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.
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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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