Blast from the past: Five things I’ve learned from writing thrillers

Every now and then I re-post something from years past, for those who might not have seen it before. From May 2013: Five things I’ve learned from writing thrillers.

This is only the start of what should be a long, long list.

1. Chase scenes need to be extremely clear and visual, and even more emotionally powerful than they are on the screen. Readers don’t have the visceral sensory impact that they get from watching these scenes on a movie screen, so the writer has to make up for it by delivering other kinds of punches. And if a chase scene is going to excite readers — not just keep them from becoming bored, but excite them — it has to avoid every cliche and “standard” twist pulled from other chase scenes you’ve seen or read.

Bullitt is iconic. Try to duplicate it, and you’ll just write a cheesy, predictable knock-off.

2. The antagonist cannot be stupid. When I first set out to write a novel, I wanted to show the ignorance, selfishness, and cruelty of certain fundamentalist cults. So I decided to make fun of them — by making them absurdly, overtly moronic. The only problem was, ignorant and moronic people aren’t scary or dangerous opponents. Rewrite.

3. Explicit violence doesn’t make a book more frightening. Gore doesn’t necessarily up the tension. What does increase fear and tension is a threat that remains partially veiled in mystery — because readers’ imaginations will create terrors more frightening than I can portray. The theater of the mind is more powerful than a bucket of blood.

4. Heroes and heroines without weaknesses are boring. Because without weaknesses, a character is God. And God can swat aside any challenge as though flicking away a fly. There’s no genuine risk, no chance that such a character can be defeated. And where’s the fun in that? (See also: Kryptonite.)

5. If you want to vanish, faking your own death is about the worst strategy possible. So don’t try to make it look like a grizzly tore up your pup tent and dragged you into the forest. You’ll only get the Forest Service, CNN, and your friends combing the woods to find you. Wall-to-wall news coverage and smooth disappearances simply don’t go together.

Just so you know.

One response to “Blast from the past: Five things I’ve learned from writing thrillers

  1. Stupid and incompetent villains are the curse of Young Adults fiction–especially when it comes to fantasy novels pitched to Christians. Some of these villains would probably get lost on their way to the bathroom in the morning.

    You used to see a lot less of this. But then our whole culture is thoroughly dumbed down, so why should literature be any different?

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