No matter what sub-genre of thriller you write there are three elements that must be found in your work to make it a success.
Clark Chamberlain and Peter Turley share what those three elements are and how to edit them in your thriller manuscript.
Prefer to watch?
Clark: Welcome to the Book Editor Show. Today, we’ll walk you through the three most important elements you need to address when editing your thriller.
I’m Clark Chamberlain and when the world’s leaders are faced with espionage and assassination attempts mad men threatening cities with biological weapons, or even asteroids headed to earth for total extinction level events, they call on one man. He’s known to the world as the editor, but to me he’s my friend and co-host, Peter Turley.
Peter, how are you doing today.
Peter: I’m thrilled. That intro itself was thrilling.
Clark: It is very. You are . . .
Peter: I think that had everything that a thriller would need.
Clark: Especially if you could have all those events taking place in the same thriller.
Peter: And a certain Transformers director would have to write it. . . .
Clark: Yes. I can’t get that name exactly right there. Something like “Ocean” or a “Lake.” Bay… “Bay,” maybe that’s what it is.
How’s it been going. It’s been a couple weeks.
Peter: It has, hasn’t it? It’s been a few weeks since we caught up. I think we’ve been in the depths of things. I know that we’re coming towards the end of our 90-day challenge and that’s had its own challenges and been really focused on trying to make sure that I’d walk away from that having achieved what I set out to.
So I’ve been really busy tying up some writing projects, carrying on with a few goals that I sort of put in that group.
Yes, it’s been really busy. It’s a long challenge, as you know. But this last week has been hectic really, but it’s all good. So back to the show and back to the thrill of it.
Clark: I know. It’s good to be doing this and, like you say, we’ve got nine days left at the time of this recording for our 90-day challenge. Want to finish strong, I’ve certainly had ton of obstacles and roadblocks I could make excuses for. I just dropped the ball. I just have not been able to keep going as well as I wanted to. But it certainly has been a learning experience for me and has given me a lot of tools to help keep me going. It certainly isn’t like I’m just giving up everything. It’s just trying to find that time. It certainly helped me reorganize. It’s done a great job of keeping my life better paced. And noticing — oh, this is the problem that’s keeping me from doing the exercise — or — this is the problem that’s keeping me from doing this.
It’s going to help me in the next months to come to just keep on working on these things and being able to achieve those goals that I want, for sure.
Peter: Those problems don’t necessarily surface in a short challenge. That’s what I mean by what’s occupied my week this week. It’s kind of like a marathon runner hitting that wall that, when you have such a long challenge, these things come up, and you’re like — right, OK, I need to go and find a way to deal whit this, to maintain my writing habit or to maintain my content creation over such a long period of time.
But like you say, it has been great to learn those things about myself and what works and what doesn’t. It’s been great.
Clark: I’m excited to look forward to doing something like that again in the future, and continue to grow and make things better. That’s what I’m hoping that the listeners out there for the show, whether you followed us through the 90-day challenge or not and that you’ve also been able to start seeing ways that you can keep improving yourself.
That’s what this show is all about is just — [cuts off]
— what’s not working and making it better, to get the final product that you want. So…
Peter: It’s kind of like Jacob said on our last show — that as writers or editors, we have these tools that you can apply to any situation or anything that you’re working on and it’s just discovering what they are. If you’ve not checked that show out go back and listen to it, because it was a great one.
Clark: That was a great show. Jacob was a lot of fun. Very intelligent. Gave me a lot of notes to think about when writing new scenes when helping out clients to make sure that . . .
Peter: It’s always a good show. You know you’ve got a good guest on when you’re taking notes as well. “I should be hosting but I’m going to make a few notes while I’m at it.”
Clark: I was like — hold that thought please. I’ve got to just write that down for a sec.
It was a lot of good fun. Today is a show I’m excited to talk about this — thrillers are some of my favorite things to work on. They certainly, when I was younger — reading The Firm, and The Pelican Brief and these types of legal thriller novels — I had a lot of fun reading those. It’s always caught my attention, these kind of characters and what needs to unfold.
If you’re out there writing thrillers and you’re ready for that editing process, we want to show the three most important elements you definitely have to have to make a thriller work.
First off, let’s talk about exactly what a thriller is. Because if you go in there and you’re looking at different genres, sometimes thrillers might have different aspects of the crime genre or the mystery genre. But thrillers themselves are off on their own.
One of the things if you take a look at that is — with a mystery, let’s say you’ve got a murder at the beginning of the novel, this could still be a thriller, but if it’s all about solving that mystery of who murdered that person, then you’re definitely in the mystery genre. But if that murder is then the first step in someone else’s plan to do something really terrible, like release a plague upon the world, like a Dan Brown type of thriller, that’s what this is about. It’s not about solving that crime, it’s about stopping a much larger event from taking place.
