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

11.30: Elemental Thriller Q&A

We fielded the following questions about the “Thriller” elemental genre from listeners on Facebook and Twitter:

  • How do I build tension consistently through my story?
  • How do you maintain tension during dialog?
  • When do you not use a cliffhanger?
  • Do you ever picture your scenes as if they were in a movie?
  • How much elemental thriller is too much for a book that isn’t a thriller? What’s the tipping point where you’ve switched genres?
  • What do you do when the tension in your story peaks too early?

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

Homework: Sit down with your manuscript or outline, and in the margins, add notes about the emotions you’re trying to evoke with each scene, and where in the scene it’s supposed to happen. This list of notes is your “beat chart,” and it’s going to teach you neat things about your story.

Thing of the week: Javelin Rain, by Myke Cole, narrated by Korey Jackson.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Q&A Summary
Q: How do I build tension consistently through my story? As opposed to having little batches of it here and there?
A: Shorten sequel time, or overlap it with another piece of action. Raise stakes consistently. Set the stakes in the beginning, then just remind us of them.
Q: What are some disadvantages of thriller pacing?
A: Fatigue. May have ramped up the tension so high that character moments are difficult. Beware not having a payoff for the level of tension you’ve created.
Q: What are advantages of a thriller? Why would you write on, or inject it?
A: Keep the reader reading! Draw the reader deeper into the story.
Q: How do you keep tension in dialogue and beats, movement beats, instead of just having things explode all the time?
A: Keep your dialogue snappy. Raise the stakes behind the dialogue.
Q: When don’t you use a cliffhanger?
A: When you don’t have a good payoff. There are different kinds of cliffhangers, surprise and wonder, or what’s coming next.
Q: When you write a scene from a thriller, do you ever imagine how it would play out in a movie?
A: Yes.
Q: How much thriller is too much before it changes your genre?
A: Which part is set dressing, and which is elemental genre (emotion)? What promises do you want to make to your reader? What excites you? If the thrill overpowers the other emotion you were trying to evoke, then you’ve used too much.
Q: What do you do when the tension in your story has peaked too early? How do I escape from the thrill I have inadvertently created?
A: Revision. Take your stakes, spread them out. Do a beat chart and see what you need to do. Consider adding a subplot.

[Mary] Season 11, Episode 30.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Q&A on Thrillers.
[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 we are answering your questions yet again. So, Caleb asks, “How do I build tension consistently through my story? As opposed to having little batches of it here and there?”
[Mary] Well, one of the things with tension is… We talk about scene-sequel. So the scene is where kind of things are happening, and the sequel is where the character is recovering and reacting to those things happening. One of the ways you can keep the tension up is to shorten the amount of sequel time or to have the recovery happen while another piece of action is happening, having the response. So that’s one way you can do… It can lead to a sense of fatigue in the reader.

[Brandon] In fact, Thomas asks, “What are some disadvantages of thriller pacing?” Fatigue, I would say, is a big one. Now, another way to build tension consistently is to raise stakes consistently. A book that does this, not a fantastic book but a decent book, is actually the book Battlefield Earth. Which the movie had serious problems, but the book is loved by a lot of people. When I read it, what I noticed that L. Ron Hubbard was good at doing was stakes got bigger and bigger and bigger and bigger and bigger until Boom! Now it’s… Now we need to save the planet.
[Dan] Corollary to that is just to make very clear in the beginning what the final stakes are going to be. Then you don’t necessarily have to raise them, just keep reminding us that that’s hanging over our head and that we haven’t solved it yet.
[Howard] In our podcast on pacing… We’ve done several on pacing, but I think it might be one of the casts where we had James Dashner on. Brandon, you talked about how you want people in your epic fantasy is to stop and put down the book from time to time. If you pace it wrong, people will die in their armchairs having tried to read the whole book all at once.

