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

11.29: Elemental Thriller as a Subgenre

Thrillers are, by their very nature, page-turners. In this episode we look at the thriller element as part of a story whose principal driver is one of the other elemental genres. We consider some examples of blended-with-thrill stories, and then drill down a bit and look at how we can incorporate this in our own work.

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

Homework: Practice your cliffhangers! Experiment with the placement of chapter breaks, new questions, and big reveals, and work on each of these methods as a way to satisfactorily encourage that page turn.

Thing of the week: Planetfall by Emma Newman, narrated by Emma Newman.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key Points: Thriller, adrenaline, pumped! To make a thriller, make sure your character is in danger, and stays in danger. Take away the people the protagonist can trust. Keep the pot boiling — four things at once, not just one. Try-fail cycles with yes-but/no-and and plenty of unintended consequences. Timebomb after timebomb. But don’t lose what makes the main genre work, just add to it. Make it personal. Why does it matter to this character?

[Mary] Season 11, Episode 29.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Thriller As Subgenre.
[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] And, thrillers! We’re still talking about thrillers. What makes you turn the page for a thriller?
[Dan] That’s a funny question…
[Brandon] It is.
[Dan] Because that’s like the whole point of thrillers.
[Brandon] That is the whole point of thrillers.
[Brandon] Yeah. How do you… Yeah. Go ahead.
[Dan] Well… Because, like we talked about last time, it’s the… The whole point of a thriller is that your adrenaline is up.
[Brandon] Yep.
[Dan] You are pumped, you are amped, you are nervous, you are agitated, and you want to… You want that to end.

[Brandon] Okay. Other than changing your chapter length, how do you inject this into a story?
[Mary] I think a lot of it is that one of the things that you’re specifically looking for is for the moment when the character is safe. So one of the things that you can do when you’re trying to inject it, to use thriller elements in a different form is that you’ve got a scene in which your character is in danger. That you keep it going and that there is never a moment in that scene where you think that they might be safe.
[Brandon] Any scene, really, where you’re putting your character or something they love in direct danger is going to borrow from thriller.
[Mary] I think usually we’re talking about physical peril with thriller.
[Brandon] Yes, yes. Rather than mental peril. Very good point. So what can we learn from thrillers… Let’s say that I’m writing a scene where the main character, she finds out that her mother has been kidnapped and is in danger. How could I borrow something from thrillers to make that a more powerful scene than otherwise it might have been?
[Howard] The… What we just said about we want to turn the page and find out that they’re safe. You have to convince me as a reader that safety does lie ahead somewhere.
[Brandon] Um. Okay.
[Howard] That’s the difference, for me, between thriller in many senses or in many situations, and horror. If you are using it as a subgenre, then one of the promises you need to have made to the reader in your… With the other elements is that safety is a thing that can happen in this book.
[Brandon] Okay. That’s a really interesting take on this. I’m glad you brought that up.
[Dan] Well, at the same time, I think one of the hallmarks of horror is that you are waiting for something terrible to happen. Whereas in a thriller, the threat is immediate.
[Brandon] There is definitely that.
[Dan] In a thriller, everything’s awful right now, but you know you can make it to the end if you just keep running.