Peter: Hopefully we can get into some of the differences between mystery and thriller later on. We were talking off air it seems of all the genres to have possibly the most subgenres and there are so many different ways you can take a thriller. But I think that’s tantamount to all the elements of storytelling really come into play when writing thrillers. I think of it as — say you’ve got a rock band and they’re performing and one of the musicians makes a little mistake, you might not notice it because the band can cover each other up and it’s lost in the music. Whereas if you have a classical piece and someone hits a bum note, it’s really obvious.
That’s what I think of when I think of thrillers. I think that all these tools and techniques that we use as story tellers — and some of the first stories probably were thrillers or had thrilling elements — you really have to be sharp and on point with a thriller, because it really stands out. If your plot isn’t watertight in a thriller then the whole thing could fall down around you.
I’m really looking forward to getting into the show, because I think that they’re tough to write. You’re a thriller writer, essentially, aren’t you? You dabble with —
Clark: I dabble. That’s where I started dabbling. When I get a chance to write…
Peter: Hats off to that.
Clark: The first element we want to talk about it — pacing.
Pacing is, like you said, this is an element of every single novel. You’ve got to have pacing. But pacing done wrong in a thriller completely ruins everything else that you’re doing. So when you’re taking a look at pacing… We’ve talked about pacing before in shows and what are we really talking about here?
We don’t want to have the Michael Bay; we don’t want to have the just, increasing, just fast-paced all the way to the end. We still have to have these couple of slow parts and moments so that we can have the reader catch a breath. But we want to continually be moving forward at a faster pace than you would have in a slower novel, maybe even the mystery novel where it’s taking a lot of to develop what’s going on. We need to have this development taking place quite quickly.
Peter: It’s starts with a bang, like a race with a starting pistol. You may have an event, like a really horrible event and then you’re going to figure out what led to it, or what comes after it. But completely opposite to a Michael Bay which will be full of bangs and explosions to keep the pace high, I think it’s the type of pacing which is anticipation more than the flashes and the bangs where the things are happening to keep the pace high. It’s that kind of high pace of — is this going to happen? Or you’re on the cusp of something terrible happening.
Clark: Always almost happening there. Let’s take a look at this on a chapter by chapter basis. Each chapter’s got the end with almost a cliff hanger, that feeling that this is… You need to pay special attention to the beginning and the end, especially end with a cliff hanger, to get them to move into the next one if they want to continually more forward with the story, because almost as if you’re going go put it down… You just don’t feel like there’s a break there. Because at the end of it — even when you’ve had this slow chapter where you’re developing stuff — at the end, something happens that propels the story forward and is going to make the reader want to continue on. So the cliff hanger ending — and when I say “cliff hanger” it’s not the cliff hangers like — and the door started to open… End of chapter. [laughs] So that they go to the next chapter and the door finishes opening and it’s the mail man delivering a package.
That’s not the cliff hanger we’re talking about. It’s that idea that something has been learned, something has been discovered there at the end of that chapter that will make them want to go forward to the next one.
Peter: Because just pure action… I love how we always end up ripping Mike away.
Peter: Just action can be boring — can’t it? — in and of itself, without that human element. Ending chapters and only chapters with this action or something happening is really useful when you do have that human element. Perhaps something is revealed that moves the plot forward. There are those little payoffs, so you’re not just using that cheap trick, like the door opens, and there was no one there at the start of the next chapter. You don’t get away with that will a thriller. You have to have that payoff at the start of the next chapter.
Clark: The second element — I guess this really can tie into this one — the second element you really want is to make sure is that you’re constantly adding more problems to the story. Again, if the story starts off with a murder then we continually add new problems to that and where this is going.
Let me give you an example; this is from my own book, Another Day Another Name. You’re getting into character. It does open with a murder that’s actually taking place where we see the assassin doing the killing and then we flash over to another character and we have a slow moment where this character is introduced and it’s his sister’s birthday party. Really not something that should happen, but then his ex-wife shows up. The ex-wife pulls him aside into the hall and confronts him about all this money that he owes her.
That is where we leave that off but we’ve introduced a new element that this character has a bigger problem in their life. We’ve added an additional problem which makes us want to read to the next chapter, even though the chapter itself was not particularly action oriented — there wasn’t any gunfire, no car chase, nothing like that — there’s plenty of that in the book in different places. But we’ve got these moments, these elements where it’s still slow and has so little character development but at the end of it, it presents something different that adds a problem, heaps another problem on to him and makes him move forward.
