – in other words you can’t mentally quantify the nature of the menace, despite the carnage it leaves behind – is all the more terrifying. And there are myriad examples of this in modern times, from the classic opening 30 minutes of the sci-fi horror Them! in 1954, when we’ve no idea what murdered the family in the camper fan and left the little girl deranged, to the modern serial killer thriller, Se7en (1995) when the detectives battle haplessly with a faceless madman who is always streets ahead of them.

Conversely, in Thomas Harris’s Hannibal novels, we know full well what Hannibal Lector looks like and who he is, but his urbane charm is utterly disorienting – this smiling villain is surely too nice to be capable of such horrors, yet we know from the outset that he isn’t. With a simple look across the dinner table, this guy can freeze the blood.

To sum up, your menace doesn’t have to come in shouting and roaring – you don’t even have to see it – but it has to be immense. Believe me, your readership can take as much as you can give them, and will thank you all the more for it.

The next tick-box is situation.

That may sound as if it speaks for itself. But the important element here is believability. To a certain extent, this may already by driven by one of our previous criteria: character. If the readers empathise with your characters you can get away with almost anything. Dr Who is a great example. The Doctor visits the most outlandish locations and faces scenarios which, even in sci-fi terms, verge on the completely ridiculous, yet the audience has bought so much into his character that even the most unlikely threats seem plausible.

That said, an audience’s familiarity with an environment will never hurt. One of our great crime novels, Jack’s Return Home, by Ted Lewis, is set in Scunthorpe of all places, a working class town with which many British readers were easily able to identify, but in which the gangster-infested pool halls and massage parlours suddenly seemed a public nuisance rather than a common backdrop to urban life. When Mike Hodges adapted it as Get Carter! in 1971, he shifted it to the even more grimly picturesque city of Newcastle, and how effective was that? The land of tower blocks and dark Satanic mills – previously in British cinema the home of kitchen-sink dramas – was suddenly tailor-made for the crime thriller medium. However, it’s equally important that your characters are in these environments for convincing reasons. In Jack’s Return Home, Jack Carter is an underworld figure from the get-go, heading north to investigate the death of his brother, which brings him into direct conflict with the local firms. No crime reader was going to query that. In another British crime novel of that era, The Siege of Trencher’s Farm (later adapted as Straw Dogs), an intellectual couple in an isolated house on the scenic Cornish moors fall foul of a local mob when they seek to protect a sex-offender – that is a disturbingly realistic scenario, which is even more likely to happen in real life now than it was then.

Not to labour this point, but I’m going to break one of my own rules now, and tell you something I think you shouldn’t do rather than something you should. Modern thriller narratives are traditionally filled with moments of idiocy by the characters, a device often used to move the plot along. For example, there’s a killer out there, so what do the characters do? – they split up. Or how about they hear strange and terrifying noises – and go and investigate. As I mentioned earlier, modern audiences are a bit too sophisticated for that, and if a situation is too unbelievable or contrived, it will result in sniggers rather than screams.

So, by all means, put them in scary predicaments, but authenticity is, and always will be, the key to making your readers feel the danger themselves.

Lastly, but possibly most important of all, is atmosphere. And in some ways this is the hardest to pin down, because we tend to have preconceived notions about it.

For example, a haunted house is only going to be scary if it has gargoyles on its eaves and cobwebs in its windows. A high crime district is only going to be believable if it has gang tags on its wall and syringes in the gutters. Okay, all that kind of window-dressing may be important, but I don’t think it’s essential. Let me give you two different examples.

A pleasant coastal resort and the open road. Couldn’t be less threatening, right?

In Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man (1973), Summer Isle is a beautiful Scottish island with a picture postcard village around its harbour. But that doesn’t prevent you suspecting something awful is going to happen as various odd aspects of the place slowly emerge, invoking a sense of pagan evil. In Richard Matheson’s breath-taking short story, Duel, the setting is a sun-drenched motorway. Normal enough, except that this one is eerily empty – apart from our tired travelling salesman and the dirty old truck that unrelentingly teases and tortures him, in which scenario the sheer monotony of the long, deserted blacktop, the mere appearance of which saps hope and energy, becomes as much a foe as the maniac in the rear.

So it’s not so much the locations, as how they look, feel, and pluck at the nerves of your embattled characters.

A project relying on suspense will only benefit from an atmosphere that makes its protagonists feel vulnerable and oppresses the readers. In purely technical terms, there are lots of ways you can achieve this: geographically (a tiny army base at the North Pole; a beleaguered police station in the riot zone); meteorologically (snow, ice, fog); even architecturally (an urban ghetto full of faceless buildings and derelict subways, where the unseen attack could come from any direction). However you do it, the key is creating a sense of isolation, strangeness and menace, in which your characters feel small and insecure.

So, at the end of the day … is that it? Is that how do you evoke tension, fear, suspense?

Sadly, no.

These can only be basic guidelines. To write effective suspense, you’ve still got to tauten your narrative and bring pace to your prose. This is equally important to any of the above, if not more so. One quick way to achieve this is to read your finished scenes onto tape, and play them back. If they sound laborious and slow, that’s probably because they are – in which case don’t be frightened to wield the hatchet, slicing out every bit of text that doesn’t serve the purpose of creating tension. Save your lovely descriptions and your characters’ thought processes for parts of the book that don’t rely on nerve-shredding terror, because the last thing you want to do at that stage is slow it all down.

Just a few thoughts here. Not by any means the whole story, but one or two ideas which, on the whole, seem to work for me, and which others, with luck, will find useful and interesting.

Happy writing

(c) Paul Finch

About The Killing Club

Explosive and compelling, DS Mark ‘Heck’ Heckenburg is back. But nothing can prepare him for this; his most dangerous case to date is open again.

Two years ago, he put the ringleader of The Nice Guys Club – a vicious rape and murder gang – behind bars. But Heck knows that this depraved organisation stretches far beyond UK shores.

When brutal murders start happening across the country, it’s clear that the Nice Guys are at work again. Their victims are killed in cold blood, in broad daylight, and by any means necessary. And Heck knows it won’t be long before they come for him.

Brace yourself as you turn the pages of a living nightmare. Welcome to The Killing Club.

The Killing Club is in all good bookshops and available online here

About the author

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