Showing posts with label thrillers. Show all posts
Showing posts with label thrillers. Show all posts

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Top Five Greatest Prison Breaks in novels

Today I welcome back to TKZ, guest blogger J.H. Bogran. José is a fellow ITW member and also serves as ITW’s Thriller Roundtable Coordinator and a contributing editor to The Big Thrill. Enjoy his list of greatest prison breaks in novels.

Joe Moore

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By J. H. Bográn

As a thriller fan, the genre has rewarded me with plenty tall tales of threats that could destroy the entire world. I’ve lived through jh_4byw1bomb countdowns, assassins catching up with their marks, renegade terrorist factions on the verge of breaking hell loose on earth, among others scenarios.

But one of the more thrilling rides is when characters break out of prisons, some may even call them educational.

The following list is my top five of the greatest escapes found in books. At a later time I will make the equivalent list for movies, but for now, let’s concentrate on actions that can be found between bookends.

Number Five:

Let’s begin with a classic: The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas. Edmund Dantés is wrongfully accused and sent to prison in the island of Château d'If. After a few years of solitary confinement, he meets a priest and they both agree to work on a tunnel as means to their ultimate salvation.

This story is not only notorious for the great escape of Dantés when he replaces the corpse of his mentor, but after the dust settles, you begin to wonder if all those years excavating the tunnel were a waste of time because—let’s face it—he didn’t escape through the tunnel now, did he?

Number Four:

In the world of prison breaks, no man can match the trick pulled by Sirius Black in J.K. Rowling’s third Harry Potter book, The Prisoner of Azkaban. And I mean it literally, for the title actually refers to him. (Am I the only one who at the end of Book 2 thought that the prisoner of Azkaban was the recently released Hagrid?)

Although the POV is always on Harry, we learn of Sirius’ ordeal from his own retelling of the tale.

After being incarcerated for over thirteen years, he simply transformed into a dog and squeezed through the cell bars, not even the demon guards could detect him. Now, that’s a shaggy escape. It sure does pay to be an unregistered animagi.

Number Three:

Even after twenty years of its publication, Thomas Harris’ Silence of the Lamb remains a fixture in any top-ten list of suspense novels. A must-read which movie version grabbed the five most coveted Oscars (Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director, Best Adapted Script and Best Picture).

Okay, the level of gruesomeness of this one may perhaps be in league with Master Stephen King’s, but the inventiveness alone is remarkable enough to snatch the number #3 position.

Using nothing but discarded—or rather stolen—office supplies, Hannibal Lecter picked his handcuffs. Then after a quick change of wardrobe he put on a face that allowed him to pass through the guards outside and end up in a low-security ambulance. The rest was easy.

Number Two:

This one is similar to number five, but with a darker twist. Otherwise it wouldn’t be a Stephen King story. Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption was a novella included in the collection Different Seasons.

It took Andy Dufrasne all of twenty seven years to dig a tunnel. Not too bad considering he went through two small rock hammer, and many lovely girl posters, in the process. The final leg of his trip out of Shawshank prison was through a sewerage pipe, as he crawled amidst the worst of human’s excrement. However, at this point I better come clean and say there was no pun intended when this escape artist landed on number two.

Number One:

Let’s go biblical, Acts of the Apostles.

Before people start emailing me that this book is not a work of fiction, but a true account, I admit that I agree, but Peter’s escape is so awesome I had to include it!

This divine intervention, the epitome of Deus ex machina, can be found in Acts 12: 1-11.

Peter was not only left in the deepest meanest cell with two guards by his side, he was also bound by chains. Then an angel materialized, freed Peter of his bound and led him the way out, walking through walls, no less.

Do you agree with my list? I can expand it to a Top-Ten list, so do send me your suggestions.

Oh, and thanks Joe for letting me hog the spotlight in TKZ today.

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J. H. Bográn, born and raised in Honduras, is the son of a journalist. He ironically prefers to write fiction rather than fact. José’s genre of choice is thrillers, but he likes to throw in a twist of romance into the mix. His works include novels and short stories in both English and Spanish.

His debut novel TREASURE HUNT, which The Celebrity Café hails as an intriguing novel that provides interesting insight of architecture and the life of a fictional thief, has also been selected as the Top Ten in Preditors & Editor’s Reader Poll.