[Brandon] So I’m going to give you two examples. I’m going to use cinema as we often do because more people have experienced these individual pieces of hybrid thrillers. They’re very different in tone. One is Batman, the Dark Knight. Which is a city at siege thriller, kind of. Then, the other one is the new Captain America movie. Now, we’re using superheroes, we’ve talked about this a little bit before, as recently these superhero films, they’ve had to add subgenres to each one in order to make them different from one another. So even though sometimes they might be… Not be the greatest films ever, what they do illustrate is how you can take a similar premise, add a subgenre to it, and change it into something else. Both of these films did that. The Winter Soldier, the Captain America one, was a straight up spy thriller, told with Captain America as the protagonist. Then the Dark Knight is, like I said, city at siege, there is a mad man who’s going to destroy the city and it’s about Batman facing off with him. Both quintessential types of thrillers with very different types of tones. One’s very dark, one’s very much more light.
[Howard] I think the difference between the two lies in the fact… You said spy thriller?
[Brandon] Yes.
[Howard] Spy novels, one of the elements in there, besides the elemental anxiety, is the intrigue.
[Brandon] Yeah, the mystery.
[Howard] The curiosity… The mystery. When you blend those, when you blend those two elements, you have your spy thriller. You have your bookshelf genre of thriller. That’s what they did with Captain America, with Winter Soldier.
[Brandon] That’s it exactly. I hadn’t even been thinking about it, but that’s what it is. That one’s a mystery because it’s like, “Who is behind this? Who’s pulling the strings?” Where in the Dark Knight, it’s never “Who’s behind this?” We know who’s behind it, and we are terrified of him.
[Mary] So going back to that example that you were using, of if you’ve got… Receiving information that someone’s been kidnapped. If, in a straight up mystery, you receive the information and you have to go find them. In a thriller, you receive the information while you are being chased.
[Dan] Exactly. That’s what Captain America does, is he is solving the mystery while on the run from bad guys.
[Brandon] Well, what about James Bond, who’s never chaste? He always sleeps with somebody.
[Dan] He’s been chased a lot.
[Howard] Oh, yeah.
[Dan] That was terrible.
[Brandon] I know. That was so bad. I’m proud of myself.
[Howard] This is why we can’t have nice things.
[Mary] I’m usually the one who makes those jokes.

[Howard] The kidnapping. Coming back to the kidnapping. One of the classic elements is your waiting for the phone call with the kidnapper drops a phone with you and you are supposed to answer this phone. Then you lose the phone. Okay? Now we’ve raised the tension and we have a thriller in which I’m not just sitting around waiting for the next phone call. I’m trying to figure out how to put things back together.
[Dan] Another hallmark of thriller, to answer your question of how can you make that my mom just got kidnapped… How can you make it a thriller? Is by taking away the people that the protagonist can trust. This is not a kindly pair of policeman who are letting me know that my mom’s been kidnapped. Because I can’t trust the cops because they’re in on it somehow. Or I think they are.
[Brandon] Thinking of several fantasy writers, friends of mine, who do thriller hybridized fantasies. Jim Butcher, his Codex Aliera books are a great example of this. He plots them and paces them like a thriller. Which makes sense, because the Dresden Files have some very thriller elements to them. Brent Weeks does the same thing in his books. The thing that they do is it’s not just peril, there’s three other things happening at the same time. That saving my mom is only one of the things that are poor protagonist has to deal with. She’s like beset by all of these other things. Then, the other is the problems roll one into another. As soon as you solve something, that’s not the victory. It’s okay, we’ve saved my mother. But then BOOM. The explosion goes off. This is why I love Mary’s talking about “yes-but, no-and” which we had you listen to a couple of weeks ago, is because thrillers seem like they often pace and plot like this. There’s always the next problem coming right at you. The hero can be very capable. The woman we’re talking about in this hypothetical story, she can be super capable. That’s why James Bond films can work, with him being extra competent, is because there’s never a moment for him to take a break and bask in the fact that he’s been victorious until maybe the end.
[Dan] But what is separating that from say a horror or a mystery is that really you’re talking about a series of successes.
[Brandon] Yes.
[Dan] I succeed, I succeed, I succeed, over and over I demonstrate my competence and I overcome obstacles all the time, I just haven’t won yet.
[Brandon] I’ve often mentioned I’ve read a couple of Dirk Pitt books, which are thrillers. In one of them, it’s like… It’s almost like competence… Everyone’s super competent, you love watching their competence as they do these things. There was… It’s been so long, so I’m going to get details wrong, but Dirk Pitt’s accountant is trapped on an island with terrorists by himself. He thinks to himself, “What would Dirk Pitt do?” So he goes and steals a bazooka, blows their helicopter out of the air, brings them all down, kills them all. Just the accountant. He is so competent. You never have a moment where “Oh, no. I’m the poor accountant, what’s going to happen? I’ll just hide from these guys.” It is we are action movie. Go! That’s how these things work. Even when you’re in danger, you are… Your characters are often very competent.
[Mary] I think that one of the things, looking at the yes-but, no-and, is that the yes-but is talking about unintended consequences. That’s one of the things that happens when you got a series of try-fail cycles that are built on successes is that your character succeeds, but there are unintended consequences from it. It’s like… Oh, I can’t remember which… Oh, there’s multiple films where someone is trying to stop a bad guy and then accidentally knocks the baby carriage down the stairs.
[Brandon] Exactly.
[Mary] They stop the baby carriage… They succeed in stopping the baby carriage, the unintended consequence is bad guy has gotten away. So it’s that kind of thing. Looking for those that you can build in.
[Dan] The first half of Princess Bride is actually structured this way. Where I have defeated one henchman after another, in a never-ending stream, but that doesn’t mean I’ve won yet.

