This week’s Author’s Roundtable discussion features thriller authors Rick Chesler, author of Wired Kingdom, and Mary McDonald, author of No Good Deed. This week’s topic is:
Readers generally assume that the protagonist will live until the very end and save the day. How does a thriller writer (or any writer) maintain and build suspense in light of that reader expectation?
The old saying ‘getting there is half the fun’ holds true with thrillers in a big way– we know most of the time the protagonist survives, but exactly how s/he survives is what it’s all about. Suspense is created when questions are posed but not immediately answered. Whenever an old question is answered, a new one pops up to takes its place.
So, following from the above, even in books where the reader basically knows that the hero will survive/triumph (such as when you’re reading an earlier book in a series that has subsequent books with the same hero), the question is constantly asked: how will the hero deal with this?…and the reader must wait to find out the answer; meanwhile, new questions are asked…
I think of it as setting up a cascade of events, each of which either asks or answers a specific question, until the climax of the story ties them all together.
As a final consideration, remember that these characters are people going through some trying, and at times even traumatic, events, and to produce a full experience for the reader the character’s internal reaction to their external events must be shown (in such a way that it doesn’t bog down the plot in your plot-driven story). For me it works best when the main character is changed in some way by their ultimate survival, affected by it somehow so that the reader perhaps considers their survival/triumph in a new light. With each decision or course of action taken along the way, the reader should be learning something about the main character as a person, so that you’re not simply watching a caricature of a guy jump out of the frying pan and into the fire until the book ends, but you’re witnessing that character’s thought processes shape them as a human being. Because that way the person who survived isn’t really the same one who began the story.
My book, No Good Deed, is a thriller, but when I began writing it, I didn’t give much thought to what genre it was. I had the story in my head and I wanted to get it down in black and white. Ironically, it was my beta reader, after I’d written ninety-percent of the novel, who offhandedly mentioned my book being a thriller/suspense. I think of it as a character driven thriller, so my methods might not apply specifically to more action oriented thrillers, but I think they can be adapted.
Readers expect the protagonist to survive the ending of a thriller, so as a writer, I needed something to keep the suspense up to keep readers turning the pages. My method is to keep yanking the rug out from under my main character. The first rug was the main problem. He goes to prison as an enemy combatant, and realistically, there is no way for him to escape. Not even Houdini could escape from that type of prison–it’s all solitary, all the time without even fellow prisoners in the same wing. Imagine being held in a 9×6 cell in huge empty wing of a prison. The only people you see are guards and interrogators and your meals are shoved through a slot in bottom of your door.
With no way to even defend himself legally, it’s as if he’s fallen into a black hole. Physically, he’s in danger during interrogations, and to add to that, his mental health was in jeopardy. Would he escape going insane while in prison? I hoped wondering this would keep the suspense up for the reader.
When he’s released after over a year, I had the problem of what to do next? He’s out, he has no official record against him, so things should be fine, but thinking about it, I realized that his apartment wouldn’t just be waiting for him. If he was gone, he’d eventually have been evicted. His car was impounded, and his photography business was defunct. So, I used those real life kinds of problems to hopefully keep the reader turning pages to see how he would once more climb out of the hole that his life had fallen into.
I think thrillers need to keep heaping the problems on the main character so that the suspense comes not in wondering if he’ll survive, but wondering how he’ll survive. It’s kind of like that old saying, when God closes a door, somewhere, he opens a window…only in reverse. Every time your character opens a door, you have to slam it shut on him and let him run around looking for that window, and when he finds it and is halfway through, make it crash down on him or be a portal from the frying pan to the fire. Your character then has to dance over the hot coals of the fire to reach the safety of the calm ocean on the other side to bathe his feet and rest. Only, then a shark comes out of the water. Okay, I’ll stop now as i think you get the idea. Put your MC in danger–repeatedly.
The specifics of those dangers can run the gamut from a bad guy with a gun, to a meteor on a crash course with Earth, and only your MC can stop it. When you think of the ‘big’ problem, don’t forget to think of all the repercussions of the problem. Sometimes it’s the little things that trip up the best laid plans.
Thanks to Rick and Mary for sharing their perspectives. What are your thoughts on the subject?