Peter: This kind of switching between key scenes can also be great. It’s a great opportunity to pile different kinds of problems on, and also to keep the pacing going. So you build up to a climax or just before a climax. You don’t necessarily immediately want to reveal or progress past that point and switching to another key scene allows you to take a break from that, whilst also still piling it on in a different way with it being a different pressure. So in your case, the pressure of the ex-wife and the questions and the money. That element is a different problem — isn’t it? — to the murder and the high action. But you’re still piling it on so you’re tugging at different strings almost.
Clark: That’s what you want to do. I would say that the thriller is definitely more plot-oriented. If we were to scale-up the weight of what element needs to be there or what part needs to be there more, whether it’s character development or plot, I think we’re leaning much stronger, putting more weight on that plot side. But it doesn’t mean that we’re going to ignore our characters and our characters can have a lot of problems. It can grow, but I think if we look at the classic thrillers — let’s say, for instance, the James Bond — he is pretty much a static character. I don’t mean that he’s a one-dimensional character, but he’s static. It means that he doesn’t really have much evolution and change between the different books. We do get some, but it’s very minimal. We have the same problems heaped on him the same; he fights the same demons inside and we have the same character pretty much from the beginning to the end. That’s OK, but we’re going to still give those problems to that character or we’re giving more problems through the plot. Either way, this is a good time when you’re looking at your manuscript, you’re going through, you’re checking it chapter by chapter, you’re examining the pacing here. Where have you given your readers a chance to break? Are you making sure that we’re continually upping the ante, a some people say? Adding more problems or piling those problems on at the end of the chapter? Have we left the chapter end boring? Has the reader been given a reason to move on to the next chapter or have we left it like with some kind of exposition that’s really just brought it to a halt?
Peter: Talking about the flawed character. Thrillers are all about conflict. Internal and external conflict is important to have in any novel, but again, like I sort of made the analogy to classical music, this stuff, I feel is more important in a thriller. You kind of want your character to keep these demons in a way. Because it allows you to torture them more [laughs] throughout the novel. Obviously you want to revive stock characters, but you have like a broody detective who has anger problems. You want to see; you want to sit and watch and wait to see if these anger issues cause her problems further down the line. You want to watch to see if she does go off.
I’ve always found it interesting that one of the main elements of stories is character growth, but it’s handled very differently in thrillers.
Clark: Especially if you’re doing a series of thrillers. If you have a main character who is going to be in each of these. Let me take a look at James Bond again. Each one of these is a stand-alone novel with the same character in it but it is a series of James Bond novels. I think you’re going to find the series is going to be different in thrillers, is each one is more apt to stand on its own for its own story, but it brings in some similar characters again and again to move things forward to the next level. Dan Brown — same thing. Each one of those adventures that he goes on, the adventures that deal with things from the past, is in a way, separate. They’re not connecting them together, even though he deals with the same types of elements at the same time.
Peter: I’ve never actually read any of the Dan Brown novels. I’m guilty of that. I was scared away from them. Are they good? Are they worth checking out?
Clark: They’re fun. They really are a fun, fast-paced novel. But here’s the danger — this is going to be the danger any time that you have a static character that doesn’t have development or you’re reading a series — the more stand-alone series — is that they can start to feel repetitive. It was the same thing with John Grisham novels. Even though the characters were different, they just really felt a lot the same. That’s OK. You’re going to find an audience that really likes it.
That’s why we… If you go onto Amazon right now… We were checking this out before hand. I’m going to open this other page real quick and maybe even screen share it here.
If you take a look at this; if you’re watching it here, I’m going to read it off here. We’re going into Amazon’s best seller list and we’re dropping down and we’re looking at… This is the action-adventure ones. I want to get to the actual mystery-thriller side.
They take mystery, thriller and suspense and they drop it into form more categories. So if you click on the thriller one, all of a sudden we have these categories — assassination, conspiracies, crime, espionage, financial, historical, legal, medical, military, political, psychological, pulp, techno-thrillers, and terrorism.
Meaning — that you’ve got pretty wide open categories there, and that you have people who love to read financial thrillers. This is what they want to read about is that they have an interest in finance; maybe they work in the financial industry, so they like to have stories that are told.
You’re going to find it the same way. The person who may only come into your series for one or two of them because the character was interesting may not stay for a static character all the way through. I love the James Bond novels, because I love the character of the spy. So I would keep going to the spy ones; I wasn’t so interested in the lawyer one.
If that makes sense?
Peter: An aside — these can be so niche that arguably out of all the genres — writing or especially when you come to editing a thriller — research is possibly of the most important out of almost all of the genres.
