Reading has always been a great escape in my life. Books gave me joy, taught me much, but mostly, they were entertainment.
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My childhood favorites are similar to many writers in my genre: Trixie Belden and Nancy Drew; Agatha Christie and Lois Duncan. I graduated at age thirteen to Stephen King, and never looked back. I remember reading The Odyssey when was in 8th grade, not for school but for pleasure. And it was a completely eye-opener for me—the intense battles, the epic hero’s journey, the monsters and villains.
In high school, I devoured my mother’s shelves of crime fiction: Ed McBain and Lillian O’Donnell; Marcia Muller and Joseph Wambaugh. By the time I grew up, had a family, and was thinking of finally writing the book I’d always wanted to write, I was filling my shelves with Lisa Gardner and Iris Johansen, and realized that there had been a slight shift in my reading focus. I went from mysteries and horror and epic suspense to thrillers. I realized that while I still love the rich, deep, epic tales like The Stand by Stephen King, I preferred the quick, energizing reads of thrillers.
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What’s the difference, you might ask? Why is Lisa Gardner and Lee Child more “thriller” and Tess Gerritsen and JD Robb more “mystery?”
It’s all about the pacing.
Thrillers in particular provide a rich backdrop to entertain readers of all ages. Great heroes and villains; race-against-time storylines; classic, universal stories of good versus evil. They are a great escape as well as speak to our need for people to root for. We want the hero to succeed and the bad guy to be defeated. We want balance to be restored to the world through justice, a constant theme in the thrillers I gravitate toward.
I’m often asked to teach workshops or speak at writers groups, so I’ve thought a lot about what makes a thriller “thrilling.”
There are a few obvious checkpoints, which are actually important to all great books: character, for example. Most readers want a character they can root for. This person doesn’t have to be perfect, in fact, imperfect characters that reflect our own imperfections and struggles make the most compelling and interesting heroes who we want to succeed. Likewise, great villains are rarely just bad. They are as complex as the hero, with understandable motivations—even if their actions are immoral or evil.
But the key to a great thriller is pacing: how the story is told.
There will be ups and downs. You can’t maintain 100% kinetic energy, never slowing, never giving time for the characters to breathe (and therefore, your reader to breathe.) But in thrillers, any relaxation will be brief; it’ll be filled with tension and anticipation, with readers asking themselves, what will happen next?
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How do you speed up pacing?
Thrillers are, by definition, fast-paced stories, whether they are crime thrillers, international thrillers, romantic, medical, or legal thrillers.
- Shorter chapters: Short, crisp chapters focused on one scene or even part of a scene, especially when they are close together, signal to the reader that a lot of stuff is happening at the same time.
- Short chapters interspersed between longer chapters: Sometimes, having a short 1-3 page chapter in the middle of standard-length chapters (10-20 pages) helps to pick up the pace. The chapter stands out and propels the reader to keep reading.
- Well-executed cliffhangers. (Avoid overuse, but cliffhangers at the end of the occasional chapter works well.)
- Shorter sentences, interspersed with fragments. No wasted words.
- Crisp dialogue with less introspection. Use character action instead of dialogue tags to keep the scene moving.
- Action verbs.
- Less description or minimal description. One rule: identify three key visuals for your readers through the character’s eyes to set the scene rather than paragraphs of setting.
- CAVEAT: avoid too many “fast-paced” or high-action scenes in a row—you need to give your reader a breather, even if it’s brief. Example from Die Hard: After a whole bunch of action, our hero John McClane sits down high up in Nakatomi Plaza and talks on the radio to his ally Sergeant Al Powell, while smoking one of the bad guys’ cigarettes. It’s a short scene, shares information and character, but also gives viewers a short breather before the action continues at even higher levels. In books, including a scene where a character is taking a hot shower after an intense sequence, or going for a run while thinking over the case, visiting an elderly mentor, or having sex with their significant other are all good ways to give everyone a “time out” before putting them into action again.
How do you slow pacing?
Yes, sometimes pacing can be TOO fast or TOO intense, and you need to find a way to slow it down. Some ideas:
- More narrative—longer descriptions, more introspection. Let the reader know how the character reacts to the conflict and stakes. Take more time to set the scene or use descriptive phrases instead of single adjectives.
- Some people balk at flashbacks, but when done right they heighten suspense while simultaneously slowing the story.
- Layer details, use longer sentences/paragraphs, choose words that soothe or evoke a feeling of calm. One example: use setting strategically to create a sense of foreboding and disquiet. One of the best writers today who uses setting as character in suspense fiction is J.T. Ellison.
- Conversations between characters with deep introspection; “quiet” action (like at a restaurant, pillow talk, driving in a car. Just make sure the conversation is relevant to the story and advances the plot—not just filler!)
- CAVEAT: avoid adding too much narrative or description in the middle of intense action. Once you’re in that high-action scene, you want to keep spiraling up until you reach a place where you can organically take a break.
Link to the rest at CrimeReads