[Brandon] Let’s stop for our book of the week.
[Mary] All right. Book of the week is Planetfall by Emma Newman, and it’s actually narrated by Emma Newman. She’s an actress before she was a writer. I read this book and was blown away by it. It has a thriller subplot… It’s not even a thriller subplot. It has thriller elements running all the way through it. It is not a thriller. This is a science fiction book. It is about a group of people who have landed on a new planet. It’s about… It takes place about 50 years after they’ve established this new planet… After planetfall. There are things going on in this book that… I want you to go in and read this book blind. I will just tell you that it is perhaps the best book I’ve read in the past year.
[Brandon] Wow.
[Mary] Read it blind. I was coming through the airport on the way to record these, and the bookseller at Barbara’s Books was talking about Planetfall. She was just handing it to people and saying, “Just read this. Don’t ask me any questions.”
[Brandon] That is cool. That bookseller, by the way, is someone that I respect a lot. She knows her stuff.
[Mary] So this is Planetfall by Emma Newman. You can pick up an audio read by Emma at\excuse and you can start a 30-day trial and have Planetfall be your first book.
[Brandon] Excellent.
[Howard] Actually, a forward slash.
[Mary] Forward slash.
[Brandon] It is a forward slash. But that’s okay.
[Howard] It’s okay. That’s my inner nerd.
[Mary] See, it’s a slash. I just love my slash [garbled – fiction?]

[Howard] On the subject of inner nerd, talking about thriller as a subgenre, I realized that we are totally building that, we being me and Alan and Sandra, in the Planet Mercenary role-playing game. Where what characters want, characters… What players want is to be super competent and safe and get all the loot. What we have done in the game is build timebomb mechanics over and over and over again so they don’t get to stop and position all the pieces on the board. They have to keep thinking, they have to keep moving as players. The yes-but, no-and… That’s one of the rules that we hand them. The timebomb of the game chief counting things down. I just put that together now. Oh, my gosh. I’m totally using thriller as a subgenre for humor, because the release of tension in the thriller element is… In the Schlock Mercenary universe is [garbled – very humorous?]
[Brandon] It’s very complementary. It occurs to me that if you want to add a thriller sub-element… Actually, it doesn’t just occur to me. I’ve known this for a long time. Adding a timebomb is one of the best ways to ramp up the tension in a story and take really any other plot and add a thriller element to it. It’s kind of like we said with mystery, that with mystery, the mystery is kind of the glue that can hold together another plot. Well, thriller is what can make the pages turning in another plot happen that much more quickly. Whether you have a mystery or a relationship or things like this, if these two characters don’t learn to work together, then this will happen in this amount of time. Suddenly, you have much more of a thriller subplot than you have always had.
[Dan] Now, thriller is one that I want to actually caution. Because it can be very dangerous, I think, to add thriller to something else if you’re not careful. If you’ve ever read a book or watched a movie and thought that really started to take itself way too seriously in the third act, that’s… More often than not, that’s an adventure turning into a thriller. Because they’re just trying to ramp up the tension and they’re doing it wrong.
[Brandon] Well, what did they do wrong?
[Dan] I think it’s because they are adding stakes and losing what made the rest of the story work. If you go direct from adventure to thriller or mystery to thriller, then you’re really changing the genre. Whereas if you keep it as an adventure or a mystery and add thriller elements, then it’s still… I think it still feels like it’s more of a piece. So you can have that timebomb or that breathlessness without losing what got you there in the first place.
[Mary] I think that when you’re adding those things, a lot of times, like with the timebomb, the stakes… They are something that is present from the beginning successfully. Where it goes off the rails is when you bring in a new state that is not really related to everything else that’s going on, and it’s often not really personal to the… It’s just like… It’s the “And now we’re going to blow up the world.” It’s like the fate of the world hasn’t been at stake.
[Howard] Very common.
[Mary] Until just now.
[Howard] New writer mistake. Which is to add something far later in the book then you should have, because you don’t know which element you’re really plugging.
[Dan] I think the other way to do this wrong is to lose the tone. If you have a very specific tone of whatever your main story is about, if you lose that and you go for this just kind of everyone hard on the sleeve, edge of your seat, kind of thriller, then it feels wrong.
[Mary] Now, you can use thriller… We’ve been talking about using it as a subplot, but I actually want to talk just a little bit about using it just as a spice. Like, one of the things that you can do, if you got a piece of action that needs to happen. Like your main character needs to make a cake for whatever reason. Lord knows why you need to show this on the page, but you do.
[Mary] If there is a series of cascading problems, that goes on…
[Brandon] Making the cake.
[Mary] Making the cake, you can create a thriller-like breathlessness to making the cake that’s going to make the reader keep turning the page.
[Brandon] Right. Right. I think that’s a really good… Because I’ve seen movies like that, where it’s like do they get the cake baked on time and come out with the right one is as tense as sometimes is James Bond going to succeed in not getting shot?
[Mary] This is actually something that you see a lot when you’re looking at a farce. That what they’ve done is… It’s thriller pacing, it’s just that they’re playing it funny.

