Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

11.27: The Elemental Thriller

Let’s get this out of the way up front: in the syntax of elemental genres, the phrase “the element of thriller” is clunky. But we’ll say it anyway.

We discuss the difference between the drivers in thrillers, horror stories, and mysteries, and use the elemental genre tools to assist in the differentiation. We also cover the tools we use to develop and maintain the tension that is so critical in a thriller.

Credits: This episode was recorded by Daniel Thompson, and mastered by Alex Jackson. 

Homework: Ramp up the tension! Take the “yes, but; no, and” approach on one of your try-fail cycles. Prune the “sequel” down to nothing between a pair of “scenes,” and force your characters to move directly from a problematic success (“yes, but”) or a disastrous failure (“no, and”) into the next crisis.

Thing of the week: Patriot Games, by Tom Clancy, narrated by Scott Brick.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key Points: Thriller! In danger, being chased, someone is trying to kill you, if you don’t stop the bomb from exploding, millions will die. Anxiety! If horror is fear of the unknown, thriller is fear of what is coming. Tension! Short chapters, with cliffhangers. Races and chases! Timebomb! Adrenaline. To write one — use chapter breaks, in cusp points. Minimize resting places. Scene, scene, little sequel. Keep the momentum going! If your protagonist is doing the chasing, make sure there is a timebomb, that they don’t have time to prep and plan. Pursuit thriller, where we are chasing, often has high stakes. Pursued thriller, where we are being chased, often has personal stakes.

[Mary] Season 11, Episode 27.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, The Element of Thriller.
[Mary] 15 minutes long.
[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Howard] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Howard] I’m Howard.

[Brandon] All right. Now most of our other episodes and titles have fit very well in the grammar we’re using. The element of thriller doesn’t sound quite as good.
[Brandon] But if you’re unfamiliar… I actually was unfamiliar with this as a genre until I became a writer. I had always just called them, oh, like spy books or things like this. Thriller is a really well-established book genre. I’m sure you guys all know what it is, even though I didn’t. But as an elemental genre, we’re looking at the idea of being in danger, being chased, kind of the suspense of knowing that someone is trying to kill you, with it if you don’t stop this bomb from going off, the whole city is blown up. This sort of thing. That is our elemental genre.
[Howard] Speaking from the standpoint of someone who periodically suffers from anxiety attacks, the thriller genre for me differs from horror in that horror is existential dread, and thriller is constant anxiety. It’s this tension that… It differs a lot for me from dread.
[Dan] That tension and that sense of anxiety is really what separates it. A lot of procedurals, if you amp up the tension and make them a little more breathless, they become thrillers.
[Mary] I think one of the things is that… One of the differences for me between horror and thriller, the kind of fear that you’re experiencing, is that in horror, it’s really about the fear of the unknown, and with thriller, it’s really you know what is coming. You know, and it’s… It is this fear of you can see what is about to happen.
[Brandon] We talked about in horror, sometimes in horror, the fear is of something worse than death. With thriller, it’s mostly death, but death of loved ones, death of self, destruction of a city… But the real calling card is that they keep that tension up for as long as possible.
[Howard] The classic 60s, 70s, 80s era thrillers, at least as written in the United States, are being trapped forever on the other side of the Iron Curtain. The spy getting caught. You know that that is a possible consequence, and authors played that up, over and over and over again.