John Grisham, for example, he was a lawyer so he had one up on some other people. He’s quoted as saying — I seriously doubt I would ever have written the first story had I not been a lawyer. I never dreamed of being a writer. I wrote only after witnessing a trial.”
Obviously everything in his book you can trust is on point. But you’re going to get people who are really interested in case law, reading his work. If you get something wrong then you’re going to pick up on all that stuff.
That’s just a side note, but looking at all those off-genres that you showed us there, research is really, really important.
Clark: It really is. Especially if this is what you’re going for. If you’re going to try to be the king of pulp fiction, you need to understand pulp fiction. I made the mistake of — three years ago when we published, it was under the title of Love Deception then, before the rewrite — we squeezed it into the pulp one, because it had a few elements of pulp, but really it wasn’t pulp.
You can’t just go and squeeze something into a category because you think that it might be an easy category to sell in. That’s not the way to do it. So you really want to make sure that you’re hitting the notes here. We’re just giving you the general — these are going to be three elements that are going to be in any one of these genres that you have to have in your thriller. But when you picked out… You’re writing in the medical thriller genre, then you better be spending some time understanding that, reading the other ones, understanding medical procedures, understanding what’s going on. Maybe it’s the CDC where you’re looking at disease control type of things. Whatever that is, you need to really understand it. You need to become a professional in that area.
Getting to our third one. We’ve talked a lot about the problems, and you can see this, and you’re adding on all these problems. What is this going to? It’s going to a head; it’s going to a wonderful climax there at the end where you’re going to be able to tie the stuff together, tie up the loose ends, makes sure everyone understands what’s happening in the thriller and then have a rewarding payoff and that’s the third element we want to talk about, is making sure we’re giving the reader what it is that they came for.
Peter: Giving them what they came for, but also avoiding… Like you just said, you need to know your genre, you need to have read what’s gone before and then do something a little different. You know what I mean? When you looking and you’re editing over this, when you come to a turning point, thinking what would the reader expect here. Make a lists of things that you might expect to happen, and then do something different to that.
The payoff is so important within this genre that it has to be something different; it has to be something shocking. This book is going to carry itself on being shocking and on being different. Consider what would be expected and then try and do something different. Again — I know I’ve said this a few times — but that’s going to be something you always do, but it’s more important here.
Clark: It really is so important. The twists are so important in the thriller genre. Because they’ve seen it all before.
And this isn’t… I want to put a caveat on there when we’re talking about shocking. It doesn’t mean you’ve got to do something grotesquely shocking. It’s just something that’s going to surprise them. That’s what the twist is all about.
Peter: The surprise could even be — think Dexter — you have a serial killer who explains away his killing by the fact that he’s removing evil people. He only kills killers, basically. The shock there can be that you actually empathize with him and almost fall into the trap of seeing him as the good guy. You’re conflicted — hang on a minute; is he good? Is he bad? I’m confused because I kind of sympathize with the fact that he’s killing these people.
So that’s what I mean when you can do something different or go against what they would expect and it could just be where you shock them with the way that they view a character. It doesn’t have to be something huge or some kind of big plot twist.
Clark: When I say “rewarding payoff” a rewarding payoff doesn’t mean you have to have a happy ending. Favorite characters can die. Things can happen. You’re dealing with life and death. If the idea of the sacrifice is a very good one in the thriller that someone sacrifices himself to save something even more.
That’s usually what you’re doing. You’re constantly building up to something bigger and bigger. Let’s say just for instance, you’re writing in the terrorism thriller categories that you might have a person that sacrifices himself to stop the bomb or whatever needed to happen there at the end.
In America especially, we expect the happy ending. So that can be one of the things that you can turn on its head is not have the happiest ending that they thought might be there.
Peter: It could even be sacrificing themselves to save other people from them. I’m not going to espouse what that was from, because —
Peter: I really wanted to go on about that but then I may make a habit of spoiling way too much on this show.
Clark: We do spoil a lot on this show. And we a-
No, I’m not sorry for that. [laughs] I’m not sorry for spoiling things on the show. You need to be out there finding this stuff out.
There are so many good things that you could do to have that rewarding payoff.
