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What makes it a Thriller?

As I was busy inhaling an ARC of Michael Palmer's new book, The Last Surgeon, I decided to focus this issue of the newsletter on thrillers. For me, Palmer is practically the ultimate page turning writer. I starting thinking after that what makes a thriller so "thrilling"? Why can't you put it down? Why are some books just inert, using the same formula, and some are rocket powered? All I could do, lacking the magical spark that I think all real writers must have, is figure out if there's some kind of tried and true formula. There seem to be a few commonalities, traits shared by Coben, Connelly, Child, Cornwell, Fairstein, Deaver, Gerristsen, etc.

Upping the ante. There are a couple ways an author seems to accomplish this one, but it's important that the main character have some kind of mission which is tied to a deeply felt allegiance. Often this is a lost love (Coben) but it can also be a family member or a fallen friend (field of battle is a good one, see the latest Palmer title). Even the untouchable Jack Reacher might feel a bit of family feeling in The Enemy, which I think is my favorite of Lee Child's books.

Twists. The twists need to be spaced through the book, but there's usually one at the end where a previously unsuspected character turns out to be bad. Harlan Coben is especially skilled at this one, so is Jeffery Deaver.

An unsolvable problem. Obviously, the problem is solvable, but it has to seem insolvable. Dick Francis actually is a past master at this—in the last chapter he puts his hero into some situation where it seems like escape is pretty much impossible. Working from the old school, Francis doesn't use any of the high tech stuff available to authors working today. One of my favorite Francis books winds up with him tying his main character to a simple coffee table.

Romance. Not every suspense writer uses this one, but I always appreciate it. Michael Palmer is especially adept at getting two characters together, usually strong and interesting ones, and for me part of the fun of reading a Palmer book is figuring out which characters are going to get together. It doesn't need to be a big part of the story, but it helps to up the ante (see above!).

Specificity. This is the one, I think, that seperates the really good thrillers from the so-so ones. The specifics of something need to be an integral part of the story—it makes it more resonant, more engaging—just simply, better. Think of Connelly's masterful Void Moon; Cornwell's Postmortem, Jeffery Deaver's The Stone Monkey, or practically any Dick Francis title. All spotlight something you probably didn't know much about before, but you learn as you read! Steve Hamilton's new book, The Lock Artist, will tell you all you need to know about picking locks.

PACE. There's no such thing as a poorly paced thriller. Again, I'm not sure what magic is involved here, but it's definitely a skill. I read an interview with Barbara D'Amato once where she talked about physically laying out different parts of her manuscript on the floor and figuring out what worked. Since I think D'Amato is one of the best at pacing (and actual suspense) I was willing to take her word for it. Not being a writer myself, I don't care how she does it as long as she produces a book for me to read!

And finally, Pace is the sister of Suspense. In a really good thriller these two things need to fit seamlessly together. The loaded gun, to paraphrase Hitchcock, eventually has to go off. If the writer surprises you with the "when" then he/she has been successful.

 

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