Saturday, January 12, 2013

Thriller Epiphanies

by Mark Alpert

A few years ago I traveled with my family on a cruise ship that passed through the Panama Canal. It was fascinating to watch the canal employees board the boat and guide it into the locks. My favorite moment came at dinnertime, when we saw the canal officers deliver meals to the employees on our boat by dangling the Styrofoam containers from the tow ropes. Ingenious!

Because the locks for the Pacific-bound boats are parallel to those for the Caribbean-bound shipping, we got an up-close view of a Panamax freighter traveling in the opposite direction. They’re called Panamax ships because they’re built to the maximum size that the canal can handle. The width of the boat is just a few feet less than the width of the lock. The canal employees tie the freighter to “mule” locomotives that run on both sides of the lock and very carefully pull the ship into the giant “bathtub.” The hull passes so close to the bathtub’s concrete walls, you can almost hear it scraping.

While observing this process, I glimpsed an indentation in one of the concrete walls. It was a vertical notch, maybe three feet wide and a couple of feet deep, with a steel ladder running up the length of it. I supposed it was there for safety reasons; if someone fell into the bathtub, he could swim to the ladder and climb out. Then I imagined what would happen if someone was clinging to that ladder while a Panamax freighter slid into the lock, its barnacle-crusted hull passing just inches from his nose. That would be a cool scene, I thought. Somehow or other, I have to put it into one of my books.

It took a while but I finally managed to do it. The scene appears in my next thriller, Extinction, which comes out in a few weeks. I’m betting that all thriller writers have epiphanies like these, when you imagine a terrible peril and instead of saying to yourself, “Oh stop, you’re being morbid,” you resolve to write about it. Am I right or wrong?  


  1. Love the way you think, Mark. Of course, someone would have to be shooting from the ship at the guy , too, while a spider scampered down the rope. But your point is taken. I think we all do that to a great degree. And btw, I'm looking forward to reading EXTINCTION!

  2. Great scene, Mark. I was about to steal it until you mentioned it was in your next book, which I'm looking forward to reading. :-)

  3. A writer's brain never stops. It's wicked fertile ground.

  4. What a great idea for a scene! And I'm betting that one hasn't been done before.

  5. Make that a poisonous Aquatic coral snake that's slithering In there with him, which he spots just as the passing ship plunges him into darkness!

  6. That's what is great about being a thriller writer. Instead of being terrified when we imagine a worst-case scenario, we can put it to use and devise how we might survive it (or not, if we're imagining someone we don't like in the scenario).

    I did the same thing with one of my stories. I went to grad school at Virginia Tech back in the early 90s, and we had a huge parking lot outside my six-story building that often got full on weekdays. If I came in late, I thought about how handy it would be to have someone in the building just call down to me and direct me to where an open space was rather than drive around for fifteen minutes looking for that one spot. Later when I wrote my first novel, I wondered what would happen if instead the bad guys were chasing the hero through the parking lot on foot and the hero's girlfriend was watching from a window, directing his movements so that he could get away without the bad guys spotting him.

    To pile on with the canal scenario, along with both the spider and the coral snake slithering toward him in the pitch black while bad guys with infrared goggles are shooting at him, the guy climbing the ladder also has a broken leg, the ladder's bolts are threatening to come loose, and a nuclear bomb is set to blow up the canal in two minutes. Let's see how many challenges we can give the hero.

  7. Cool scene - It's great to be able to think things like this and know its just normal for writers like us:) - everyone else may think we're nuts of course....

  8. Reminds me of the stories you hear of people who get caught between the subway and the concrete wall. The subway comes in and crushes and spins someone's body up like a rubber band. Train stops, and the person while in shock can talk to people around him. They call the loved ones down to say their goodbyes. Because when the train moves forward and releases their body. They body will then "upspin" and die, Your only chance to really talk to the living dead.
    Andy Vacca from Research Publications remember me!

  9. Cool experience. I think that's a major key to being a storyteller, observation. Amazing things happen around us every day most of them go unnoticed in our hectic world. If we pay attention to the stuff that happens as parts or peripheries of daily life we will never be short of cool descriptions and tight scenes to write into our stories.

  10. I've recently started a job as the county Emergency Manager in a rural Kansas county. I am required to conduct disaster exercises to test our capacity. The common complaint is that they are dull . . .

    Enter an engineer/lawyer/nascent-thriller-writer partnered with a sci-fi/computer-geek. Our autumn exercise will be anything but boring (rub hands - evil laugh)

    So far our scenario is something like this. A courier plane from CDC is carrying weaponized anthrax from Atlanta to Manhattan Kansas (a real thing).

    A domestic terrorist organization has sabotaged the plane with the idea that it will be forced to land out in the boons of Kansas (lots of farm airstrips) where they will hijack the load.

    Bad news for the bad guys, the pilot makes it to our small regional airport and bellys in when the engine fails. Fire and mayhem ensues. Small explosions as ammo in the plane cooks off (a real concern of firefighters these days).

    However, as the responders fight the fire and the pipeline company works to protect the fuel tank farm, a volunteer finds a briefcase on the perimeter indicating what the cargo is. All of the responders and rescue people have been potentially exposed and now must set up a decon.

    As the perimeter is weakened during the panic, the bad guys see their chance to creep in and recover the cargo. Wait, those aren't explosions, someone is now shooting at the responders.

    Now, as we tend to reality, the scenario will change, but that is the base idea. And we get to do it in live action. I have the best job ever.