Earlier this month, I attended Bloody Words 2012 in Toronto. New York Times bestselling thriller writer Gayle Lynds attended as the International Guest of Honour, speaking at the gala banquet and sitting on several panels. Gayle was wonderful to listen to—well-spoken and vivacious, she kept the audience both enraptured and laughing at her anecdotes.
Gayle spoke at a session called ‘9 Secrets to Bestselling Thrillers’. The session was excellent, especially from the point of view of an author who is settling into a thriller project herself.
So what are Gayle’s tried and true secrets?
- Larger than life characters: Big characters that do big things. These characters don’t have to start out larger than life. Often taking ordinary people who then do extraordinary things will fulfill this concept in a much more satisfying way.
- What’s the dramatic question?: Knowing what your book is about will help you determine which details aren’t needed in order to eliminate unnecessary confusion.
- High stakes: Thriller stakes often tend to affect a group, rather than an individual. The group in question could be as big as a nation or state, or it could be smaller, like a school. But the protagonist must have not only a personal investment in those stakes, but an investment in the larger group as well. The stakes involved must also be significant enough to capture the reader’s imagination.
- Riveting concept: Also known as ‘high concept’, this is essentially a catchy idea that makes a story bulletproof; a focusing concept that makes it larger than life. Michael Crichton was a great high concept thinker (i.e. The Andromeda Strain, Jurassic Park and many others).
- Multiple viewpoints: Giving expression to multiple major characters helps thrillers have an expansive scope. As a thriller writer, you want your reader invested in every character, and to do that you not only need a fully fledged hero, but a fully fleshed villain as well.
- Exotic setting: Thrillers are often an adventure in another world, but those surroundings don’t have to be a jungle to be considered ‘exotic’. It simply has to be a setting the average reader isn’t familiar with. When Arthur Hailey wrote Airport he set his novel in a familiar location, but then explored the unknowns of that locale to such a degree that it became an exotic setting.
- Mood and tone: While mood and atmosphere are important in any book, in a thriller they need to be secondary to the story, at least in the beginning. Once the plot is moving, we can start to see description through the eyes of the POV characters.
- Suspense: Jeopardy and malice are the cornerstones of a thriller—jeopardy for the protagonist and malice from the villain. The story needs to start as close to the end as possible, with maximum time compression. This means the author has to be very careful about choosing scenes, including only those that are truly necessary to the rising action. Another important point is to always give the reader small moments to breathe through the action or the story becomes exhausting.
- Finale: A satisfying ending is imperative and all the key threads must be tied together. If you are left with a subplot thread that remains unresolved, then it likely wasn’t needed in the first place. The resolution must at least be for that moment; while perhaps not a happy ending, the finale must at least be grounded in realism.
It was an excellent session and definitely gave me some techniques to think about. Thank you, Gayle, for sharing your knowledge and experience with us!
Photo credit: Gayle Lynds