A quick look at any fiction bestseller list reveals that thrillers make up most of the titles at the top. HOW TO WRITE A DAMN GOOD THRILLER will help the aspiring novelist or screenwriter to design, draft, write, and polish a thriller that is sure to grab readers. Frey uses examples from both books and movies and addresses the following hot topics:
*Breathing life into great thriller characters
*Crafting a gripping opening
*Creating obstacles and conflicts
*Writing a mean, lean thriller scene
*Adding surprise twists
*Building a smashing climax
and many more.
In his trademark approachable and humorous style, Frey illuminates the building blocks of great thrillers and gives the reader the tools to write his or her own.
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JAMES N. FREY is the author of internationally bestselling books on the craft of fiction writing, including HOW TO WRITE A DAMN GOOD NOVEL, HOW TO WRITE A DAMN GOOD NOVEL II: Advanced Techniques, and THE KEY: How to Write Damn Good Fiction Using the Power of Myth. He is also the author of nine novels, including the Edgar Award-nominated THE LONG WAY TO DIE. He has taught at the University of California, Berkeley, Extension, the Squaw Valley Community of Writers, and the Oregon Writers' Colony, and he is a featured speaker at writers' conferences throughout the United States and Europe. He lives with his--he says, "truly heroic"--wife, Liza, in Berkeley, California.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
How to Write a Damn Good Thriller
1 Germinal Ideas: High Concepts and Bad Concepts Types of Thrillers, Plus a Special Note About Psychological Thrillers
The germinal idea is simply the idea that you have that gives the spark to your creative fire. It's something you feel hot about, something you think you can turn into a damn good thriller and hope that the reader or audience will think so, too. High concept is a Hollywood term. It refers to the germinal idea for a project that excites producers and makes their hearts go thumpety-thump when they hear it. It's usually something fresh, something that you think is original and will have broad appeal to a large audience. Because Hollywood producers can't pay attention to anything for more than 9.4 seconds, a high concept must be expressed in one sentence, and that sentence should never be more than thirteen words long. I'll give you an example of a high concept from a few years ago, when Bill Clinton was president. You may recall Bill supposedly had a sexual tryst or two while in office. True or not, there were stories floating around that he was, well, a serial skirt chaser. David Baldacci, an unpublished thriller writer at the time, had a great high concept for a story. In his thriller, the president--not Bill Clinton, but a fictional president--hasan affair with a woman, and during a night of passion there's a problem. The president and the woman get into a fight, things get physical, and she gets killed. Oops. Ordinarily this would not be a huge problem for this sleazy fictional president. His flunkies could dump the body in the Potomac and no one would be any the wiser. But here is what makes Mr. Baldacci's idea a high concept: A burglar dangling from his climbing gear on the side of the building witnesses the murder. So what to do? The president has a dilemma: There's an eyewitness to the crime. No problem. The president and his cronies will blame the murder on the burglar and get the whole police apparatus of the country chasing the poor slob. This is a very high concept indeed. The novel that evolved from that high concept was called Absolute Power. It was first a damn good novel (1996), then a damn good film starring Clint Eastwood (1997). You'll notice how "impossible" the burglar hero's mission is: Not only must he escape the thousands of law enforcement agents aligned against him, but he has to bring the murderer to justice. You'll also notice that even though there's a murder in it, this story is a thriller and not a murder mystery because there is no mystery. The hero knows and the reader knows who committed the murder right from the start. The high concept for Absolute Power can be expressed in one sentence: A burglar witnesses the president committing a murder; the burglar gets blamed. Even the busiest--or dimmest--of Hollywood producers can get it in less than nine seconds. Another film that was made from somebody pitching a producer a high concept--at least that's the story I heard--was eventually made into the Mel Gibson film Conspiracy Theory (1997). It's the story of Jerry Fletcher, a nut who publishes a newsletter about conspiracies that are nothing but his paranoid fantasies. And then, by chance, one of his paranoid fantasies turns out to be true ... and it gets him into terrible trouble when the conspirators come after him to shut him up. Jaws, many in Hollywood say, was an extremely high concept. It was a sort of melding of two other plots that each had held audiences inthrall: Herman Melville's Moby-Dick (1851, film 1956), about a whaleboat chasing a huge white whale around the world; and Henrik Ibsen's classic An Enemy of the People (a play first produced 1882, film 1978), about a town that had a bad water supply and refused to clean it up because the bad publicity would hurt the tourist trade. What is or what is not a high concept is, of course, somewhat subjective. The term is even sometimes used derogatorily to pan a film with a thin plot and thinner characters, one designed to appeal to a mass audience but with no depth or substance. For that reason, Roger Ebert, the renowned film critic, calls high concepts "low concepts." Often