This is another thing you’re going to look at. You have your manuscript out there. You’re going to look to make sure every time that you ask the question, that you posed a question to the reader that made them turn the page to try to find the answer, have you tied up those loose ends by the end of the novel. If not, is it because you’re going to tie it up in another novel? In those cases, had you spent too much time on it? If you’ve spent 25% of the time of the book, the reader will expect that to be paid off. If you’ve been spending that much time or more on a particular issue in a problem, we want to see that resolved in some way — good or bad — but it has to be tied up. If it’s just been something that’s been mentioned, maybe it’s about a character and the inner demons of, and you’re going to work on that at another point, that’s fine. Again, you’re looking at this to make sure that you’re being clear, that it’s made sense, that the solution was not — again, this is going back to what Peter says — you’ve got people that read these genres that could be very well versed in medical fields or in the world of corporate espionage or in the world of military. So if you give an answer, if you tie something up that is not true, in the real world you’re going to get called out on that.
Peter: Your pay off here really is the money shot. It has to be right because in a thriller especially it’s already been such an emotional journey. You’ve played with the feelings; they’ve been on a roller coaster ride. That’s why the payoff is so important in this genre. Because it’s got to be different; it’s got to surprise the reader. They have to maybe even feel something new that… Give them an experience of some emotion that you’ve not already dragged them through for the rest of the book, something that they can feel fresh, because you probably already made them feel more than they thought that they could possibly feel by reading the thriller.
Clark: Exactly. I think back to reading Dean Koontz’s The Husband. This was a really fantastic novel where it took a lot of what I thought was going to happen and then kept turning it and kept turning it and each time it did these things — increased the problems. The end of every chapter made me want to open up the next one. Yet it still had moments where I had time to reflect to take a quick break with the pacing and then you push back into it again. We want to have that nice up and down again. Then of course at the end, the payoff was fantastic. That’s I think what’s some of the best stuff.
We had Jacob Larch on the show previously when we talked about screenwriting. I understand it is difficult to go in and consume a ton of books to really get some of these. There were some great thriller movies and especially TV shows — TV shows, especially — that can give you a good understanding of having a good payoff.
For instance, the show The Shield. It’s several seasons long, you might as well read some other books too, but by the end of that, we’ve come so far with the characters that that payoff at the end, although it not a happy ending, is perfect, and it gives a perfect payoff for what it was that you went through. It has a perfect emotional release. That’s one of the things you want to think about when you’re going through your manuscript is what that emotional feeling was that you want them left with at the end of that book.
Peter: I think that’s a great piece of advice. Thrillers already pride themselves on having strong scenes, and very visual scenes, and kind of like a movie. So when you’re editing your story, it does benefit you to think of it in terms of visuals. What mood is being put across by the visuals in this scene. Watching these shows and these movies can really strengthen your toolbox when you come back to looking over your manuscript, particularly in thrillers.
Clark: Especially with when we are talking about the pacing. That we’re not ending up in full scene, that we’re giving something at the end that makes a person want to go to the next spot, and that we’re opening in the middle. We’re not having these boring transitional scenes between our chapters.
We’re about out of time and the three elements we want to really address here that you need to look at in whichever thriller genre you’re writing is you’re going to check that pacing.
You’re going to go through your manuscript and make sure your pacing is good. The end of every chapter encourages the reader to move to the next chapter. That you’re increasing the problems constantly throughout the entire thing, whether they’re the individual problem of the protagonist or the bigger plot problems.
You’re going to probably be tossing the bigger plot problems on more where you have almost solved the solution but then it’s become something bigger than they ever thought possible.
Then in the end we want to make sure we have a rewarding payoff. Thinking about what the reader might have expectations for and then twisting that on its head. Doesn’t have to be a happy ending. It is something that has a good payoff and that they’re going to be left with a great emotion. That they’re going to then tell their friends about, that it’s going to be a fantastic read.
Peter: If you really want to know how to do endings well, the chapter is to keep the patient high — check out “24” if you’ve not already watched it. Because that stuff’s addictive.
Clark: That’s what you do want. You want to have this addictive feeling, that they just can’t get enough of this book and they really can’t put it down. It is that cliche page-turner, and it’s going to be that way for a reason.
Peter, do you have anything to finish up with?
Peter: No that’s it. I just wanted to finish by saying, you can take the show at cut and watch some TV episodes that do this ending thing really well. Because like you said there, the first point of pacing is one of the fundamentals of thriller writing, and there are many ways that you can learn that, so whichever works best for you and is more enjoyable, go for that.
Clark: Excellent final there.
Thank you so much for being a part and listening to the show today. If you enjoy this show, please leave us a review on iTunes; that means so much to us; it helps others discover the show. You can also do it here on YouTube if you’re watching it live; give us a like on YouTube; share it, or Plus on Google. If you’re an editor who’d like to be a guest on the show, please drop us a line at the bookeditorshow.com. Also, don’t forget editorial services there that are available. We’d like to help you make your novel the best possible. I’m Clark Chamberlain for my co-host Peter Turley, keep writing, keep learning, and build a better book.