Firefall_Proof2FIREFALL, his second novel, was released in 2013 by Rebel ePublishers. Coffee Time Romance calls it “a taut, compelling mystery with a complex, well-drawn main character.”

He’s a member of The Crime Writers Association, the Short Fiction Writers Guild and the International Thriller Writers where he also serves as the Thriller Roundtable Coordinator and contributor editor their official e-zine The Big Thrill.

Website at: www.jhbogran.com

Facebook profile: www.facebook.com/jhbogran

Twitter: @JHBogran

Sunday, July 20, 2014

The Thrill Is On


Robert Benchley, the famous wit and charter member of the Algonquin Round Table, attended a Broadway premiere in 1926. The play was The Squall and took place in the South Seas. But the dialogue, especially the island dialect, was abysmal. At one point during the first act a native girl ran onstage and threw herself at the feet of a man, and cried, "Me Nubi. Nubi good girl. Me stay."

Benchley could take no more. He stood up and said aloud, "Me Bobby. Bobby bad boy. Me go." And he left the theater.

Which brings me to the thriller. What is the secret? It's writing something that gets the exact opposite reaction as Mr. Benchley's. It is a full-on, grab-you-by-the-shirt experience that doesn't let up until the end.

Not an easy thing to do. Not always an easy thing to find.

But what if you could find 8 of them? In one place? For less than a buck?


It's my great pleasure to announce this astounding deal for thriller fans. Thrill Ride: 8 Pulse-Pounding Novels is a "boxed set" of reading pleasure from tested veterans of the thrill.

And yes, for only 99¢ you get the following full-length thrillers:

Blind Justice  by James Scott Bell
Sidetracked by Brandilyn Collins
Double Vision by Randy Ingermanson
The Blade by Lynn Sholes and Joe Moore
The Roswell Conspiracy by Boyd Morrison
The Killing Rain by P.J. Parrish
Desecration by J. F. Penn
The Call by Kat Covelle

New York Times bestselling author Steve Berry wrote the introduction. It begins, "There’s a maxim in this business: a thriller must thrill. The story must make the pulse quicken, the eyes widen, the fingers continually turning pages. At the end of each chapter the only thought the reader should have is ‘I need to read just a little more.’ "

That's the kind of book you're going to find in this collection.

Some of you may already own one or two of these titles. Well, it's still a great deal, wouldn't you say? And that's the point: all of the authors here are into giving you, the reader, a great set at an amazing price.

It's a venture in cooperative marketing. That's what's so amazing about the ebook boom. We can do things like this, and it's the consumer who reaps the benefits. I'm on record as saying it's the best time on earth to be a writer. Well, let's add to that: it's the best time on earth to be a reader, too.

About the authors:

Joe, P.J. and I camp out right here on TKZ. Lynn, of course, is Joe's partner in thrills.

Boyd and Kat (pen name of Kathleen Pickering) are TKZ alums.

J. F. Penn is one of indie publishing's mega-stars.

Brandilyn and Randy are good friends of mine, award-winning writers who have proven their thriller bona fides over and over.

And now here we all are, together, for you––the fans of thrilling fiction.

I hope you'll pop over and buy a copy today. And let us hear from you, especially if we've kept you from sleeping...

Here are the links:







From all of the Thrill Ride authors, thank you for your wonderful support!

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Don't Kill Your Thrills With Premise Implausibility





Last week I wrote about the most important rule for thriller writers to follow, namely:

Never allow any of your main characters to act like idiots in order to move or wrap up your plot!
I think I spoke to soon. There is a second rule that is of equal import: the overall premise of the thriller must be justified in a way that is a) surprising, and yet b) makes perfect sense. 
This is not easy. Otherwise, everybody would be writing The Sixth Sense every time out. Not even M. Night Shyamalan is writing The Sixth Sense every time out! 
So what can we do to up our chances of getting our thriller ending right?
1. Think About Your Contractual Obligation 
Thriller readers will accept almost any premise at the start. They are willing to suspend their disbelief unless and until you dash that suspension with preposterousness. In other words, the readers are on your side. They're pulling for you. You have entered, therefore, into an implied contract with them. They suspend disbelief, and you pay that off with a great ending. 
I often hear writers say things like, "Oh, I've got a great premise. I don't know how it's going to end, but it will have to end sometime. And if I don't know how it's going to end, then surely the readers won't guess!" 
That is called, in philosophical discourse, a non-sequitur (meaning, "it does not follow"). I can name one big-name author right now whose last book was excoriated by readers because it had a great set-up, and hundreds of pages of suspense, and then was absolutely ridiculous at the end. I won't name said author because I believe in the fellowship, and I know how hard this thriller stuff is to pull off. 
Nevertheless, I've heard said writer say (he/she/it) does not worry about how something's going to end until (he/she/it) gets there. And said author has paid the price for it. 

