I've just finished editing a manuscript for a client writing a thriller. His goal was to write a book that was a little deeper and more complex than the average thriller, while keeping the same page-turning qualities, and he certainly succeeded. I'm not at liberty to talk about this author or the plot of his novel quite yet, but I hope that you will hear of him soon!

In the meantime, editing this manuscript has made me think of the elements necessary in a successful thriller, and about how many of them apply to any genre. In my opinion, a good thriller:

1. ...Is thrilling. A literary novel is called such because of the way it is written. Romances and Science Fiction novels are categorized as they are because of their subject matter. But a book is labeled a thriller because of what it does to the reader: it thrills us.

2. ...Has high stakes. Vonnegut says that the protagonist needs to want something, even if it's only a glass of water, and that he/she must want it badly. This is true of the protagonist in any genre. However, in a thriller, the stakes are higher than mere personal thirst: usually, the protagonist wants (needs) to save the world. These high stakes (will the protagonist be successful? Will the world be saved?) make us readers keep reading.

3. ...Shows and tells but mostly shows. "Telling"--that is, exposition--is a necessary component of any novel. Sometimes we need description, or a bit of background information, to ground the reader in the world. But successful thrillers "show" much more than they tell--that is, they use scenes to reveal the action, character, and plot, and to keep moving the story forward. The narrator cannot tell us the protagonist is brave: we need to see her or him acting bravely for ourselves.

4. ...Has short chapters that end in cliffhangers. Chapters in thrillers are not thirty pages long; they're five to ten pages long, more or less. The chapter length seems to be in keeping with the fast-paced, roller coaster action ride that is our reading of the novel. As an editor, I make a note to myself each time I set down the manuscript to take a break, pour myself more coffee, etc., and then I go back and try to see if there is a pattern. Did I set down the manuscript because I was tired, or because the story wasn't moving forward? The writer whose novel I just edited was adept at ending every chapter on a suspenseful note, so that the reader thinks, "Just one more chapter before bed..." (This is the goal of any writer, right? To make our readers sleepy and grouchy in the morning due to their reading past their bedtimes!)

5. ...Doesn't neglect character development. I think one of the main differences between a literary novel and a thriller is that in the former, the plot comes organically out of the character, whereas in the latter, the plot is often thrust upon him or her. (Oh, you don't want to save the world? You just want to keep drinking or parenting or sleeping or working or whatever it is you're doing? Sorry, you need to drop all that and go make the world safe for democracy once more...) That said, strong, believable characters make books in any genre--including thrillers--more gripping. When we can feel what it's like to be this human being, leaving his or her comfort zone to battle the villains, the book becomes deeper, the world becomes more real, and we care more about what happens to our protagonist.

My list is not meant to be exhaustive. If you have anything to add, please do so below. How do you think the writers (of thrillers) successfully THRILL us?

A retelling of "Gilgamesh" set in nineteenth-century Louisiana swampland. A trio of high school students who run away from home. Jewish women in 1492 Spain fleeing the Inquisition. A woman at a public relations firm who needs to make tough decisions regarding her work and her own heart. A boy adopted from Africa who can't acclimate to life in American until he sees his birth mother one last time. A World War II story that was so vast and complicated it reminded us of War and Peace, so its funny and humble author began referring to it as "War and Pieces."

These were just some of the remarkable novel ideas the participants in "Novel in a Week" worked on with me at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival in June. Our weeklong discussion included the following questions about each novel:

  • Is the initial conflict enough to sustain a novel?
  • How can we raise the stakes?
  • What does the protagonist want?
  • Who or what is standing in his or her way?
  • How does the climax organically come out the plot? (What is the climax?)
  • How can you go home and finish this wonderful book of yours?  :)

I have been teaching at the festival for about fifteen years now, and every year I derive great pleasure and satisfaction from helping other writers achieve their goals. And the goals are almost always the same: To get down on paper (or on the screen) this idea banging about in our heads in such a way that other people will want to read it.

            What could be easier?
            What could be more difficult?

I was lucky to work with an incredible group of talented, nice, and fun people. I hope they are now doing what I told them to do: which is to ignore laundry and finish their novels--because I can't wait to read them.

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