high concepts have a lot of current cachet in the pop culture. A juicy scandal or lurid tragedy works well. The TV series Law & Order often fashions scripts that echo dramatic situations that have been in the news, and then they manipulate the true story, twisting it so they won't be sued. Look at the headlines of the tabloids at the checkout stand of any supermarket and you'll find out what's currently on the public's mind. The trouble with high concept germinal ideas is that what is a high concept to you may not be a high concept to a producer. And since a high concept may be hot today and cold tomorrow--depending on the fickle winds of popular taste--your high concept may quickly seem old hat. Besides, there are always hordes of screenwriters with their fingers in the wind of pop culture who are pitching similar high concepts, so what's current may have legions of competition. There's a lot of bandwagon-jumping-on in Hollywood, my friend. Every hit film has a hundred clones before the first ticket is sold. My savvy editor, Daniela Rapp at St. Martin's Press, tells me that the same sort of bandwagoning happens in New York publishing. With the success of Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code (2003, film 2006), she says, "All of publishing was up to their eyeballs in religious conspiracy thrillers, all with the same concept: enigmatic, ancient scrolls and mind-boggling codes embedded in works of art, historical figures engaged in secret society conspiracies--but with slightly different angles than Dan Brown's tale. And after 9/11 came a flood of Middle Eastern bad guys thrillers that has yet to recede." So there you are. Walk the tightrope, my friend. Write what's timely, but stay off the damn bandwagon. How to do that? you ask. Wish I knew. The Great Hollywood Rip-Off And then there's always the problem with high concept germinal ideas, that since they cannot be copyrighted, whoever you pitch it to may like it well enough to steal it. That's right, my friend, you could easily be the victim of out-and-out theft by somebody working for the Hollywood dream machine. A friend of mine once had a great job working for a major studio. She had a nice office and a large desk and windows that got the morning sun, and she had her name on the door in gold lettering with a title something like "assistant acquisitions manager." Her job was gathering high concepts, great lines of dialogue, and fresh, dramatic situations from scripts and treatments that were submitted to the studio. A world-class speed-reader, she would scan the scripts and treatments quickly, then pass the gold she'd mine from these scripts to any producer working for the studio who could use them. She was a hired thief, which did not square well with her self-image. Her conscience bothered her so badly that she wrote a scathing magazine piece about the practice, quit, and moved to Vermont to become a creative writing coach. One way to protect yourself from getting ripped off is to turn your high concept into a damn good thriller as a novel before you pitch it to Hollywood for a film. That way, you are somewhat protected. Of course, they can still steal your high concept, because high concepts are just ideas and you cannot copyright an idea. There are some so-called screenwriters and pseudoproducers--you can find their Web sites by Googling "high concept"--who give seminars on how to pitch your high concept to harried producers. I don't know how successful the attendees of these seminars are with pitching their high concepts after they get trained, so I can't recommend any of them. My guess is, if you have a high concept that tickles producers' fancies,they will be busy two days later with their own screenwriters who they know can develop your high concept into a damn good thriller. What need do they have of you? Hollywood is a small town where it's who you know that counts. Some of the best germinal ideas for a thriller might not sound good if presented in thirteen words or fewer anyway. One of the best damn thrillers ever penned, Frederick Forsyth's The Day of the Jackal, sounds idiotic as a concept. The concept is this: A master hit man is hired to kill Charles de Gaulle, who was then president of France. It is the story of how a clever policeman, with the help of every cop in France, stops him. The reason this sounds idiotic--and many said so at the time--is that everyone in the audience knows that in fact Charles de Gaulle was not assassinated, and so, the reasoning goes, there would be no suspense. Besides, the hired assassin--the villain and not the hero--is cleverly facing the most "impossible" odds. The hero is creating the "impossible" odds for the villain and not the other way around. But to the skeptics' surprise, vast numbers of people read the sensational novel and even more vast numbers of people saw the Fred Zinnemann film starring Edward Fox as the devilishly clever Jackal and Michael Lonsdale as the hero cop. Apparently, in some perverse way, they identified with the lone assassin hunted by every cop in France--at least until about a third of the way into the story, when he started murdering sympathetic characters who got in his way. Apparently, people had no problem getting caught up in the story world where the threat to de Gaulle seemed very real, even though in the real world there was no threat. If you have not seen this film, I suggest you rent it today. It's one hell of a damn good thriller. By the way, there have been a lot of damn poor thrillers made from high concept ideas. One of these was The Jackal (1997), the American version of The Day of the Jackal. It tried to overcome the