[Brandon] So, if that’s a disadvantage of thrillers, that fatigue, right? What are the advantages? Why would you write a thriller, why would you inject it?
[Mary] Well, you want the reader to keep the book in their hand and to keep reading it.
[Mary] Thrillers are usually really good at that.
[Dan] Well, that’s what the word means, right? The book is thrilling. We would all love for our books to be thrilling. So using these tricks is a way of producing that emotion and getting that adrenaline going.
[Howard] When the adrenaline is flowing, when you are engaged, when you are turning the pages because you are so embedded in the story that you can’t not turn the pages… When romance is injected, when drama is injected, when humor is injected, it can be far more effective because you’re already right there, very in the moment. So putting thriller in as a subgenre is a way to draw the reader deeper into the story.
[Mary] This is a weird mechanical thing from the stage, but one of the reasons that thriller and comedy can actually play really well together in farces is because when you are tense, tension often happens in the diaphragm and laughter comes easier. Conversely, when you laugh, a lot of times that will cause a tension in the diaphragm, which can make the adrenaline kick harder. So that’s one thing that you can do sometimes if you want something to be funnier is if you have a little bit of thriller action going in it. So that’s a reason that it’s handy.
[Dan] Watch Pulp Fiction.
[Mary] Oh, yeah.
[Dan] There’s a scene, the very famous adrenaline in the heart scene, gets a laugh every time. That’s because tensions are so high, that you get that reaction of laughter when those tensions are finally released.
[Brandon] Any other disadvantages to talk about Thomas’s question here? I’ll start off by mentioning I have read stories by student which have ramped up the tension so high that the moment they try to have a character moment between two characters, it falls completely on its face because the world is burning, they’re on a ship that’s exploding… Joss Whedon can make that scene hilarious and touching and things like this, but it is dangerous to try and mix the emotions if you’re not practiced at it, or just with the wrong beats.
[Howard] It’s difficult to get right. Done well, it’s brilliant and wonderful. I think one of the risks that writing thriller stuff presents is when you haven’t promised or telegraphed that this book will have anxiety in it, and then it induces that? Readers can feel betrayed. That’s not what I wanted to feel when I picked this book up.
[Mary] The other… On the level of disappointed expectations is if you are ramping up the tension and ramping up the tension and your payoff is not there.
[Brandon] Oh, good point. Really good point.
[Mary] Then you may not want to ramp the tension up that fast and that hard.
[Dan] I think it’s also worth pointing out, because you mentioned Joss Whedon, that Joss Whedon is working in film, which has a very different pace altogether. Those moments… There’s a… I think my favorite character moment in that movie… The second Avengers movie is Black Widow and Bruce Banner talking right in the middle of the ending fight, her convincing him to come back. It’s a touching character moment that’s about 30 seconds long. I think what aspiring authors try to do is to slow down and really give that moment time. If you’re doing a thriller, you don’t have time. You need to get emotions quickly.

[Brandon] Let’s go to Katie’s question. Katie asks, “How do you keep tension in dialogue and beats, movement beats, instead of just having things explode all the time?”
[Mary] Oh, that’s a really good question.
[Howard] Wow, that would have been a good one to have…
[Mary] An entire…
[Howard] A day to think about.
[Mary] Okay. So there’s a couple of things. When you’re dealing with pacing and dialogue, the… Remember that writing is developed to convey the spoken word. So one of the things that you’re looking at is the length of your sentences, how long a character speaks before another character jumps in, which will give the sense of a dialogue moving back and forth very snappily. The other thing is that all of the descriptive stuff that you put in around the dialogue, the narration, all of those things represent for the reader pauses, where the characters will pause. So if you want to have the sense of dialogue going back and forth very rapidly, you actually get rid of pretty much everything except the dialogue itself.
[Howard] The other thing, and this is just writing good dialogue. When a character’s asking a question because the character wants to know the answer to the question and because the reader wants to know the answer to the question, that’s probably well motivated. If the character’s asking a question and the reader hasn’t thought of the question yet, wow, you’re really dragging me forward because this is interesting. If the character is asking a question that is restating the problem and recapping things for the reader, you’ve slowed things down. It can become maid-and-butler, or cabbage head.
[Brandon] Another thing you can do here is… We talk about raising the stakes. Giving examples, a relationship thing… You’re at a bar or whatever and one character’s trying to pick up on another. You could raise the stakes on that. You can say, however you want to go about doing it, this person has failed time and time again. Their friends have convinced them to go out for a night again. This is the first time since they’ve, like, gotten over someone or whatnot. You make it really personal. So this dialogue scene can be really tense in a setting that would normally not be nearly this tense.
[Dan] One of my very favorite scenes from Dune is a dinner scene early in the book that is structured like a fight scene. There is no actual violence, there’s no explosions, and yet, every line of dialogue is an attack or a defense or a parry. It works because, like you were just saying, we know what the stakes are, and he takes the time… In contrast to what you are saying, to let us know what each sentence means. I’m going to say this, and that means X, and that means that if this person says Y, I’m in trouble, and if they say Z, then they’re on my side. Kind of just as a microcosm of everything we’ve been talking about played out over a single conversation.
[Mary] This is a weird mechanical trick. Orson Scott Card does this. He’ll write his dialogue, and then he’ll go back through and delete every third sentence.
[Brandon] Interesting.
[Mary] Because… He said that when people are talking, a lot of times they leave stuff out. He doesn’t always leave these sentences out, but just as a mechanical exercise to see how much stuff he has that he doesn’t need.
[Howard] Another good…
[Mary] At least he was doing that 20 years ago. I don’t know if he still does.
[Dan] I love to free write conversations, because they give a similar effect. Because I will often get to the end of the scene and go, “Well, the characters never got to the stupid point that I wanted them to talk about. They never revealed this key information.” But the conversation felt very natural, and it didn’t feel like I was shoehorning information into it. You have to revise a lot to make that work, but…

