The Adventure of Writing a Thriller
“We are plain quiet folk and have no use for adventures. Nasty disturbing uncomfortable things! Make you late for dinner! I can’t think what anybody sees in them.” Bilbo Baggins
Spoken by a man, or should I say, a hobbit, who would know. While the adventure of writing a thriller may not be as dangerous as facing evil wizards and smelly orcs, it can make you late for dinner.
It all begins with a tale worth telling and that’s always the first step in any adventure or in this case the first words to a great story. Our tools are not sword and shield but mouse and keyboard and our nerves are not steadied by frosty steins of mead but of hot cups of coffee. (although when facing a deadline the mead works wonders!)
When starting an adventure, you never know where it will take you. While you have a general goal or destination in mind, it is not always a straight line from point A to point B and as they say, it’s not the destination but the journey.
So it is with writing a thriller, a literary adventure in the making. Putting together an expedition to any thriller begins with the idea, the concept of the story. It has been said that every story has already been told; true or not, it has not been told by you. While lots of mystery, intrigue and action are essential parts of a thriller, it’s the characters that make the story, finding your own unique twist to a familiar story and putting your characters in it.
I like the idea of putting everyday people in to extraordinary circumstances. I can relate more to the everyday guy who has trouble balancing his checkbook who suddenly finds himself in an impossible situation more than the ex-special forces guy who eats bad guys for breakfast.
Strong, believable characters are the heart and soul of any adventure and the entire journey should revolve around them and how they react to the situations they find themselves in. Their actions should leave the reader struggling with the question, “what would I have done in that situation?”
With the members of the expedition gathered, the real journey of a thousand miles, or in this case fifty thousand words, does not begin with a single step, but with the research. Each tidbit of information dug up can either lead you down an endless rabbit hole of interesting but useless information or it can give the clues needed to send you down the right path.
When I do research, I tend to teeter on the edge of the rabbit hole. I find one cool fact that leads to another, then another and soon the scene I’m working on looks more like a college report than a novel. It’s a fine line between choosing what the reader needs to know and what I find to be just plain cool.
Most adventures take place far from home and while you can gather a lot of information about your destination it is no substitute for a guide, a local who knows the lay of the land and the native customs. In my case, it is talking with people who are familiar with the subject, whose wisdom goes beyond book knowledge and have experienced it firsthand.
For Catalyst, I was able to talk to a WWII flyer that was shot down and became a POW. For Arctic Fire I spoke with a Retired Air Force Colonel and also to a tow boat skipper and for Annihilation, a story from Act of God a retired sailor who served twenty years aboard nuclear powered submarines. Information may be the main ingredient in the recipe of research, but it is the personal experience of someone who has been there that adds the real flavor to the story.
You usually set out, compass in hand and have a general idea of how to get to your destination, but once you step foot out the door, the adventure really begins and it seldom goes according to even the best laid plans. But therein lays the adventure, not knowing for sure what’s around the next bend and who will still be with you at journey’s end.
Some writers have detailed outlines and plot out each chapter; I prefer to let the story write itself. While I have my compass in hand and know the general path and direction of my band of adventurers, their fate is still far from certain. While writing Arctic Fire, I decided to have a major winter storm strike the iceberg. The original intent was just to create some excitement and add some action to the story. Instead, it turned into a major turning point, highlighting the hero’s abilities and setting up the confrontation between hero and villain and revealing the crux of the story.
As in any adventure, it has to come to an end. Some endings will be triumphs of the soul, good defeating evil, some will be sad as even though the group reached their goal, not all who started the journey finished it. Unlike in life however, the writer has the power to decide the ending. Will it be true to life? A happy ending? Anti-climactic? Setting up a sequel?
Writing a thriller is an adventure in itself, finding a good plot, characters that make it come to life, research that makes their journey believable and having an ending that is true to the story. Blending in all these ingredients together is key to making a great story.
And yes, it can even make you late for dinner, “honey, I’ll be right there, I’m right in the middle of a scene!”
Author of Arctic Fire, Act of God and Catalyst
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