2. Build the Opponent's "Ladder"
A thriller or mystery does not begin with the hook, the body, or the Lead character's introduction. In your story world, it always begins in the past with the Opponent's scheme. (NOTE: this is not where you begin your book. It's what you, the author, should know before your book begins). 
Erle Stanley Gardner plotted his mysteries with what he called "The Murderer's Ladder." It starts with the bottom rung and runs up to the top. There are 10 rungs:

10. Eliminating overlooked clues and loose threads
9. The false suspect
8. The cover up
7. The flight
6. The actual killing
5. The first irretrievable step
4. The opportunity
3. The plan
2. The temptation
1. The motivation
So what you, the writer, need to work out is, first, the motive for the scheme. This is in the heart and mind of the opponent. He is then tempted to action, makes a plan, looks for opportunity, etc. When Perry Mason gets on the case, with the help of detective Paul Drake, they look for clues along the rungs of the ladder, the place where the opponent might have made a mistake. 
The point of all this is, when you build your own ladder for the opponent, it will not only help your premise makes sense, it will give you all sorts of ideas for plot twists and red herrings.

3. Write the Opponent's Closing Argument 
This is an exercise I give in my writing workshops. It's simple yet powerful. At some point in your plotting, whether you are an outliner or a "pantser," pause and put your opposition character in a courtroom. He is representing himself before a jury, and must now give a closing argument that attempts to justify why he did what he did. 
This step rounds out your opponent, gives him added dimensions, perhaps even a touch of sympathy. It also keeps you from the dreaded moustache-twirling villain. No stereotypes, please. 
I see a pantser in the back row, raising her hand. "Yes, ma'am?" 
"I just can't write that way! I have to discover as I go along!" 
"And you know what you'll discover? That you have to force an ending onto all that material you've come up with. So you'll go back and try to change, mix and match, but will then discover there are too many plot elements you can't alter without changing everything else around it, so you'll end up compromising at the end. Sometimes you'll make it, but even popular writers who do it this way only bat around .400 on their endings. But if you follow the three steps above, your pantsing writer's mind will still be able to play, but play with a purpose." 
"But . . .but . . ." 
"But me no buts! This isn't easy, you know. If it was, celebrities wouldn't hire ghost writers when they try to cash in on the thriller market!" 
Make sense? Have you ever found yourself backed into premise implausibility? What did you do about it? 

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Don't Let Your Characters Act Like Idiots

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell




The other day I watched a thriller, and was enjoying it. Until the last act.

You know what I'm talking about. You get wrapped up in a neat premise until, like a soap bubble, it pops at the end through a series of missteps. Like these:

The lead character—a smart, good-looking but otherwise normal young woman––suddenly becomes a NASCAR-skilled driver, and plows her car into a bad guy who is shooting at her. Then she slowly gets out of her car and walks over to the splayed body and . . .leaves him alone . . .does not pick up his gun . . .does not make sure he's dead or completely incapacitated! I mean, wouldn't you think that a smart, good-looking, normal young woman would have seen a hundred thrillers where the hitman who is supposed to be dead suddenly shows up alive?

But: by not picking up the hitman's gun, the young woman is left completely vulnerable should the main bad guy suddenly appear. Which, wonder of wonders, he does (complete with suspense-movie bumper music). He has shocked and surprised our smart young woman, and can now kill her instantly. But because over the last fifteen minutes this deadly, perfect-moves-each-time bad guy has for some reason been transformed into a doofus, she gets away. He chases her. He corners her. But he does not finish the job because he spends valuable screen time talking to the young woman about how he is going to finish the job ("Overtalkative Bad Guy Syndrome," or OBGS).