problem of the audience knowing the target was not assassinated by not revealing the identity of the target, which was ... well ... really, truly, a first-class dumb idea. Fred Zinnemann and Frederick Forsyth both denounced it. Most of the time, it's not the concept, but the execution of craft that counts, my friend. Bad Concepts to Be Avoided at All Costs What is a bad concept? you ask. In an effort to be fresh and original, some writers think they have locked on to a great high concept, which is to make the hero evil or the villain heroic in the beginning and reveal their true nature later. A truly terrible thriller, Hide and Seek (film 2005), with Robert De Niro, had such a concept: The crazed lunatic killer, we discover at the climax, is the guy we thought all along was the hero. The critics savaged the film. Kevin Crust in the Los Angeles Times called it "the year's first laugh-out-loud-funny thriller." The Jack Nicholson character (Jack), who turns into a monster in The Shining (1977, film 1980), works because he's never a hero. He's a writer, a victim, who is driven mad by ghosts and becomes a homicidal maniac. The audience is never misled about Jack's nature. The audience is misled about the nature of the hero in Roman Polanski's The Ninth Gate (1999). The protagonist is Dean Corso, a total sleazeball, who takes on the villain the way heroes do, even sleazeball heroes. So the audience identifies with him because his goal is to foil evil. But in the end, this protagonist embraces evil himself and walks through the ninth gate, the gate to hell, to join up with the Devil and share his power. I guess the writers thought this was--wow--really, really clever, making the hero turn villain in the end, but in my opinion it turns out to be one of the most unsatisfying movie endings ever made. Lisa Nesselson in Variety called the film "rather silly." Perhaps there are cases where late in the story a villain could change sides, see the evil of his ways, and then act heroically, but I've not seen it done effectively. It was done rather clumsily and ineffectually in both film versions of 3:10 to Yuma (1957, remake 2007) from a short story by Elmore Leonard (1952). That switch robbed the audience of the satisfaction of seeing the hero defeat the villain in the climax, one of the biggest thrills a thriller delivers. Okay, let's say you have a sudden impulse to make the hero really the villain, or the villain really a hero. No matter how much the idea excites you, take a cold shower, drink a large bourbon smoothie, hit yourself in the head with a hammer, and forget it. Turning Your Germinal Idea, High Concept or Low, into a Damn Good Thriller Let's say you're the Greek poet Homer. It's 800 B.C. or so and you've just had a smashing international hit with your first epic, The Iliad, and you're casting around for an idea for your next project. The Iliad was a type of thriller, a war story; the most recent film version was Troy (2004). In it, Paris, prince of Troy, kidnaps Helen, the wife of Menelaus, king of Sparta, and takes her to Troy to be his mistress. The king of Sparta sends out a call to all the Greek city-states for help in getting his wife back. Warriors flock to join in the cause, and the largest fleet ever assembled (until the Normandy invasion, some historians say) heads for Troy. Hence, Helen of Sparta becomes known as "Helen of Troy." She's said to have had "the face that launched a thousand ships." Anyway, The Iliad relates the battles that ensued between the Greeks and the Trojans: battles involving great warriors, great heroes, gods and goddesses, and a host of common soldiers led to the slaughter. It was a huge hit as an epic poem and had what in the entertainment biz is called "legs." That's lasting power--two and a half millennia and it's still enchanting readers and audiences. It would be pretty hard for Homer to top that, eh? But he had to try. So he cast around for a germinal idea he thought might make a story to thrill audiences. Luckily, the Muses bestowed their blessing again. In case you're not up on your paganism, the Muses were goddesses, who according to the ancient Greeks were the source of all creativity. This blessing was the germinal idea for his next work, and it was a truly damn good idea. Homer had a wonderful minor character in The Iliad, a Greek warrior who was a good candidate for a thriller hero: Ulysses "the Cunning ." Hecarried out various spy missions, fought in many battles, and showed his courage, resourcefulness, and cleverness over and over again. So why not make him the hero of the sequel? Homer must have thought. Now as to the actions of the story, Homer had to brainstorm a bit. Ah. The Trojan war is over, so what does the hero do? He does what soldiers do when peace comes: He retires to civilian life. Homer decided Ulysses would journey from Troy to his home in Ithaca. But what kind of a thriller is that? Is a trip home a mission? A trip home might make a long, boring literary novel full of great poetic descriptions and nice little insights about life, but a thriller? Homer lived in the days when you had to have a gripping story--a thriller--or forget it, and there's nothing gripping about a long trip in a boat. I'm a sailor and I know. Unless, of course, there's a whole lot of danger and menace--terrible trouble--so that it's not just a trip, but a test of courage and ability, a mythic hero's journey. So if this germinal idea is going to be a high concept for a damn good thriller, it's obvious the mission has to be a difficult one. Not just difficult: "impossible." Homer knew that to m...
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