How to write the perfect thriller
Had a very interesting chat with fellow thriller writer Anna Blundy a few days ago, which led to the following article, originally published in The Browser. God knows if we're right - what do you think?
How to write a thriller by Anna Blundy
For the past ten years I’ve been sitting at home trying to write thrillers. I try not to read them while I’m writing them so that I don’t a) get demoralised because someone’s doing it better than me or b) start stealing someone else’s devices. For five books my heroine was Faith Zanetti, a war correspondent based loosely on myself, my father (who really was a war correspondent – killed 20 years ago in El Salvador) and the kinds of people I sat with in seedy Jerusalem bars when I was little, wishing my dad would take me back to the hotel.
The logo on the front of my first Faith book, The Bad News Bible, was ‘Courage Without Equal. Truth Without Bullshit. Vodka Without Tonic.’ The covers were kind of 70s and James Bond-ish and I thought of Faith as a female James Bond, hiding her complexity with grit. My editor for the Faith books, Rosie de Courcy told me that the secret to a good character is that he or she should represent the writer’s fantasy self so that you end up writing a fantasy autobiography. The art of good thriller writing, she said, was to let the reader know that an axe is hanging over our hero’s head but not to tell them when it’s going to fall. She says you have to ‘show not tell’ and that your hero or heroine can be as vile as you like as long as there’s one undeniably good thing about them – Scarlett O’Hara, Rosie points out, loved her mother and father.
I tried to follow Rosie’s advice but I do always get led astray by my characters and drawn into their inner lives and motivations, wrapped up in the psychological drama. My Faith books always have a big emotional event around which the plot is constructed – the death of a close friend, falling in love, an ex-lover on the prowl, a resurrected relative, the safety of a child. But then I read a Dan Brown book and see that his success lies in entirely ignoring characterisation for a tight plot constructed around an inanimate object.
This week, for The Browser, I interviewed thriller writer James Twining and he had five key rules that he felt must be followed to come up with the perfect thriller – Dan Brown’s core concept is one of them. If only I’d known…
First, Twining says, you’ve got to have a fantastic central character, like James Bond: ‘What Fleming does is he has a central character who’s totally compelling – a fantasy figure who men want to be like and women want to sleep with. He’s sophisticated and charming with a slight brutality. It dates a bit now some of that, the language and the racial depictions perhaps don’t work so well. But you’d have to struggle to look at literary fiction over the past 50 years and come up with a character who has really inhabited the popular consciousness.’ Another classic character is Sam Spade in the Maltese Falcon. You can’t think about Sam Spade without thinking of Humphrey Bogard, Twining reminded me.
Ian Fleming, of course, has an immediately recognisable writing style and this is obviously fairly key and perhaps the most difficult thing for anyone considering writing a thriller to achieve. In some ways you either have a good writing style or you don’t. This might not be something that can be learnt.
You also, as noted above, need the action to revolve round an inanimate object that provides motivation for the human characters. Twining again: ‘The Maltese Falcon itself is this artefact covered in jewels that has been painted black to disguise it, but it’s a complete mcguffin! It doesn’t actually matter at all, except to provide motivation for the characters. I’ve used this device in my new book about the illicit trade in antiquities – I’ve used an ivory mask that really was found in London and had been dug up in Italy. I mean, think of Pulp Fiction. We never do find out what’s in the bloody briefcase. You could say it’s a cop out, but it’s no more of a cop out than your best friend dying and having to find out who the murderer is.You need something to get the story in motion.’
Another thing that Twining suggests is key is to have some element of reality in your novel so that readers can think; ‘Ooh, I never knew that.’ ‘I think Dan Brown’s books are often like a lecture embedded in a chase story,’ Twining told me. Another example of this is Frederick Forsyth’s Day of The Jackal: ‘This has a real historical character, General Charles De Gaulle. It’s an amazing trick really because we all know De Gaulle wasn’t assassinated, but the whole way along we’re thinking: ‘Shit! Is he going to die!’ ‘Silence of the Lambs also has elements of reality in it. Thomas Harris has based Lector on Ed Gein, a serial killer who robbed graves and killed woman in order to flay the corpses for their skins. Greene was also the basis for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Norman Bates in Psycho. He also uses the real murderer Garry Ridgeway who dumped women’s bodies with objects inside them.’