Allowing, of course, good-looking but otherwise normal young woman to triumph! 

There is, for thriller writers, no more important RULE (yes, I said it, it's a RULE, and if you violate this rule you get taken to the craft woodshed and flogged with a wet copy of Plot & Structure) than this:

Never allow any of your main characters to act like idiots in order to move or wrap up your plot!

Yes, characters can make mistakes. Characters can make a wrong move. Just don't let it be an idiot move.

Here's a simple technique to avoid this issue:

Before you write any scene, pause for a couple of minutes and ask yourself these two questions:

1. What is the best possible move each character in the scene can make?

Every character in every scene must have an agenda. Even if it is only (as Vonnegut once said) to get a glass of water. That's how you create conflict in a scene, after all. Then, after noting the agendas, determine the best move each character would make in order to get their way.

2. What is the best possible move being made by the characters "off screen"?

Remember, while you are writing a scene there are other characters who are alive and kicking somewhere else. What are they doing? How are they advancing their agendas? This question will provide you with some nice plot twists, turns and red herrings. 

But if you get backed into a corner at the end, and just don't know what to do, you can always have the main character wake up and realize it was all a dream. Works every time!

Or perhaps that's an idiotic suggestion. How do you keep your characters in the smart line? What bad moves drive you crazy when you see them? 

Sunday, February 3, 2013

How To Get Emotional About Your Novel

James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell


I don’t think you can write a great novel, even with a high concept and cool characters, unless you, the author, are emotional about it. If the story doesn’t grip your own heart and soul, how will it grab the readers? Without some emotional connection, the writing will too easily become paint-by-the-numbers.

Emotion in the author is literary electricity. It’s the X Factor, the game changer, the “second level of sell.” Readers sense it.

So how do you find the emotions?  One method I suggest comes from my days as an actor. We used to do “sense memory” exercises in class. This involves going back to your past, finding an emotional moment, and reliving it by recalling all the senses of the scene. You re-experience the moment. You feel it happening all over again. You then transfer that into your role.

There’s a similar method for fiction. I used it to launch into writing my newly released thriller, DON’T LEAVE ME


Here’s how it happened. I wanted to write a thriller about a good man who gets caught up in extraordinary and dangerous circumstances (a Hitchcock staple). I wanted a plot that makes readers go What? then Oh no! then Look out! and I didn’t see that coming!

I fleshed out a possible lead character and opening. A former Navy chaplain, Chuck Samson, is back from Afghanistan with a rare form of PTSD, and needs time to heal. He has an innocuous rear end accident one morning. But the guy he hits pulls a knife and threatens to kill him. A good Samaritan stops to help. The knife guy rolls away. And thirty seconds later Chuck gets a phone call warning him not say anything about what just happened or he’ll die. Just like his wife . . .

I liked it. But I knew I needed to feel the material before I started investing more time. So I started to think about something I teach in my workshops: the “care package.” Who could Chuck be caring about before the story begins? I went through several possibilities, and then one day I went into my local Ralphs market and was met at the door by a friendly, developmentally challenged man whose job it was to greet customers and hand them an ad sheet with the daily specials. And immediately I thought, What if this was Chuck’s brother?

And so the character of Stan Samson was born. An adult with autism, friendly and funny. What if the bad guys after Chuck go after his brother, too?

The emotional pull started to hit me, because I went back to my own childhood, and the time my big brother saved me from a couple of bullies.

I was playing on a hill near our house when two “big kids” caught me and sat me down in front of some kind of big, block battery. They said if I tried to get away, they’d electrocute me to death. I was maybe six or seven, and I was scared out of my mind. They started talking about the things they were going to do to me. Making me squirm. When the terror got to be too great I made a break for it. I jumped up and ran faster than I ever had in my life. I did not look back. I ran the half mile back to my house, burst through the door, and almost knocked over my big brother, Bob.

He knew something was wrong. Between sobs and catching my breath, I told him what happened. He got this look in his eyes. He said, “You wait here.” And he went out the front door.

I never saw those kids in our neighborhood again.

And I remember the security I felt whenever Bob and my other big brother, Tim, were around.

