Putting the Thrill in Thriller Stories – Part 1

No novel is simple to write, but some genres, like crime and thrillers, have a different level of complexity that requires a lot of thought and planning to tell a complicated story, while engaging the reader and keeping them guessing what will happen next.
When we think about thrillers, we imagine a fast-paced novel full of action, danger, suspense, drama, lots of conflict and all manner of plot twists. They tend to rely heavily on plot, and most of the action is driven by escalating events, right up until the final page.
Thrillers are meant to thrill because, right from the start, every scene should push the story forward, it should be paced properly, the characters should be larger than life and stand out, and the stakes should be high.
But before you put any thrill into a thriller, you first need a tight, well thought out plot. This is the skeletal structure that will support everything that happens within the story, and because thrillers are generally more complex in nature – there tends to be more subplots, plot twists and key revelations – they are a fundamental driver for the story. If the plot isn’t right, the story won’t work.
Have some plot line in place before you begin to write anything, otherwise the story won’t go anywhere. All the elements within the story have to tie in with each other, all story strands need to make sense, all subplots need to be parallel with the main story, all plot twists need to relate directly with the story and important revelations have to make complete sense to the story and the reader. 
In essence, everything must relate to the story.
As is often the case, a lot of plot development happens during writing, because writers might change things, add things, take out things, and so the natural course of the story might also change – an unplanned event or situation might occur, so it’s not unusual to shake things up a little. But any changes may mean writers have to keep a very close eye on the plotline. It’s like messing around with time – an event in chapter 10 could have a knock on effect in chapter 20, which had hitherto been unplanned in the plotline, but which may also affect what they’ve already written in chapter 2. This is how some plot holes occur.
Some plots can be complex and hard to get right – thriller stories require careful plotting. Be sure that the plot is tight, yet flexible enough to bend without creating too many plot flaws.
The other key ingredient in a good thriller is to have complex, yet lifelike characters that the reader can relate to. They need to be plausible and believable. Often they tend to be a little larger than life, yet likeable. They should also have flaws. This gives characters their backstories, and they in turn will provide motivations to why they do what they do in the story.
Characters are fallible, too; they will make mistakes and make poor decisions, and they will fail at certain things. Don’t make your protagonist a perfect superhero – no such thing exists, and your readers don’t want that. They want a character they can believe in, get behind and root for, even when things go wrong.
The main character should face ever increasing dangerous situations. How they act and react will have a direct impact on the story, so for example, a main character might make a mistake that produces a chain reaction of events that have dire consequences for other characters later in the story. This immediately creates conflict and tension and raises the stakes.
This dire situation scenario keeps the reader invested, because they need to know if the hero will save the day, come out on top or escape unscathed. Because of all this, thrillers tend to have strong characterisation, so make sure you focus on this. Remember, readers want to empathise and identify with your main character.
As with all stories, start in media res. This is important in every book, but the opening chapter needs to move things along right from the start, so ensure your first chapter shows your main character facing a pivotal moment in his/her life – a dilemma, a problem, a situation that sets the tone for the entire book and sets the scene to establish why the character is there. Don’t info dump – instead, get right into the action and show the reader whose story it is, why it’s happening and what’s at stake.
Once you have an opening chapter that grabs the reader’s attention, the rest of the story must live up to the promise. That means once the story and the main players are established, you must quickly introduce conflict, tension and emotion. Thriller writers do this by making things difficult for the protagonist at every step. They put them in danger and back them into corners. They place seemingly impossible obstacles in their way. They create knife-edge situations, and sometimes they rip everything away from them. All these things elevate the tension and drama with increasing pressure. It keeps the reader turning the page.
One of the classic ways to heighten all these emotions is to tip the odds in favour of the antagonist. Writers make it look like the bad guys are getting away with everything. They’re making your protagonist’s life a misery and they’re going unpunished. The reader is left thinking, “No, This is so unfair!”
But that’s how writers manipulate the reader, because then, somehow, the hero fights back, he / she gains the advantage and the tables are turned against the bad guys once again…until the next obstacle/problem/dilemma.
Another trick for creating tension is to introduce ever-increasing stakes. Something will always be at stake in thriller stories – a loved one, an object, a secret, a piece of information, knowledge, the world…anything that could push the story in one direction, or the other. Around this, the writer creates the notion that if the protagonist fails, everything could be lost, and that would be devastating. Again, this is how writers manipulate the reader’s emotions.
In part 2, we’ll look at how conflict, pace, plot twists, master manipulation, POV and more works to help put the thrill in thrillers.
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Sep 13, Grand Remembrances

Today is Grandparents Day in the United States. Being a Grand is a special honor. I feel very blessed that my wife and I have two grandchildren. We were able to visit them today. Yes, we are still being cautious with the coronavirus, but we also find it very difficult to not see them when they live so close. So today we did drop by to visit Jacob (age 10) and Sophia (age 7) along with their parents. We brought donuts and caught up with them. Our grandchildren are still pretty young and this is a precious time in their lives – and ours!