In Day of the Jackal Forsyth uses another of the devices that Twining recognises as key in that he actually breaks a news story. Forsyth in this book exposed the practise of applying for passports in the name of dead children. ‘People would go to graveyards and look for the graves of children. The government actually had to change the law on the basis of his research,’ Twining said. Thomas Harris does the same in Silence of the Lambs: ‘Like Forsyth in Day of the Jackal, Harris breaks a story in that he popularised or exposed the workings of the FBI’s criminal profiling unit. He put them on the map. Nowadays they are always in any crime drama.’
So, James Twining and I concluded between us that to write a good thriller you need: a brilliant central character, a recognisable writing style (Fleming has his distinctive short sentences and muscularity), some link to reality like a real event, character or detailed research, an inanimate object around which the human story revolves, and a news story that breaks as a result of the novel. Easy.
In praise of ... Geneva
Thought you might like to see article published this week in the Sunday Telegraph travel section on Geneva - setting for my latest international bestseller (hey, modesty never sells...) The Geveva Deception. Actually what follows is the original unedited version as they took out all the gags - presumably because of a lack of space rather than because they weren't funny...
Geneva, Switzerland: My Kind of Town
The novelist James Twining offers a guide to the best sights, bars, hotels and restaurants in the Swiss city of Geneva.
Harry Lime was wrong. While the warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed of the Borgias may well have produced the Renaissance, Geneva is proof that 500 years of democracy and peace in Switzerland have led to far more than the invention of the cuckoo clock. Hotbed of Protestant dissent, witness to Byron’s seduction of Mary Shelley, crucible of the luxury watchmaking industry, and now the international home of the UN, WTO, multinational companies and tax exiles alike, Geneva's riches are lying waiting to be discovered.
What do you miss most when you're away?
Mont Blanc in the distance. Boats skating across Lake Geneva's glass mirror, sails snapping in the wind. The clean air and sense of calm. Cheese fondue. Chocolate.
What's the first thing you do when you return?
Wander through the cobbled Old Town ("La Vieille Ville") with old friend and local insider George Hammon, admiring the unspoilt medieval architecture and debating where to have dinner.
Where's the best place to stay?
The recently renovated Mandarin Oriental Hôtel du Rhône (0041 22 909 0001; www.mandarinoriental.com; two-day "festive break" from £145 per night), which blends the qualities of a traditional deluxe hotel with a very modern interior. At the other end of the spectrum, the Hôtel St-Gervais (732 4572; www.stgervais-geneva.ch) is a well-located budget option with double rooms from £68 per night.
Where would you meet friends for a drink?
In winter, the Parc des Bastions, where you can have a game of life-size chess before a warming glass of vin chaud. In summer, the Place du Bourg de Four, the oldest square in the Old Town. Have a beer and soak up the sunshine in one of the bars and cafés that surround the 18th-century flowered fountain.
Where are your favourite places for lunch?
The bistro Les Papilles de Lavinia (rue de Coutance 3; 732 2222) in Geneva's best wine shop, Lavinia. Enjoy Lyonnais food with one of the 40,000 bottles on display to wash it down. Amazing food, great wine, and brave attempts at British humour from the manager, Stéphane.
And for dinner?
Café Papon (rue Henri-Fazy 1; 311 5428). Vaulted ceilings and a terrace stretching out onto the medieval fortifications of the Old Town. Classic French cuisine with a twist, with main courses from £18. At the Mandarin you have the gourmet Indian restaurant Rasoi, by Michelin-starred Vineet Bhatia, with tasting menus from £45. And Les Antiquaires (Grand-Rue 35; 311 2416) is a no-nonsense fondue restaurant serving the finest moitié-moitié (half Gruyère, half Vacherin cheese) in Geneva (and possibly the world!) for £14.
Where would you send a first-time visitor?
The Martin Bodmer museum (route de Guignard 19, Coligny; www.fondationbodmer.org; adults £8) is a breathtaking collection of literary treasures ranging from second-century New Testament papyri, and Egyptian Book of the Dead to a Gutenberg Bible and a Shakespeare first folio. It embodies the essence of Geneva – a wonderful place but so well hidden that even many locals have never heard about it.
