Webpage and MP3 Podcast: Anatomy of a Thriller – Part 2 (9:26)
Set the Story’s Pace
In mystery writing it’s particularly important to keep the story moving. Ridley Pearson once offered some good advice to a group of us St. Louis writers about chapter length. He asked us, “Your readers are anxious to get to the next chapter, right?” When we all agreed, he said, “Well then, the obvious answer is — short chapters.” I used to obsess over the number of chapters my book contained. But then as I read more mysteries, and especially thrillers, I found some with as many as forty or fifty chapters in a normal length novel of 80 to 100,000 words—and even up to 100 chapters in longer thrillers.
As you expand your manuscript into actual text, trying to “show, not tell” your story, here are more thriller tips. it’s helpful to create the dialogue of an actual scene among your characters. But there’s a limit. I recently finished reading a mystery by one of our best St. Louis writers, which has been favorably received by readers and reviewers. It’s a good yarn with a terrific showdown at the end. But I concluded the book is too long, almost 120,000 words. I felt there were too many scenes in dialogue. Introducing narration might have cut the length. I also caught the amateur sleuth pondering too often over what he should do next and what each action will mean for his status and his personal outcome. Joseph Conrad is a master of this technique in his deeply psychological novels, such as Lord Jim. He follows a line of dialogue with a paragraph of internal pondering about his inner interpretation, motivations and historical associations. But these streamlined descriptions of his ruminations and their exposition are efficiently woven into his narrative.
Another way to control the pace is foreshadowing—creating a burning desire in the reader to get to the next part of the story. Merely telling about it your anxiety can backfire. A statement I found recently in a mystery— “To my chagrin, the truth I would discover was more than I was prepared to digest.” This is overwriting, both unnecessary and jarring to the flow. It’s most important at this point in the story to show, not tell, actual developments, even if you just give a tantalizing hint of what’s to come.
Here’s an experiment for you to try. Write about a plot development: what happens, who does what, where it leads and what the characters do next. A few short paragraphs should do it. Then try writing the same events as a scene, complete with dialogue, atmosphere and action. Do you notice how different it feels? Don’t you find it to takes many more words and pages? Then, decide how this scene fits into your story. If it’s a critical plot turning point, perhaps it deserves to be a scene. If not, such as a trip from one place to another, perhaps you can cover it by merely telling what happens. Or, as really good thriller writers do, leave it out altogether. Your reader is smart. If you do it right she will fill in how you got from here to there or discount it as unimportant to the story. In daily life, when you tell someone what happened and what you did earlier in the day, don’t you just hit the high spots? That’s what good writing and editing should do.
For instance, let the reader in on something that could happen. Or introduce a twist at chapter’s end and leave it unresolved but open to whole new world of possible developments. The last paragraph of a chapter might contain a new clue, the reappearance of a missing character.,or a phone call informing your sleuth about a crisis that requires him to be there right away. But there’s no time to explain it over the phone. Leave ’em hanging.
Use dialog to advance the story
In fiction writing, dialogue is not everyday chit-chat. Author Rick Skwiot (San Miguel de Allende Mexico, Key West Story) teaches us, “Dialogue is conversation’s greatest hits.” What he means is, the The initial part of ordinary conversation, “Hey, how ya doin’?”—what I’ve heard called pre-symbolic language—is largely unnecessary in a novel. Such throwaway lines can be skipped, unless they establish region of origin, attitudes, social class or personality traits. Speech can be used more functionally: to reveal character, show conflict among characters and work out decisions, In many cases it can take the story in a new direction.
Charles Dickens provides a memorable example of efficient dialogue. Mr. Barkis, a wagon driver in the novel David Copperfield (1849–50) is a man of few words, but the ones he uses are packed with meaning. Persistent in his courtship of Clara Peggotty, Copperfield’s childhood nurse, he sees her often as she descends from her seat in their daily ride, yet never says more than his hopeful phrase, “Barkis is willin’.” It changes the course of the plot, for they are eventually married.
Submit Your Work for Awards
I’ve found, if you pick your battles carefully, you’ll pick up even more advice, also applicable as thriller tips. A judge in the 2018 Writer’s Digest self-published book competition awarded 96 percent of (29 of 30) available rating points to Radio: One Woman’s Family in War and Pieces, by my mother Alice H. Green (1913-1982) and me, Peter H. Green. This contemporaneous, autobiographical memoir concerns the role of women in World War II and their families on the American home front. While the original impetus, plot line and over half of the manuscript were directly from my mother’s memoirs, out of sheer necessity the scene re-creations, postwar commentary and final presentation were mine. At the risk of shameless self-promotion, I quote the contest judge who evaluated the book:
Author has a great talent for writing dialogue scenes, using fresh and differentiated character voices in tandem with illustrative movements, gestures and inner dialogue. Very well done. The voices in these scenes add great depth. Placed perfectly in the center of the story was the discussion about how hard it was to protect the children from news of death and danger from the war. We’re often treated to images of smiling children listening to the radio shows, but this book introduces the fresh perspective that radio time was also a vehicle for life’s harshest realities…much like our own children experience. Beautifully done.
—Judge No. 39, 2018 Writers Digest Self-Published Book Awards
This positive critique mentions qualities I didn’t recognize Mom’s and my words had achieved. But it describes for your and my common benefit the subtle aspects dialogue can bring out in a story, whether fiction or creative nonfiction.
Read and write a lot
These tips are not rules, They are best employed as you write, meaningless otherwise. Every suggestion I’ve made can or should be broken, for the right reasons.
A book I have recently read, Chicago, by David Mamet, shows his mastery of dialogue, which compares favorably with Hemingway. Its storytelling success debunks what I’ve said about too-long dialogue. He writes entire chapters in dialogue, and the story races on, to journalist Mike Hodge’s next interview in his search for the killer of his only love. True, it alternates with narrative chapters, or combinations of both, as the author sees fit to tell his tale, When I review my previous comments, I realize Mamet has just shown the exception that proves the rule. The advice will vary widely under the writer’s direction and control.
All of which recalls the thriller tips of Stephen King, who wrote in his 2000 classic, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft: “If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that,” (P.147). When you keep reading, your writing advice will change again and again, as you find better ways great authors show you to get to the heart of a story.