I wish I had known my grandparents better. We never lived in the same place. Dad was a career Air Force pilot, so we moved around a lot. But we did get to see them once in a while when they would visit us, or we them.

A Plague of Giants

There are five known magical ‘kennings’ or types: air, water, fire, earth, and plants. Each nation specializes in of these kennings, and the magic influences the society. There’s a big pitfall with this diversity of ability and locale–not everyone gets along.

Enter the Hathrim giants, or ‘lavaborn’ whose kenning is fire. Where they live the trees that fuel their fire are long gone, but the giants are definitely not welcome anywhere else. They’re big, they’re violent, and they’re ruthless. When a volcano erupts and they are forced to evacuate, they take the opportunity to relocate. They don’t care that it’s in a place where they aren’t wanted.

I first read Kevin Hearne’s Iron Druid books and loved them (also the quirky The Tales of Pell), so was curious about this new venture, starting with A PLAGUE OF GIANTS. Think Avatar: The Last Airbender meets Jim Butcher’s Codex Alera series. Elemental magic, a variety of races, different lands. And it’s all thrown at you from page one.

But this story is told a little differently. It starts at the end of the war, after a difficult victory, and a bard with earth kenning uses his magic to re-tell the story of the war to a city of refugees. And it’s this movement back and forth in time and between key players in this war that we get a singularly grand view of the war as a whole. Hearne uses this method to great effect.

There are so many interesting characters in this book that I can’t cover them all here. Often in books like this such a large cast of ‘main’ character can make the storytelling suffer, especially since they don’t have a lot of interaction with each other for the first 3/4 of the book–but it doesn’t suffer, thankfully. And the characterization is good enough, despite these short bursts, that by the end we understand these people and care about what happens to them.

If there were a main character it would be Dervan, a historian who is assigned to record (also spy on?) the bard’s stories. He finds himself caught up in machinations he feels unfit to survive. Fintan is the bard from another country, who at first is rather mysterious and his true personality is hidden by the stories he tells; it takes a while to understand him. Gorin Mogen is the leader of the Hathrim giants who decide to find a new land to settle. He’s hard to like, but as far as villains go, you understand his motivations and he can be even a little convincing. There’s Abhi, the son of hunters, who decides hunting isn’t the life for him–and unexpectedly finds himself on a quest for the sixth kenning. And Gondel Vedd, a scholar of linguistics who finds himself tasked with finding a way to communicate with a race of giants never seen before (definitely not Hathrim) and stumbles onto a mystery no one could have guessed: there may be a seventh kenning.

There are other characters, but what makes them all interesting is that they’re regular people (well, maybe not Gorin Mogen or the viceroy–he’s a piece of work) who become heroes in their own little ways, whether it’s the teenage girl who isn’t afraid to share vital information, to the scholars who suddenly find how crucial their minds are to the survival of a nation, to the humble public servants who find bravery when they need it most. This is a story of loss, love, redemption, courage, unity, and overcoming despair to not give up. All very human experiences by simple people who do extraordinary things.

Hearne’s worldbuilding is engaging. He doesn’t bottle feed you, at first it feels like drinking from a hydrant, but then you settle in and pick up things along the way. Then he shows you stuff with a punch to the gut. This is no fluffy world with simple magic without price. All the magic has a price, and more often than not it leads you straight to death’s door. For most people just the seeking of the magic will kill you. I particularly enjoyed the scenes with Ahbi and his discovery of the sixth kenning and everything associated with it. But giants? I mean, really? It isn’t bad enough fighting people who can control fire that you have to add that they’re twice the size of normal people? For Hearne if it’s war, the stakes are pretty high, and it gets ugly.

The benefit of the storytelling style is that the book, despite its length, moves along steadily (Hearne is no novice, here). The bits of story lead you along without annoying cliffhangers (mostly), and I never got bored with the switch between characters. It was easy to move between them, and they were recognizable enough that I got lost or confused. The end of the novel felt a little abrupt, but I guess that has more to do with I was ready for the story to continue, despite the exiting climax.

If you’re looking for epic fantasy with fun storytelling and clever worldbuilding, check out A PLAGUE OF GIANTS.

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The Artwork Of Gary Choo

Gary Choo is a concept artist/illustrator based in Singapore. I’ve know Gary for a good many years ( 17, actually ), working together in animation studios in Singapore like Silicon Illusions and Lucasfilm. Gary currently runs an art team at Mighty Bear Games, but when time allows he also draws covers for Marvel comics, and they’re amazing –

The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo

To see more of Gary’s work or to engage him for freelance work, head down to his ArtStation.

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