[Brandon] The other thing that occurs to me if you want to add a little bit more of this to what you want to learn from thrillers is making it personal. That’s a cliché in the industry, and people do it wrong all the time. You mentioned fridging girlfriends is like the go-to hack way…
[Howard] We kept saying kidnapped mom.
[Brandon] To make this… Yeah, we said kidnapped mom. But you can do that without making it feel hackneyed by making it a part of the story personal to the character. This is another new writer problem is that they often will write someone who’s observing the tension rather than being at the center of the tension.
[Mary] When we talk about raising the stakes and making it personal to the character, we’re really talking about making it clear to the reader why it matters to the character. Like this is actually something that Jane Austen does really, really well. She can make you understand why that dropped hankerchief was so important. A lot of what we’re talking about there is the straight up mechanical thing of internal motivation or what is often called free indirect speech. Which is basically you just say what the character is thinking, but you say it in third person as part of narration. This vase broke. I am sad about the vase breaking. I mean, you wouldn’t say, I am sad about the vase breaking, but… The vase is going to break. Okay. That’s a stake. But the vase is going to break, it’s the last thing I have of my grandmother’s.
[Brandon] There you go. That’s a perfect example.
[Mary] That raises the stake of the vase breaking. If the vase breaks, it’s going to release a demon and destroy the world. Yes…
[Brandon] That story could work.
[Mary] Totally could work.
[Brandon] But it may not be a good match for what you’re currently writing.
[Mary] That’s not what we’re talking about when people say raise the stakes.
[Dan] It’s a very different kind of motivation. It’s… The reason that fridging the girlfriend has become such a kind of a watchword for stakes that feel wrong is because… If my mom is kidnapped, for example, really, that’s her story. She is the one… She has internal motivations. She is an external motivator to my story. With the vase, that’s the thing, if I have a kind of a deep emotional reason to love that vase, that’s more internal than well, I just want to stop demons from coming. There it’s the demon coming that’s the problem, not the loss of the vase itself.

[Brandon] So, I’m going to stop us here and give you some homework. I’m going to suggest that you practice your cliffhangers. A lot of people ask me, students asked me this, I get a ton of questions over twitter about “How do you decide how long a chapter should be?” Well, one of the number one things you can learn from thrillers is practicing how to end a chapter in a way that pulls someone to the next one. What I want to avoid are the cheap tricks. So I want you to look at chapters you’ve written or write new ones or something monumental, something really cool happens at the end and it is so cool that the person wants to turn the page and read what happens next rather than hinting that something cool is going to happen in the next page. Practice doing this a few times. Practice chopping your chapters in different places from what you’ve already written. See what kind of effects you can create through varying chapter length and varying where you end them. This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.