[Brandon] Let’s go to our book of the week. Which is Javelin Rain.
[Howard] Yup. I got to read an advanced reader copy of Javelin Rain by Myke Cole. It’s a sequel to Gemini Cell. It stands as a very, very strong example of thriller as a subgenre. The bookshelf genre of Javelin Rain is, I think, urban fantasy. It’s magic and military adventure fiction. Yet the pacing is tense throughout. There’s very little letting up, as evidenced by the fact I read it straight through in a much longer reading session than I wanted to have. If you’d like to have it read to you, you can head out to and start a trial membership with Audible and pick up Javelin Rain by Myke Cole as your first book.
[Brandon] We don’t know who that’s read by yet?
[Howard] We do not yet know who it’s been read by, but it’s available as of March 29, and this episode will have aired long after that date.

[Brandon] Okay. Next question. David asks, “When don’t you use a cliffhanger?”
[Dan] When you don’t have a good payoff for it.
[Brandon] Okay.
[Howard] When I want them to take a break and put the book down.
[Brandon] Okay.
[Mary] Yeah. Also… Those…
[Brandon] I mean, the thing to understand is there are different types of cliffhangers. There are the we open the door and there is something cool or and there was an explosion and someone screamed outside. Those are one type of cliffhanger. But there are also the type of cliffhangers of all right, we’ve got this thing. Let’s go home and see what it does. Right? That’s a cool cliffhangers of a different style entirely. Hopefully, the thing that you’ve stolen and want to find out what it does will do something cool and that will lead on. That little hint at the end of your chapter of what we’re going to be doing next can be your hook into the next chapter without it having to be an explosion.
[Howard] When we talk about scene-sequel format, the cliffhanger between scene and scene is often the strongest one. A cliffhanger between scene and sequel is a slowing down of the pace. If we end sequel with a cliffhanger that is driving into the next scene, that feels kind of weird to me. So I just think about the pacing. Are people processing or are people making things happen?
[Mary] That’s interesting, because I actually do that sometimes.
[Dan] Well, I think ending…
[Howard] I’m not saying they’re bad, it’s just… You want to think about the pacing before you put that in there.

[Brandon] Here’s a more kind of fun one. Michael asks… No, wait. No, it’s not Michael. Sorry.
[Howard] Sorry, Michael.
[Brandon] Yeah, sorry, Michael. It is Ravi. When you write a scene from a thriller, do you ever imagine how it would play out in a movie?
[Mary] Oh. Yes.
[Dan] Yes.
[Dan] Yes.
[Brandon] And it’s fun. Like the thriller scenes, the thriller payoff scenes, are one of those things… I’ve talked about how I build my books. I go to the gym and I’m imagining to music the pivotal scenes that are going to change the story in a dramatic way. A lot of those are thriller scenes. So I imagine them like a film.
[Dan] It’s fun to do that, but it also helps. Because if I’m imagining that and I think, “Wait, I’ve seen this movie before,” then I know I need to change it and make it more innovative.
[Brandon] The most recent one I can think of that really I was excited about would be the chase scene in Steelheart. Which… I watched a whole bunch of my favorite chase scenes, I went to the gym, I put on music that inspired chasing, and thought, “All right. I’m going to write a really cool chase scene. What’s it going to look like?” I imagined it beat for beat, came home, and wrote out that outline for it.
[Mary] Valor and Vanity, the gondola chase? Same thing.