I transferred that feeling to Stan. How it made him feel when Chuck was around to protect him. Which is why, when the bullies came for him as a kid, Stan told Chuck, “Don’t leave me!” And why, when the bad guys come in this story, he says the same thing.

Thus came the title, and the emotion for my novel. And a tag line:

When they came for him it was time to run. When they came for his brother it was time to fight.

I hope you’ll give DON’T LEAVE ME a read. It’s available here:





So what about you? Do you connect to your stories emotionally? How do you do it?

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Blending Sex and Suspense

Nancy J. Cohen

How do you fit romance into a non-stop thriller? These genres are not mutually exclusive. Look at your movies for examples. Romancing the Stone with Kathleen Turner and Michael Douglas, and The Librarian: Quest for the Spear with Noah Wyle and Sonya Walger are two of my favorites. What recent thrillers have you seen where a romantic relationship is involved? How did the film get this across to viewers?

Here’s how to start with your own story: Give your characters internal and external conflicts to keep them apart. The external conflict is the disaster that will happen if the villain succeeds. The internal conflict is the reason why your protagonists hesitate to get involved in a relationship. Maybe the heroine was hurt by a former lover and is afraid of getting burned again. Or she has a fierce need for independence. Why? What happened in her past to produce this need? Maybe your hero doesn’t want a wife because his own parents went through a bitter divorce, and secretly he feels unworthy of being loved. Or maybe he feels that his dangerous lifestyle wouldn’t suit a family. Keep asking questions to deepen your people’s motivations.

Your characters will be immediately attracted to each other through physical chemistry. This pulls them together while the inner conflicts tear them apart. Soon the benefits of a relationship begin to outweigh the risks. Perhaps they have to work together to rescue a hostage or to escape the bad guys. As the story progresses, they become emotionally closer as they progress through the stages of intimacy. In a thriller, this might happen at a faster pace than other genres. But even thrillers need down times from the tension.

Here’s an abbreviated version of the stages of intimacy:

1. Physical awareness: Your characters notice each other with heightened sensitivity.
2. Intrusion of thoughts: Your character begins thinking about this other person often.
3. Touching: First, it may be an arm around the shoulder, lifting a chin, touching an elbow. They come closer until the desire to kiss is almost palpable. Rising sexual tension is the key here, not so much the consummate act. Your couple can have a stolen moment when they’re being chased by the villain and are forced into close proximity, for example. Even if it’s a momentary diversion, you’re advancing the level of awareness.
4. Kissing
5. Touching in more intimate places
6. Coupling: Focus on the emotional reactions of your characters. Avoid clinical terms or use them sparingly. This is lovemaking, not just sex. For it to be romantic, think "slow seduction", not "slam bam, thank you ma’am", unless the scene or characters warrant this behavior. If a sex scene doesn’t fit into the story’s pacing, leave it out. Or maybe all they have time for is a quickie. In that case, let’s see the emotional aftermath. Maybe the hero acts out his concern for the heroine’s safety after they’ve been together.

When all seems to be going well, throw a wrench into the relationship. Perhaps it appears as though the heroine betrayed the hero. Or he walks out on her because he fears his own vulnerability. Finally, they both change and compromise to resolve their differences by the story’s end.

Keep in mind that I’m writing this advice from a female viewpoint. Also, I write romance in addition to mysteries, so I have the mindset for that genre.

I used to read spy stories and men’s adventure in my younger days. Those were guy novels with a woman of the week. None of those relationships were meant to last. I suppose this is what makes the difference. If you don’t care about your two characters ending up together, then the woman may merely serve as a sex object. And that might not endear you to your female readers (who happen to buy more books than men).

As for series, people read ongoing series for the characters and want to see them grow and change. Giving us relationships we care about is what will encourarge readers to buy your next book. So think about your purpose before going into the story. Where do you want these two people to go? Why can’t they get there? What do they have to overcome in order to be together? And if they don't end up as a couple, then what purpose does their relationship serve?

Here’s an example from Warrior Rogue, my next release. The hero and heroine have just met when they’re involved in a mid-air terrorist attack aboard their private business jet. This is from the heroine’s viewpoint. They’ve landed on a beach on a remote Pacific island.

