Putting the Thrill in Thriller Stories – Part 2
To make a thriller work, it requires a lot of aspects to come together, like a tight plot, complex characters that will bring different layers to the narrative, the escalation of danger and higher stakes and dilemmas and problematic situations that create drama and tension. That’s why readers love that heightened sense of realism and the dark undercurrents that exist below the surface of the story. They love the twists and turns. They love to get involved with the story and the characters. Ultimately, they want the protagonist to win.
It can’t be said enough that conflict is essential to every story. It’s the fuel that drives characters and situations. In any thriller story, conflict should escalate around pivotal situations and events, and if you’ve planned the story and plotted correctly, the conflict should happen naturally. Don’t manufacture conflict just for the sake of it. It has to evolve because of the plot and because of how the characters act and react to events and each other.
Characters are always in conflict, but often the situations they find themselves can provide plenty of fire. Conflict, emotion and dangerous situations create that all important tension. Together they form an elastic band that is stretched and tautened, and you keep stretching until the reader is on the edge of their seat with unbearable anticipation. They have to know what happens next.
Well written thrillers use the elastic band approach to maintain pace as well as tension, and rely on action scenes to push the story forward and maintain momentum. Fast paced situations should tighten that elastic band just enough, then tighten some more to the point it might snap...before relaxing it again to allow the pace to slow down before it tightens yet again.
Think of story pace as a rollercoaster ride. There’s no let up until the end.
No thriller is complete without well thought out sub-plots. They run parallel with the story and are woven into the main plot to introduce interesting elements, increase characterisation and impart information. If you’ve plotted correctly at the start, you’ll have added some subplots that will add support to the main story. The key is not overdo it, otherwise you risk overshadowing the main story. One or two strong subplots are sufficient, but remember; they must relate to and support the main story.
In addition to subplots, make sure you include some plot twists to keep the reader on their toes and maintain interest when they least expect. While some subplots can come about while writing the story, it’s better to have one or two in mind at the plotting stage, because then the story will stay on course and has less chance to meander.
A plot twist can do different things. It can wrong foot the reader and keep them guessing. It can deliberately steer them down a different path. It can reveal something important.
A brilliant plot twist will knock the reader off their feet – something so shocking that they just they won’t expect it. The best plot twists are the ones that readers never see coming.
Point of view is important with thrillers, because the way you choose the story to be told will affect how it is perceived by the reader. Most thrillers are written in third person multiple because it allows the writer to use different characters to show different viewpoints, build individual characterisations, it can let the reader in on some things that the main character may not be privy, and it gives greater scope to subplots, twists, tension and drama. Most importantly, third person helps create conflict and emotion.
First person, on the other hand, is really limited. The story can only be told from the main character’s point, so the reader cannot be privy to other character’s thoughts and feelings, so the opportunity for emotional situations are also limited, as are subplots and effective plot twists.
The one thing that does make a thriller stand out is master manipulation.
Manipulation is a clever way of control. Writers manipulate their stories, their characters and the situations they’re in, but above all, they manipulate the reader. It’s the art of keeping the reader guessing, of deliberately wrong footing them, leading them down wrong pathways into deeper, darker situations. It’s about revelations and plot twists, it’s about distorting the sense of reality and playing with the reader’s perceptions. Manipulation creates a false sense of security and messes with the reader’s emotions.
Writers do that by controlling the information they give to the reader as the story progresses. Things like hints and clues and snippets of seemingly irrelevant information that slowly come into focus as the story heads towards the conclusion. Things that the reader will hopefully notice, things that will make the reader put two and two together. Or it might be information that is deliberately false – known as ‘red herrings’, designed to throw the reader off.
You have to know when a secret needs to be revealed, when a specific plot twist should happen or when to send the reader down a dark rabbit hole for master manipulation to work.
You are not just controlling the story. You are controlling the reader.
In Part 3, we’ll look at the importance of the right ending, what part research can play and the importance of understanding human behaviour.