[Brandon] The place where I really figured out thriller, the first time I really dug into it… It was actually Dan and I. It was when The Da Vinci Code really took off. The entire publishing industry was saying, “Whoa. Wait. Where did this come from?” We’ve always known that thrillers have been bankable, but then this thing became one of the really big breakout successes. Of course, Tom Clancy had been doing this, and there were the Bourne Identity books, and things. So thrillers have all along been successful. But this one blew the lid off of everything else. So Dan and I sat down and read this, and analyzed it, and said, “What is this book doing?” It consisted of a lot of really interesting things. Short chapters. Very short chapters, each one with a cliffhanger. Even a lot of dirty trick cliffhangers, where it’s like, “He opened the door, and…” New chapter. Always being chased and running somewhere. Took place in a very short period of time, with a constant sense of “We’ve got to outrace the bad guys. They’re chasing us, and we’re trying to figure out…” It was a mystery, but really, we have this time bomb on us. That together created one of the most compelling thrillers ever written. I’ll tell you about halfway through that book, I was so tired of that book.
[Dan] But you couldn’t stop.
[Brandon] Because of all that tension. But you couldn’t stop. That’s exactly it.
[Howard] The tool of elemental genre is extremely useful for looking at things like The da Vinci Code. Yes, it’s a thriller. It is also… There is… I’m not sure if this is idea or wonder. But the reveal in there… We know who the killer is, the person we’re running from. But the reveal of the mystery is one of the things that made the book so appealing. Because it was this huge sort of cultural “Aha! Wow!” amazement thing.
[Mary] I think one of the things that, again, when were talking about what it is that you’re trying to hack your brain to produce, with thriller more than pretty much any of the other genres, what you’re trying to do is you’re trying to hack the brain to produce adrenaline.
[Brandon] Yep. You’ll see this is a very time-tested film genre as well. Lots of spy films, but anyone where you’re… The page turn is really what we’re looking for in books. Now, lots of genres can be page turners, but the quintessential one is this. They will do lots of interesting things in the books to enhance this. I remember Tom Doherty, who is the publisher at Tor, telling me, “Yeah, with our thrillers, we make sure that the font is the largest that seems reasonable and that the margins are the widest that seems reasonable,” for the sheer fact that you turn the pages faster and adds the format to it.
[Dan] You feel like you’re reading more of a book. Go pick up a James Patterson book, and statistically speaking, you already have several in your house.
[Dan] His books are about 65,000 words. Which is supershort. Yet the books are big, fat, thick books because they do the font size and the margin size trick, so you feel like you’re getting a bigger book and you feel like you’re reading it faster.

[Brandon] Let’s go ahead and stop for our book of the week. Which Dan is going to tell us about one of the greatest thrillers of all time.
[Dan] We mentioned Tom Clancy earlier. He wrote what people called techno-thrillers, which was basically just their way of saying, “Hey, it’s a thriller with a lot of military jargon in it.” My favorite of his was Patriot Games, which was one of the very, very first ones. Which was about the hero, Jack Ryan, fighting against Irish terrorists and being chased by and menaced by terrorists. It’s a fantastic book. It keeps the tension high the entire time. It’s incredibly believable. Tom Clancy knew his stuff, he did his research, he had countless experts that he had read the book and give him hints and tips. So the way he is able to take failures even… I remember one of the scenes in it that is so powerful is the military lands at Jack Ryan’s house to protect him from the terrorists, but they can never get a good look at the bad guys, so they never get permission to shoot them, so they just have to leave. It’s incredibly tense the entire time. Nothing happens. But it works so well as a thriller.
[Brandon] So that’s Patriot Games, Tom Clancy. One of my favorite thrillers, also. It is read by Scott Brick. You can head on over to Audible. Go to, start a trial membership of Audible, and download The Patriot Games.

[Brandon] So, let’s talk about writing a thriller. How do you go about keeping this tension high for a long period of time? What are your tricks?
[Mary] One of the tricks that you can use is the chapter breaks. What we’ve talked about. One of the things about a thriller is for the reader, it doesn’t feel like there’s a resting place, that there’s a good spot to put it down. So one of the things that I do when I’m trying to do that as a subgenre, but in mine, is I put my resting places mid chapter, so that I make sure that my chapter breaks are coming at a cusp point, at a scene changer. I mean at a… I don’t mean change of scene, but something that changes things. At a cliffhanger, essentially.
[Howard] One of the tools that we talked about in the past with regard to pacing is scene-sequel format. With thrillers, what I’ve found is that instead of being scene sequel scene sequel for a lot of the book, it’s scene scene little sequel scene scene little sequel. We get less time to process what has been happening, and we spend more time with things happening. Whether we’re doing or whether it’s being done to us, the amount of time you get to spend processing is less.
[Dan] Yes. Well, the processing time that you get in a thriller is often like, “Oh, we finally escaped that guy. Let’s take stock of our resources, and realize exactly how bad we have it.” So it’s a way of keeping the attention up during a moment of rest.