“Come on, we can’t waste time.” Paz signaled to her from the open hatchway.

She staggered toward him. Peering outside, she was glad to note they didn’t need the emergency chute. They could easily jump the short distance to the ground. Holding her long skirt, she leaped after Paz onto the beach.

He caught her in his muscular arms and gently eased her down. His tousled hair, determined jaw, and ocean blue eyes had never looked better.

“Thank you. You saved our lives.” On impulse, Jen rose on her tiptoes and kissed him.

She’d only meant it to be a brief expression of gratitude, but Paz’s gaze intensified. He swept her into his arms and gave her a passionate kiss that left her breathless.

“We’re safe now.” He broke away with a regretful expression. “At least, for the moment. But we shouldn’t linger.”

“For the moment? What does that mean?” The memory of those ugly men who’d attacked them returned with full force. “You know who assaulted us, don’t you? When are you going to tell me what’s going on?”

“Let’s summon help first. I need to put my comm unit back together. If we can hook it into a local network, you can call your people.”

“I have my cell phone.” She patted her purse.

His hand clamped onto her arm. “We should scout around. Our landing probably attracted attention, and we don’t want the wrong people to find us.”

Note how their level of intimacy advances in this short scene. If you're writing from the male viewpoint, when Paz catches Jen, he could get a whiff of her scent.

So how do you work romance into your fast-paced thriller?

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

What Lucy taught me about writing


It’s three in the morning and I can’t sleep -- again. My story is a giant hairball in my brain but it’s more than that. I am obsessing about the world of publishing and my little place within it. There is so much uncertainty in our business right now. Bookstores are closing, advances are shrinking, publishers are paring their lists, and we are all groping for something to grab onto as the eBook earthquake rumbles beneath our feet.

I retreat to the sofa, remote in hand, searching for something to quiet the questions in my head.

Have I used up all my good plot ideas?
Is it too late to switch to erotica?
Should I take out a loan to go to Thrillerfest?
How did that hack get a movie option?
What should I write about for my first Kill Zone blog?
Did I remember to feed the dogs?

In the darkness, the ceiling shimmers with fifty-seven channels of nothing on. Then, suddenly, there she is -- Lucy Ricardo. My muse, my all, my Ambien.

Before I know it, eight episodes have passed and the sky is lightening with a new day. I have an epiphany! Everything I need to know about surviving in publishing today can be learned from “I Love Lucy.”

Speed it up!

When Lucy needed to make money she went to work in a chocolate factory but found out it wasn't easy keeping up. Time was we could get by doing one book a year. Not anymore. Maybe we can blame James Patterson who is fond of comparing novels to real estate -- i.e., the only thing that matters is how much room your books take up on the shelf (real or virtual). But the eBook age has accelerated the metabolism of publishing and many of us are pulling extra shifts, churning out novellas, short stories and even an extra book a year. (Lee Child just put out his second Reacher story “Deep Down” and I'm working on a novella prequel to our March 1012 Louis Kincaid book HEART OF ICE). Lisa Scottoline in this New York Times article, calls it “feeding the maw.”  What I call it can't be printed here. Sigh. But I get it.

Reinvent yourself!

What did the artistically thwarted Lucy do when she wanted to be in the movie “Bitter Grapes?” She went to a vineyard and became Italian. Is your series on life support? Are you in midlist limbo? Maybe you just need a change of identity. If you write dark, try light. Leave your amateur sleuth and write a standalone thriller. Got the “bad numbers at B&N blues”? Adopt a pen name and start over. Or. . .go over to the dark side. I know, we aren't supposed to like this eBook thing. But it has given new life to some authors, like my friend Christine Kling who put out Circle of Bones when no publisher would. It's the Wild West and if you want to be a pony soldier you gotta mount up!

Make friends!

When Ricky and the Mertzes forgot her birthday, Lucy joined the Friends of the Friendless. ("We are friends of the friendless, yes we are! We are here for the downtrodden and we sober up the sodden!”). Truth is, publishers aren’t putting out anymore (publicity-wise). So we writers just need to get ourselves out there more! No, a pretty website isn’t enough. Now you need to be on Facebook, Quora, Writertopia, Writers Café, MySpace, Tumblr, Foursquare, Goodreads, Shelfari, Fictionaut, Broadcastr. You need to Tweet even if you’re a twit with nothing to say. Oh, and when you have couple free moments, post something on your blog and what do you mean you don’t have a book trailer on YouTube? It’s all about buzz, Bucky. Or is that branding? I don’t know...