What would you tell them to avoid?
The area around Cornavin train station, a hideous example of Soviet-style Fifties town planning that has you reaching for a block of semtex and a detonator.
Public transport or taxi?
You can easily walk around the centre of Geneva – it's tiny. But for the full experience be sure to take a mouette (a river shuttle) across the lake and, of course, hop on a tram. Taxis are prohibitively expensive and are best avoided unless you want to be mistaken for a Swiss banker.
Handbag or moneybelt?
Manbag - dare to be continental!
What should I take home?
Empty your bags and load up with Swiss chocolate. Try Rohr (rue d'Enfer 4; 311 6876) or Auer (rue de Rive 4; 311 4286), two family-owned traditional chocolate-makers who have mastered and perfected the art of chocolate-making over five generations.
James Twining's latest thriller, 'The Geneva Deception' (HarperCollins, £6.99), is set in Geneva.
He said. She said.
Having posted a few weeks ago about the increasing importance of the web as a source of critical opinion and reviews for commercial fiction, I found myself recently assailed by its evil twin - the unsolicited psycho email.
It actually started, as these things often do, innocuously enough, when this popped into my inbox:
"Double Eagle. Page 170 (paperback). \"Disorientated\". Not a word. You need a proof reader? I'd be great."
No hello. No goodbye. Staccato syntax. A hint of arrogance, perhaps, towards the end? But then people are busy, and frankly I'm always happy to get feedback, good and bad. So I responded:
Really? But people say it all the time - doesn't that make it a word, even if the dictionary hasn't caught up!
You tell me - is there anything in the least bit offensive or rude in that? No, that's what I thought too. But my electronic interlocutor had found reason to take offence, it seemed:
You will find "ain't" in the dictionary. Doesn't make it a word. Just gives people too lazy to use the correct word(s) an excuse to continue sounding stupid to people who know better.
Okaaaay then. Someone's not been taking their medication. Nurse? Nurse?
Now again I'll ask you - did anything I say warrant that sort of response? She (yes it was a she - let's call her Julianne Connors … because that's her name) is actually implying, is she not, that I'm both lazy and stupid? Hell she's not implying it, she's saying it. My wife would probably agree about the former, and I'll leave judging the latter to you, but even so talk about raising the stakes - I toss a tennis ball over the net and she fires back a bloody Scud missile. Not too mention that she is also implying that she is a better judge of what is a word than the dictionary ...
Fine. If that's how you want to play it missy, it's on. It's on like Donkey Kong. The way I see it you have two choices in these situations. You either bite your tongue and let people get away with their crass rudeness. Or you say - "Take that, crazy psycho email bitch – hiya!” (imagine Miss Piggy karate chop). So I simply replied:
OK - in other words I am lazy and sound stupid and you know better
You're clearly as rude as you are pedantic
Have a nice life
PS I don't think I will take you up on your offer of being my proof reader
The "have a nice life" line was perhaps a bit sharp (I'd been dying to use it since someone used it on me a few years ago), but turning her down as my proof reader was a moment of utter genius, if I say so myself. Even so, she wasn't about to roll-over yet. A few weeks later (she'd clearly been carefully honing her response!), she came back with this:
Subject: So, so, sorry (who says Americans don't understand irony?)
Mister Twining (finally a greeting - things looking up, perhaps?)
I must say I am a little suprised you took the time out of your busy schedule to respond to, what must have been, a significant hit to your considerable ego. I do hope your attention to my e-mails is not an indication of your fan base.
You mistook my meaning, I fear. It seems to me if a person is willing to undertake all things involved in creating literature, to attatch their name to a work of fiction they hope to be recognized and praised for, one would do all that is possible to insure accuracy and quality.
I merely wanted to draw your attention to the fact that you used a word that is, in fact, NOT A WORD.
Writing a novel is a huge undertaking and I understand that constructive criticism can feel like attack. Take it as you will - I'll not lose any sleep over it. Nor will I be reading anything more from James Twining. Turns out, the students in my English Lit. classes have lost interest in your work as well.
