The Trouble with Thrillers

All he wants is to finish a novel.
All he wants is to finish a novel.

I’m batting ideas about for something to work on for National Novel Writing Month, which has been an interesting chance for me to see my method in action—it’s been a while since I started a new project, and I’ve learned a lot about things like plotting and characterization since the last time I started from scratch with something.

On the character side, most writers ask a variation of “What do they want?” What is it that this character is struggling to get over the course of the story? PC-ness of a kind rules the romance writer’s answer to this question: “they want to find true love” is insufficient. (Who would want to write an entire novel about this person, let alone read it?) Like in real life, work on yourself first, buddy, and then dates will come.

In thrillers, another of my interests, the question has an answer that is so obvious it’s useless as a character development tool—and so blinding it has been hard for me to figure out the alternative. What does our hero want? Why, not to get killed, of course. Any other questions, Sherlock? (So of course, occasionally you can create someone interesting who doesn’t care if he’s killed—isn’t Mel Gibson suicidal in the first Lethal Weapon movie? But that doesn’t work as an ongoing device, and it’s a goal that probably must be thwarted, which creates other problems.)

How I help myself is by thinking about the character before the first knife was thrown: what got interrupted by the current crisis, and how do they respond—both to the crisis and to the interruption. Sometimes these points are clear and even add tension to the crisis: does the character have to keep something secret? Does this add a ticking clock to the problem?

My other helpful hint is to bail on the external conflict and think about internal. This is realistic: in a crisis, the first thing to go is your daily to-do list in favor of the big picture. On the noveling side, it gives clues how the characters will react to the crisis: will they be the ones hiding under the furniture or breaking up chair legs to make stakes? This also gives some clues about setting: the kid with the long-term goal of getting into medical school will have different stuff on their desk than the kid who wants to make the pom squad. Keeping in mind that we only care about what’s on their desks because that’s where the villain thinks the secret code is hidden . . .

This story generator may also come in handy during NaNo.


Published by annmariegamble

Ann Marie Gamble has been putting pen to paper since her mom made her scrub the crayon off the stairwell walls (one chapter per step). Although there is plenty of inspiration to be had in the carpool lane, she likes writing her way across the galaxy as well as across town, and she especially enjoys research missions (aka family vacations) when she and the boys can get away. Her favorite place to write is a room with a view and a pot of tea.

6 thoughts on “The Trouble with Thrillers

  1. I’m just not excited about National Novel Writing Month. I guess it’s the whole quantity-over-quality thing.

    I can see how NNWM could get a writer over the hump, and let him/er prove to him/erself that s/he can actually *DO* it. That’s cool. Know that you can do it so that the next one will be great.

    But I already know I *CAN*. I’ve completed two. I want the next one to be perfect — even if it takes much more than a month to complete…

  2. THRILLERS: Initially you could probably get away with the heroine merely not wishing to get killed. Heck, initially you could probably get away with the heroine merely wishing to purchase a half-decent rack of ribs for a family dinner.

    But that probably won’t be enough to take the story to a transcendent level. For that, the heroine’s motivation should evolve to the state where she *doesn’t care* whether she lives or dies, so long as a higher purpose is served. (Indeed, it could even be her final intention to die, in order to serve it.)

  3. Gre7g, NaNo certainly meets particular needs, and it’s not necessarily the way to learn your next task. There are plenty of editorial jokes about December submissions.

    Editor, I think characters get interesting if they’ve got something going on besides life and death. Someone who’s motivated by duty is going to strategize differently from someone who’s motivated by freedom, for example; save the children vs. seize the enemy technology, etc.

  4. We’re in full agreement, both on the first point and on the need for technique to spring from character.

    On Nanowrimo … I think I’ll give it a go this year. I haven’t cut loose and let what’s left of my hair down for a little while! On with the antic pants!

  5. Good points, especially about what was happening before life was interrupted. I’m working on my character studies now-with one more day left-and it’s not so easy. Good luck with nanowrimo.

  6. Ah, Nano. I gave it a try too this year, then dropped it when my husband got a job transfer and we had to start packing for a move from CA to Texas. I did learn a lot, though, in the process.

    I quite enjoyed this post. I’ve been reading a book about storytelling, and it hasn’t gone into characterization. I’m going to keep your thoughts in mind. Take care.

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