[Brandon] All right. Several people asked questions along the lines of how much thriller is too much before it changes your genre? One person asked specifically about Regency and things like this, like… How much is too much?
[Mary] Well, okay. So there again, we’re talking about… With Regency, Regency is your set dressing. Thriller is your elemental genre. So you can totally write a book that is straight up elemental thriller with Regency set dressing and it will be fine. Where you run into questions is do you want to write something where your main driver is thriller as the elemental genre? At that point, I think what you’re looking at are the essential promises that you’re making to the reader. For me, a lot of times it comes down to what are you excited about?
[Dan] Exactly. I think the fact that you’re asking this question, I’m worried that I’m putting too much thriller into my book… Well, maybe… it sounds like you want to write a thriller.
[Howard] [garbled]
[Dan] Go ahead and add as much thriller as you want.
[Howard] Write a really awesome thriller. It’s useful here to come back to, and I’ve come back to this several times, the overarching concept of elemental genre, which is what emotions are you trying to evoke? If you are trying to evoke romance, if you’re trying to evoke sense of wonder, and it’s being overpowered by anxiety, then you’ve used too much thriller.
[Brandon] That’s right. There’s too much salt in this.
[Howard] Yeah! But if you want to thrill, if that’s the bit that you’re having fun writing, by all means, change the flavor of the dish.
[Mary] But one thing that you might want to do, is that you might want to go back and adjust the opening of the novel…
[Brandon] Right. To give correct promises.
[Mary] To make it clear that it’s going to be a thriller, set in a Regency.
[Brandon] We’re going to end with Michael’s actual question.
[Mary] I’m just going to say, by the way, I would love to read the Regency thriller.
[Brandon] Yeah. Dan wrote one. Well, your’s was Victorian.
[Dan] It was, and it was terrible. But it was a cool idea.
[Brandon] It was a very cool idea.

[Brandon] So, Michael is having a problem and he wants a little bit of advice. What do you do when the tension in your story has peaked too early? How do I escape from the thrill I have inadvertently created?
[Mary] That’s what revision is for.
[Brandon] That is what revision is for, Michael. If… You can ask the question, “Wow, did I love this?” If so, you can keep going with that and roll with it. If your question is, “Wow. Accidentally, I was discovery writing this and I raised the stakes too quickly,” you can take those stakes, break them out, and space them out through the your story to create a more even of a slope and ramping of tension. This is something that we have to do a lot is writers.
[Howard] If there’s… If it’s happening too early, then what you have is multiple plot elements that are timed differently, and these plot elements… There’s the thriller element and there’s the adventure element or the mystery element or whatever. Build a beat chart for those and see where the beats are landing. Then, as Brandon was saying, you start breaking these apart and moving the beats forward or backwards so that they line up.
[Mary] One of the things that you can do is… What you may wind up needing to do is to insert some scenes to push things later. That might involve creating a subplot that you had not originally planned. Some of the things that I will do is I will go back and look at… I have had to do this. I will go back and look at my main character and think about other things that can be going wrong in their lives. So like if I’m dealing with something where I’ve got a big thriller thing going on which is usually around some event that’s going on. Then, I’ll look at their lives and go, “Okay. What is happening with their relationships? What questions do they have? What is their self-identity? How is that being challenged? What is it about the landscape, the mileu, that they’re in that is messing with them?” See if I can come up with a subplot that is only tangentially related. This will… It usually gives me something that will run nicely in parallel, and allow me to adjust the pacing on when I drop my thriller beats.
[Brandon] Excellent advice. So, Michael, you are now out of excuses. But you’re not yet out of homework. And Howard has our homework.

[Howard] Yep. We are about halfway through our year of elemental genre. So what we want to do is start putting these things together, using thriller as well, in this case, kind of as a pacing element. I talked about a beat chart earlier. Sit down with your manuscript or with your outline, and in the margins, write at each point what the emotion is that you are trying to evoke from the reader. Are you trying to evoke anxiety? Are you trying to evoke joy? Are you trying to evoke laughter? Is it action, is it wonder? Make these visible notes, underlined. Then sit back and look at the manuscript and see where the spaces are. See where things are really close together. The conclusion here is you’re going to learn something about your manuscript. I don’t know what it is.
[Brandon] But it should be exciting and thrilling. This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.