[Brandon] I’ve written three thrillers. The Steelheart books are thrillers, with an ensemble as a subgenre. Looking at this, having read like The Da Vinci Code and a lot of Tom Clancy and things, one of the questions I had to ask myself is, “What is my balance here? Where are my resting points?” I felt that some thrillers, for me personally, go too far in the tension never lets up. I was writing 100,000 words instead of 60,000 words. So I do what Dan did. There’s a… What is it? You pull off this big thing, lots of explosions, things like this. Take a break. Then ramp up to the next one and have a big chase scene and things like this. Really, it was all about momentum. I like a single viewpoint, and a lot of thrillers will do this. Tom Clancy doesn’t. He has lots of multiple viewpoints. But a single viewpoint makes it easier. The real trick is those chapters. How are you going to have each chapter feel snappy and fast and powerful without having the dirty tricks? As we’ve said before on Writing Excuses, I feel personally that it’s better to wow people with what’s beyond the door rather than hook them by opening the door and not telling them what’s there. If the ramifications of what’s behind the door is so cool that they have to turn the page, that’s going to be a more fulfilling experience than saying, “And they opened the door, and…” and stopping.
[Mary] Yeah. It is really that you have to make sure that the payoff is worthwhile. I saw a production of Dracula which was really terrible in which there was a scene change and they played the entirety of Ride of the Valkyries. When we returned from the scene change, all they had done was move a coffin on stage and draw a black curtain across. It was not worth the amount of time. You expected there to be something really spectacular. To a certain degree, that’s what happens with your readers if you break at a moment of high tension. When you come back, the tension on the other side has to be as high. Then it has to escalate from there.
[Howard] A good example of using multiple POV’s to maintain the tension rather than break the tension is in our book of the week, in Patriot Games. There is a home invasion scene in which we switch POV’s from the people at the dinner table to the person who has stepped out of the room and the bad guys don’t know he’s there. It is a real time swap. We move from this moment to the very next moment in another room listening to what is happening. Very, very fluid and a lot of fun.

[Brandon] Now, I want to ask a question here because I’m thinking through thrillers that I’ve read. A lot of them are Bourne Identity style I’m being chased or Patriot Games there are people hunting me. But I’ve read a lot of thrillers that are the opposite. The James Bond things are all thrillers, and he’s always… Not always, but a lot of times, the chaser rather than the chasee.
[Dan] He’s the one chasing.
[Brandon] So how does that work?
[Dan] That’s how the Jack Reacher books work as well, and a lot of these other kind of Alex Cross, the kind of series character. Often they are the ones doing the chasing. The way that works is that there is still some kind of time crucible…
[Howard] Timebomb plot.
[Dan] There is still that hammerlock that is forcing them to do something, even though they’re kind of… They have a little more power. They have limited power within their environment.
[Mary] I think that that timebomb metaphorically is… One of the things about a thriller is that your protagonist doesn’t really have time to prep and plan. That there is a certain amount… Part of where the adrenaline comes from is the seat-of-the-pants.
[Brandon] Right. I would also say conversely that what makes a thriller a thriller is that… Doesn’t have to be a timebomb, but it really is going to be something like that. It’s the difference from an adventure. Adventure, we’re going to go and it’s going to be fun and we’re going to do this thing. Whereas thriller is if we don’t do this thing, millions of people will die. That’s a different tone, right? It doesn’t even have to be a timebomb, but it has to be the characters… The consequences for the characters failing are much different than well, we didn’t get the cool stone or find the cool city, we have failed in this cool thing we were trying. It is “Great. Now the terrorists have executed this person.” Or “Something terrible is going to happen if James Bond does not succeed in what he’s doing.” So in a lot of ways, it’s like the epic… It’s like an epic version of an adventure story in some ways. Well, I guess that’s not true, because a lot of adventure stories go epic places.
[Mary] I was thinking about that, and trying to think about how that plays out when we used thriller as a… Which we’ll be talking about…
[Brandon] We’ll talk about that in a couple weeks.
[Mary] But I think you’re right that the stakes in thrillers have to be high. They don’t necessarily have to be “and they’re going to kill everyone,” but they do have to be significant.
[Howard] In the pursuit thriller, where we’re not running from, we’re running after, often the stakes are a little higher. In the running from thriller, I think the stakes are often very, very personal.
[Brandon] That’s true. That’s a really good point.
[Howard] In… I can’t remember the name of the book now, but it was paced very, very tightly all the way through. The only person who was really at risk was the protagonist, but it was tense all the way through because we never stopped running.

[Brandon] All right. Let’s go ahead and break and give you guys some homework. Mary is going to make you do something.
[Mary] All right. So we’re going to talk about having you actually ramp up your current work and get a little bit more thriller action in there. There’s a very useful plotting tool called “yes-but, no-and” which is the idea that every question… Every action that your character takes is essentially a question. The question is, “Does this succeed?” Your answers are “Yes, but things get worse,” or “No, and things get worse.” So what I want you to do is to look at what you’ve got going on and find something that you currently have them succeed at, and then you have a nice resting spot, and then they go on to another thing. Take out the nice resting spot and make that success a little less triumphant. So essentially what I’m asking you to do is have scene, scene. If you really need the sequel, if there’s content in there, see if you can roll that into the next action scene. But what we want you to do is tighten it up so we’ve got a lot more breathlessness going forward.
[Brandon] All right. That’s excellent. This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.