I need a nap. Or maybe a glass of good Sancerre. Probably both. All this advice about what we should be doing to sell ourselves and our books. And you know whose voice I keep hearing? Neil Nyren. He's the president of Penguin-Putnam books and a friend of mine. (Yeah, I'm namedropping.) At SleuthFest one year, Neil said, "all the time you're doing that other stuff you could be writing a better book."  I need to remember that.

That and what happened to Lucy. She tried too hard and ended up too sick to eat chocolate and dyed too blue to get in the movie. I think it's time for a new muse. Maybe Wonder Woman is available.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Thriller Must-haves

By Joe Moore

Next week I head to NYC for ThrillerFest -- what many consider summer camp for thriller writers. ThrillerFest is really 3 events bundled into one general heading: CraftFest, AgentFest and ThrillerFest. This year, in addition to the 27 bestselling CraftFest instructors including Doug Preston, Michael Palmer, David Morrell, and our own TKZ blogmate John Gilstrap, the great Ken Follett will be teaching a course called “How Thrillers Work”. Taking a class from a guy who has 130 million copies of his thrillers in print ain’t too shabby.

AgentFest has grown to over 60 top New York agents and editors waiting to hear book pitches and look for that next big seller.

And ThrillerFest boasts two days of panels and interviews by some of the biggest names in the genre. As an added bonus, representatives of the CIA will be on hand to answer all those spy novel questions. And the conference ends with the naming of the 2011 Thriller Awards winners and the celebration of R.L. Stine as this year’s ThrillerMaster. There’s still time to register if you can make it.

On Saturday (July 9), I’ll be on a panel called “Are there must-haves in Thrillers?” My fellow panelists include Karen Dionne, Mike Cooper, William Reed, Larry Thompson, Norb Vonnegut, and F. Paul Wilson. It should be a great discussion.

I believe, as I’ve discussed on this blog before, that there are a number of elements commonly found in most thrillers. So to get in the spirit of my ThrillerFest panel next week, here are 6 general must-haves that I think can and should be found in most contemporary thrillers.

First, let’s define a thriller and how it differs from a mystery?

Although thrillers are usually considered a sub-genre of mysteries, I believe there are some interesting differences. I look at a thriller as being a mystery in reverse. By that I mean that the typical murder mystery usually starts with the discovery of a crime. The rest of the book is an attempt to figure out who committed the crime.

I see a thriller as being just the opposite; the book often begins with a threat of some kind, and the rest of the story is trying to figure out how to prevent it from happening. And unlike the typical mystery where the antagonist may not be known until the end, with a thriller we pretty much know who the bad guy is right from the get-go.

So with that basic distinction in mind, let’s list a few of the most common elements found in thrillers.

1. The Ticking Clock. Without the ticking clock such as the doomsday deadline, suspense would be hard if not impossible to create. Even with a thriller like HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER which dealt with slow-moving submarines, Tom Clancy built in the ticking clock of the Soviets trying to find and destroy the Red October before it could make it to the safety of U.S. waters. He masterfully created tension and suspense with an ever-looming ticking clock.

2. High Concept. In Hollywood, the term high concept is the ability to describe a script in one or two sentences usually by comparing it to two previously known motion pictures. For instance, let's say I’ve got a great idea for a movie. It’s a wacky, zany look at the lighter side of Middle Earth, sort of a ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST meets LORD OF THE RINGS. If you've seen both of those movies, you'll get an immediate visual idea of what my movie is about. High concept Hollywood style.

But with thrillers, high concept is a bit different. A book with a high concept theme is one that contains a radical or somewhat outlandish premise. For example, what if Jesus actually married, had children, and his bloodline survived down to present day? And what if the Church knew it and kept it a secret? You can’t get more outlandish than the high concept of THE DA VINCI CODE.

What if a great white shark took on a maniacal persona and seemed to systematically terrorized a small New England resort island? That's the outlandish concept of Benchley's thriller JAWS.