Thank you so much for your well-wishing. Much the same to you.
Let's just be clear on one thing Julianne - I took time out of my "busy schedule" because I figure part of the job of being a writer is to talk to your readers, and that if someone has taken the time to write to you, you owe them the courtesy of writing back. And for the record I get emails all the time, all of them better written and more civil than yours, even the ones inviting me to accept a transfer of $3 million in stolen Nigerian oil money. So no need to feel special on my account.
If all you had really wanted was to draw my attention to a word not being a word, why go nuclear when someone asks, what is I think quite a reasonable (and dare I say interesting) question about whether language is dictated by a text book or current usage?
And in case you were unsure, calling someone stupid is not constructive criticism, which I welcome. It's just plain rude.
You got one thing right though - emailing you back would give you the wrong impression about the importance I attach to you or what you have said. Far better to lay your bitterness out here for all to see and enjoy. The Internet. Love it.
P.S. Julianne, despite your keenness to correct my vocabulary and desire to be my proof-reader you misspelled both “suprised” and "attatch" above and when you say "insure accuracy and quality" and think you probably meant "ensure" unless you wanted to take out a policy on something. I see that scarily enough you teach English Lit classes. Give yourself an F.
Blood from a stone
Ever wondered where the expression "like getting blood from a stone" comes from? It does not, as some of you may believe, come from Giovanni Torriano's Second Alphabet (1662) but rather was an expression popularised in the early part of the twenty first century to describe the near impossibility of getting a book reviewed unless you are:
a) a first time writer
b) a celebrity or in some way related to a celebrity (butler, gardner, brother etc.)
c) afflicted by some (preferably terminal) disease or physical defect
I am, happily, none of these. And as a consequence am suffering the slings and arrows of editorial whim. It's a shame, as I know lots of reviewers have enjoyed and would like to review The Geneva Deception, but are finding it hard to get the space. Still, all is not lost. The internet, which is fast replacing the mainstream media's book pages (increasingly the exclusive preserve of revisionist (again) second world war histories, 900 page biographies of Henry VIII's third torch bearer etc.) as where real book people go if they want to learn about books that actually sell - bitter, moi? - is stepping into the breach. Exhibit 1 for the defence is below from Books Monthly and I'll share anything else that comes my way - including 4 stars from Closer, I hear!
The Mafia, a secret society and the world's greatest treasures all converge in James Twining's all new jaw--dropping thriller featuring reformed art thief Tom Kirk. It begins with a young man hanging from the Ponte Sant' Angelo Rome, his pockets weighed down with lead whilst the current of the river below slowly tightens the noose around his neck. Meanwhile, in Las Vegas, retired art thief Tom Kirk is asked by an old friend to investigate a case involving the theft of a long lost Caravaggio painting. When tragedy strikes Tom is left holding a blood-soaked body.
Back in Rome police photographer Flavia Salvatore has been called to the Parthenon where a second body has been found, but this time the body is surrounded by mannequins. When a third body is found crucified upside down in the middle of the ancient forum Flavia realises there is a sinister link between the murders. Someone is staging famous Caravaggio paintings. Suspecting the detective leading the case is corrupt Flavia begins her own investigation.
Spurred on by grief and the desire to avenge the murder of his friend, Tom follows a trail to Rome where he finds Flavia piecing together a similar mystery. Before long they both finds themselves submerged in a vast criminal conspiracy involving the police, politicians, the church and a secret society born of a pact between two Mafia families decades before.
Tom Kirk is the new James Bond - no doubt about it - the book simply roars along like a Formula 1 grand prix, with thrills and spills at every corner, every bend, every curve. James' ability to mix fact with fiction makes for superb reading - and Kirk's ability to get himself out of a tight spot reminds me of 007 himself. What's more, there are now four Tom Kirk novels and James doesn't seem short of ideas to keep the idea going for loads more capers. Far better storie and much better written than The Da Vinci Code, this series is crying out for either small or big screen treatment - not that that would enhance the reading experience, but it just seems to me that there's an opportunity here for something rather special. Brilliant stuff!
Also thought the following might interest you - an interview with the influential Art Theft Central blog. Laters