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Working with Fear: What Makes a Good Thriller?

For years, while my publisher tried to call my books mysteries, I’ve insisted that no, they’re thrillers. It’s a lowbrow term, connoting blood, guns, and nefarious activities. Basically, thrillers tend to be about nasty people doing bad, illegal, and/or unethical things, although usually there’s also a blameless individual around as protagonist who is endangered body and soul by these bad people and their immoral plans.

Louisa May Alcott wrote thrillers (see the short story collection Behind a Mask, edited by Madeleine Stern) back before she turned into a respectable children’s author. It’s fascinating to get a glimpse of the pure joy Alcott took in penning tales of seductresses, drug addicts, and murderers. Thriller readers, and surely also writers, are looking for the vicarious, well, thrill of consorting safely with people who are no better than they should be; people who are doing things that shock us, make us afraid, and, if we are honest, excite us. Thrillers are a guilty-pleasure type of reading. Mysteries are almost respectable, but thrillers? No.

So it’s certainly tempting, when discussing “what makes a good thriller,” to get defensive and declare that a good thriller is  constructed from those same ingredients that make any good book: close intellectual attention to the braid of character, plot, and theme, buttressed by strong writing that uses a considered mix of dialogue, exposition, and action, along with a minimum of adverbs, etc., etc. But this would be an evasion. Suspense thrillers are indeed different beasts, and writing a good one is not the same as writing any good mainstream literary novel, even when the two share many literary qualities.

werlin_killer's cousinTraditionally, a thriller requires a heroic (or at least semi-heroic) main character, along with a villain. The two alternately  chase and circle each other around some crime. In my novel The Killer’s Cousin, the crimes are concealed in the past. The  hero, David Yaffe, is tormented and guilt-ridden. (The tormented hero is a popular American heroic variant: think Raymond Chandler.) So far, so standard. But in this, my first thriller, I got lucky (and it was luck; I can’t say I was conscious of what I was doing) in the characterization of the villain, Lily. Because Lily is a child, no matter how threatening she is to David, he cannot confront her physically. He’s trapped. And therefore so were the readers of the novel, as they imagined themselves in his place. You cannot, after all, club an eleven-year-old girl to death. Not even in your imagination. No matter how much you might want to.

The creation of suspense is not simple, I realized. And it is not really about “what happens at the end.” You cannot rely on making the reader afraid by keeping the eventual safety of the main character in doubt, for example. Frankly, the modern  reader knows it’s unlikely the hero will die, or even suffer much damage.

werlin_rules of survivalThis realization caused me to make the reckless choice to give away the ending in my latest novel. The Rules of Survival is about three children who are at the mercy of a woman who should never have been a mother in the first place. Right on page one, the oldest kid, Matthew, explains that he is telling the story in retrospect. That all three kids are alive and doing fine. That everybody made it.

Having given away the ending, I was thrown on my resources as writer to make the journey of the novel terrifying. This meant trying to make “what happens next” exciting and suspenseful, of course. But it also meant trying to think of innovative ways to induce shared fear in the reader.

Contemplating the third draft, I had an idea. I rewrote the novel, abandoning the plain narrative I had used previously, and turned it into a long letter written by Matthew to his youngest sister. This means that there’s not only an “I” telling the story, but also a “you.” And although the “you” is nominally five-year-old Emmy, it’s also you-the-reader, a fact that some readers will notice but that others will accept without considering how it operates on them. This technical choice — writing in first person but using direct address — replaces the garden-variety “how’s it end?” uncertainty by seizing you-the-reader by the throat and taking you along on the Walsh children’s journey, not as observer but as character.

Thus, you are Emmy Walsh. You are five years old. As the story begins, you do not even speak. But you’re smart and observant, and, most of all, you’re willful. Therefore, you don’t always listen to your much-older brother and sister when they explain to you how to maneuver around Mommy and her scary, unpredictable ways.

Even without reading the novel, as you read that bit of description, you-the-reader should feel a little uneasy, perhaps even a little fearful. Because, as you become Emmy, you realize: who cares about the safe ending? First you have to get there. First you have to go through hell — as Emmy.

The manipulative use of tension is what makes a thriller different from any other “good book.” But as you will also perceive, it is not quite as simple as saying that the tension must build higher and higher and higher. The skilled writer must also know when to lessen the tension, when to give the reader a break before, of course, tightening the screws yet again. Harder. And the skilled writer will do that tightening in as innovative a way as possible, using whichever of the many tools in her writer’s toolbox is best suited to the task — the story — at hand.

I have one more thriller writer’s secret to share. This one is not about technique, but about heart.

Fear has ruled me since I can remember. Not because my childhood was extraordinarily traumatic. I think it is simply my temperament. I remember distinctly, for example, being ten years old and looking at illustrations of North America during the Ice Age. I plotted how my family would escape to Florida if the ice suddenly returned. I imagined us taking the last airplane out, fighting our way past other frantic refugees. We might have to kick, even to kill. I planned for that. Survival at all costs, I thought. For me. For those I love.

This same sentiment powers Matthew in The Rules of Survival. But with him, it is not an occasional emotion. With him, it is a constant. He says to his little sister — and to you-the-reader:

This is what I think happens when you live with fear . . . I think the fear gets into your blood. It makes your subatomic  particles twist and distort. You change, chemically. The fear changes, too. It becomes . . . your master. You are a slave to it.

Obviously, I am not a scientist. I’m not even sure I would have passed eleventh-grade chemistry [without help]. But I know that I am not who I was supposed to be, who I could have been, and I know it’s because I was too afraid for too long. It made me think about things I never should have.

werlin_locked insideIn writing suspense, I draw heavily on my own fear. In The Rules of Survival, I used that fear to write about a not-uncommon nightmare situation that I have never experienced. (Um, my mom has asked me to explain that the mother in the novel is not based on her.) In The Killer’s Cousin and my other novels, likewise: I have never killed by accident or intention, never been kidnapped (Locked Inside), never stumbled onto an illegal drug distribution network (Black Mirror), and never found shady scientific experiments going on in the basement (Double Helix).

But this is not to say that I have not experienced fear. Like Matthew and my other characters, I have lived it. And, like Matthew, I work out my fear using writing. And thus I know exactly how to map my fear onto my characters, so that you-the-reader can feel its reality. You will feel it not only because I am  killed at writing, but because my skill will force you, in turn, to map the characters’ fears onto your own fears. To become one with them, and with me.

We all — adult, child, and teen alike — know what it is to fear. And we all want to learn how to handle our fear. Safely. Safely, within the pages of a book.

This, to me, is the pull of the thriller.

From the September/October 2006 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

About Nancy Werlin

Nancy Werlin is the author of six novels for teenagers, including the Edgar–award winning The Killer’s Cousin and her most recent book, The Rules of Survival. She lives near Boston, Massachusetts.

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