Take it away, Jim!
The Elements of a Good Thriller
What makes a good thriller? It’s a difficult question to answer because fortunately, thrillers – like heroes – come in all shapes and sizes. There are techno thrillers (Hunt for Red October), crime thrillers (Gorky Park), spy thrillers (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy), horror thrillers (Dracula) international thrillers (Bourne Identity), puzzle thrillers (Da Vince Code). legal thrillers (John Grisham’s The Pelican Brief), and an assortment of sub genres such as ‘cool assassin thriller’ (Barry Eisler’s John Rain series – one of my favorites). All have their nuances and tweaks. What follows is my personal take on the elements common to good thrillers.
First and foremost a good thriller needs a strong beginning. However, there are exceptions. If the writer is John le Carre’, readers will generally cut him a lot of slack and let him build the story slowly. Consider Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy where the entire first chapter is about a man taking on a job at a boys’ boarding school. However, if the writer is unknown, he needs to drive the plot forward at breakneck speed while at the same time introducing his character and supplying all the necessary background information.
A textbook example of this can be found in Barry Eisler’s first John Rain thriller, Rainfall. The book opens with the assassin and his naïve assistant following an unsuspecting target along a Tokyo street and onto a subway train. Suspense and interest builds as the assassin tracks his quarry, his thoughts revealing the tactics behind his surveillance and enough background on the characters and the locale that by the time the deadly deed is completed you are fully engaged in the story. Simply masterful.
Second, the rules for writing a good thriller are no different than that of any good book. Plots don’t have to be labyrinthean, but they have to be well told and well written with plausibly constructed scenes and dialogue. But most of all, a good thriller need characters with which a reader can identify or at least sympathize. Think of le Carre’s slightly overweight, introspective, non-descript but brilliant George Smiley and his quest to unearth Carla’s mole in the highest echelons of the British secret service. In the end, good characters, even in a thriller, are the key to reader interest – even if readers don’t always realize it themselves.
Third, for me at least, there has to be something in the way the writer tells the story that grabs my interest. The writing, the dialogue, the construction of the sentences, perhaps a clever way of piquing curiosity. Martin Cruz Smith does it all but has one particular device in Gorky Park where his main character, Arkady Renko, will occasionally see something that leads to an unspoken deduction, then just goes off and deals with it without any explanation to the reader. This device makes me read the book extra closely to try and anticipate why Arkady is doing the things he does. In a thriller, curiosity keeps readers turning the pages between firefights.
Villains are fun characters to create and sometimes do more to shape the arc of the story than the hero. Be sure to have a good one. Realism is also important, but I sometimes see writers confusing that with vulgar language, illicit sex, and buckets of blood. Study the non-fiction work On Combat by Lt. Colonel Dave Grossman, former West Point psychology professor and Army ranger. You’ll realize then that most thrillers are pretty unrealistic in terms of how people behave in lethal situations. In my opinion, the most realistic spy novels are John le Carre’s. I’m not even sure there’s a close second. But in the area of covert operations there is a special place in my heart for Barry Eisler’s John Rain thrillers. Mr. Eisler knows his spy craft extremely well, sets up and executes his ambushes and assassinations like nobody in the business, and gives thorough acknowledgement to the psychological aftereffects of violence.
Finally, all this must be done with a certain style, creativity, and dash. Take one of my favorite thrillers, Gorky Park by Martin Cruz Smith. Is it a literary work, a mystery, a romance, or a thriller? It begins with a crime in a Moscow park involving detective Arkady Renko. But in the meantime, his marriage is breaking up and he crosses paths with a beautiful person of interest. But the crime also blossoms into a complex international intrigue where the closer Arkady comes to solving the case, the more his life is also in danger. Looking for love and solving a mystery, while trying to stay alive. A very entertaining, extremely well written high wire act and definitely a thrill to read!
About the Book
Every six months a Russian agent arrives at the Rockin’ Rooster saloon in Twin Falls, Idaho to fight local cowboy and laid-off spy Rulon Hurt. To the locals it’s great fun and even to Rulon and his punk wife Yohaba, it’s not a bad way to spend a Wednesday night. But when Rulon saves Boris, the latest Russian, from a gang of local skinheads, a feud ignites that quickly escalates out of control. Eventually an assassin is brought in from Germany, and Rulon is shot and left in a coma. Yohaba and Boris are now alone together. Great minds think alike. They back track the assassin to Zurich with the intent of settling the score. [Goodreads]
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