What if someone managed to clone dinosaurs from the DNA found in fossilized mosquitoes and built a theme park that went terribly wrong? You get the idea.

3. High Stakes. Unlike the typical murder mystery, the stakes in a thriller are usually very high. Using Dan Brown's example again, if the premise were proven to be true, it would undermine the very foundation of Christianity and shake the belief system of over a billion faithful. Those are high stakes by anyone's standards.

4. Larger-Than-Life Characters. In most mysteries, the protagonist may play a huge role in the story, but that doesn’t make them larger than life. By contrast, Dirk Pitt, Jason Bourne, Jack Ryan, Jack Bauer, James Bond, Laura Craft, Indiana Jones, Dr. Hannibal Lecter, and one that’s closest to my heart, Cotten Stone, are all larger-than-life characters in their respective worlds.

5. Multiple POV. In mysteries, it’s common to have the story told through the eyes of a limited number of characters, sometimes only one. All that can change in a thriller. Most are made up of a large cast of characters, each telling a portion of the story through different angles. Some thrillers are so complex in their POVs that you really need a scorecard. But even with multiple POVs, it’s vital to never let the reader lose sight of whose story it is. There should be only one protagonist.

6. Exotic Settings. Again, in most murder mysteries, the location is usually limited to a particular city, town or locale. But a thriller can and usually is a globetrotting event. In my latest thriller, THE PHOENIX APOSTES, co-written with Lynn Sholes, the story takes place in, amount other locations, the tomb of an Aztec emperor, Sao Paulo, Brazil, the sub-basement burial vaults of Westminster Abbey, Red Square, the Bahamas, a small island off the coast of Panama, and the Paris catacombs. Exotic locations are a mainstay of the thriller genre.

Like any generic list, there will always be exceptions and limitations. But in general, these are the elements you'll usually find in mainstream commercial thrillers. But the biggest and most important element of all is that a thriller should thrill you. If it doesn't increase your pulse rate, keep you up late, and leave you wanting more, it probably isn't a thriller.

Are there any characteristics of a thriller not on my list? What do you look for in a good thriller?

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THE PHOENIX APOSTLES is “awesome.” – Library Journal. Visit the Sholes & Moore Amazon Bookstore.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The Dan Brown flagship

By Joe Moore

tls-brown The waiting is over. THE LOST SYMBOL by Dan Brown hit the store shelves yesterday. Love him or hate him, this is a big deal in the world of publishing.

First there was the long 6-year delay. Then the street talk that Brown would never write another book. Then the possible title: THE SOLOMON KEY. Then the revealing of the anticipated cover. And now the day has come. It’s here—all 5 million, first-print-run copies. Now the big questions are: Will it sell as many copies as THE DA VINCI CODE(80 million)? How long will it sit in the number one slot of every bestselling list on the planet? And is it as good as TDC and ANGELS AND DEMONS? Here are two advance reviews:

The Los Angeles Times calls it “. . . like any roller coaster – thrilling, entertaining and then it’s over.”

The New York Times calls it “sexy” and “impossible to put down.”

So what does this publication mean for us thriller authors? The way I see it, if all of us are ships in a naval battle group, THE LOST SYMBOL is the admiral’s flagship aircraft carrier pulling us in its wake, setting the course, and identifying the potential destination. When TDC came along, it created a whole new cottage industry of thrillers that contained secret societies, lost treasures, relics, scientific and religious conflicts, and other like-minded themes. I know that for me, it helped build interest in four of my novels. But in the bigger picture, it created a hunger. Just like Indiana Jones movies renewed an interest in the dark side of the 1930s-1950s, the Nazi, religious antiquity, and archaeology, Dan Brown and his books have continued to feed that hunger. A hunger that will potentially spill over to other books and writers. Because, once readers finish THE LOST SYMBOL, hopefully they’ll be hungry for more. The void must be filled.

Here’s an example from Library Journal where one of my books is mentioned.

I’m excited not only for Dan Brown, but for all thriller authors. This guy is shooting full-court 3-pointers, but the thriller team is ultimately the winner.

Do you plan on reading THE LOST SYMBOL? Do you consider it a thriller genre-boosting event or just another high profile novel by a famous writer?