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Bookstores and libraries love to categorize. Generally ‘crime’ gets its own spot, whereas a ‘thriller’ will get placed within the ‘general fiction’. So what separates ‘crime’ from a ‘thriller’ and when do the bookstores and libraries get it wrong?
That’s actually my absolute favorite question in the world. Could take a whole book to answer, but let me try to give you the gist of things here.
First off, some background: For much too long, thrillers were the bastard stepchildren of the publishing industry. Denied a firm placement of their own, they have struggled to carve out an identity and definition separate from mysteries and crime stories. Sure, there’s some overlap, quite a bit sometimes, but for our purposes today, let’s review the primary criteria that define what makes a thriller distinct.
1) STAKES: In his first book, Killing Floor, the great Lee Child introduces his iconic Jack Reacher character stopping over in a town where his brother, coincidentally, was just murdered. Now if Reacher was concerned only with finding his brother’s killer, we’d have a mystery. Along the way, though, he uncovers a massive counterfeiting plot that his brother had been investigating. So the book isn’t just about investigating a murder, it’s about seeking revenge on the perpetrators and bringing down their crime ring in the process. That’s a perfect example of how a book’s stakes figure into defining what that book is. Think back to James Bond’s cinematic debut in Dr. No and the great line where Bond, lighting a cigarette, responds flippantly after the evil genius villain has just sketched out his plan: “World domination . . . Same old plan.” Maybe so, but stakes as high as that are what help make a thriller a thriller.
2) A HERO IN JEOPARDY: Another key element in distinguishing a mystery or crime novel from a thriller is the plight of the hero. In a mystery, we follow the investigation through the eyes of the hero who is chasing the perpetrator while not always being threatened by that perpetrator or larger forces surrounding him. But a thriller places the life of the hero at risk, in danger. In order to survive, he or she must get to the bottom of what’s going on. The villains must not just be caught, they must be stopped. See, thrillers are at their heart quest stories in the grandest tradition and for that reason they are often intensely personal. Remember the great Hitchcock film The Man who Knew Too Much? Jimmy Stewart’s son is kidnapped to stop him telling the authorities what he knows, so the only way to get the boy back is to stop the bad guys himself. The ultimate quest with the lives of his entire family hanging in the balance as he gets to the root of an assassination conspiracy.
3) AN OUNCE OF PREVENTION: Jumping off a bit from the point above, thrillers are almost invariably about stopping something really bad from happening, not just investigating something that already has happened. It’s not a mystery, so much as a puzzle where the hero must fit all the pieces together in order to preempt a truly evil plot sure to harm lots of people. In that sense, the thriller form is interactive, asking the reader to play along with the hero in assembling all the clues. The villain, in turn, is determined to stop the hero’s efforts which creates the kind of nail-biting suspense that lies not only in wondering whether the hero will survive, but also whether he or she will succeed in preventing the Really Bad Thing from happening.
4) SETTING: Thrillers, for the most part, are defined by their rapid-fire pace. And that kind of pacing tends to move the heroes around a lot as they embark on their quest to stop the Really Bad Thing. The great tales of James Rollins and Steve Berry take us all over the world, any number of countries per book. While there are plenty of exceptions to this, Lee Child’s books foremost among them, the nature of the thriller has long been defined by characters shifting about settings both dark, mundane and exotic in a staccato-like fashion. Like a treasure hunt, where each clue leads to another that takes the hero somewhere else. This is in stark contrast to mysteries or crime tales which normally take place in a single city or, even, town.
5) HOLDING UP THE MIRROR: Mysteries and crime tales are seldom motivated or defined by societal concerns. Contrast that with the modern evolution of the thriller. The great paranoid conspiracy books by Robert Ludlum, like The Holcroft Covenant and The Matarese Circle, were spawned by the Watergate era where government became the enemy. Ronald Reagan restored trust to government but also reignited the Cold War, giving birth to the likes of Tom Clancy and a whole spat of thrillers more interested in machines than men. The end of the Cold War that accompanied the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s pretty much killed the thriller form for a while. Sales plummeted, as thriller writers sought a new identity, a new enemy. We got both on 9/11. Suddenly a whole new generation of bad guys were born in Islamic terrorists, obviously capable of doing the Really Bad Thing thought to be only the product of fiction until that fateful, redefining day. The post 9/11 era, that birthed the likes of Vince Flynn, Brad Thor, Daniel Silva, and Alex Berenson, reinvigorated the thriller form and planted the seeds for the explosion of the genre’s popularity today. All of a sudden, we needed heroes again, and characters such as Mitch Rapp, Gabriel Allon and Scott Harvath more than fit the bill. If we couldn’t kill the boogeyman in real life, at least we could kill him in fiction, and the new wave of heroes was more than up to that task. But thriller writers are also ahead of the curve as well. Before he created Hannibal Lecter, Thomas Harris foresaw 9/11 in Black Sunday, his brilliant book about a terrorist attack on the Super Bowl. The Really Bad Thing in Ian Fleming’s 1961 Bond novel Thunderball was nuclear terrorism. Who could have known?
I could go on with this forever, but any writer needs to know when to stop, when enough is enough. There are no absolutes in this business and exceptions surely to every rule. Thrillers are as broad as our imaginations, elegantly encapsulating what the great John D. McDonald defines as a story: “Stuff happens to someone you care about.” To that, let me add “lots of” stuff and someone you care about “who’s in danger.” Now, that’s a thriller!
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Caitlin saw D. W. Tepper standing in the shade cast by the Intrepid building through the lobby’s glass entry doors. She joined him outside in the early spring heat and watched him stamp a cigarette out under his boot.
“Captain?” she said, stopping just short of him, something all wrong about his being here.
Tepper handed her a sheet of paper that was already dog-eared and smelled of tobacco. “This came in a few minutes after you left. No one else has seen it yet.” And then, as if feeling the need to say more, “It’s about your friend Masters.”
Caitlin read the single-spaced type running nearly the whole page beneath Texas Department of Public Safety letterhead. The piece of paper shook in her hand, as if ruffled by the wind.
“This can’t be right.”
She looked up to see Tepper’s weary eyes boring into her. “Maybe so. But it’s gotta be handled all the same, Ranger. And that means by the book.” Tepper stopped and looked down at his crushed cigarette, shaking his head. “I figured you deserved a heads-up.”
“Masters just called me. His oldest son’s missing.”
She could see Tepper’s expression tighten, the deep furrows seeming to fill in a bit. “We talking foul play?”
“Could be,” Caitlin told him, elaborating no further as thoughts churned in her head. “I just don’t know for sure yet.”
Tepper smacked his lips, watched the piece of paper in her hand flapping about until she folded it back up. “Not a good idea you handling this, Ranger.”
Caitlin stuffed the paper in her pocket, holding Tepper’s gaze the whole time. “It is if you want to avoid bloodshed, sir.”
Writing Caitlin Strong, as you may have noticed from the excerpt above from Strong at the Break, is truly a labor of love. But the truth is I don’t really write Caitlin; she writes herself. Her own dialogue, her own responses, her own emotions. I have no idea really where it all came from, only that she took over the page almost from the first time I typed her name. That said, once in a while I have to make Caitlin’s life easier by putting her situations and predicaments that allow her character to shine through. How do I do it? Glad you asked!
As you saw in the excerpt, things aren’t easy for Caitlin and they never are. Her entire existence is about having stuff thrown at her she has to deal with; obstacles to overcome and challenges to confront. Every scene I write is tense in its own way and based on its own definition. Whether that scene is a gunfight, and there are plenty of those in Strong at the Break, or a simple conversation, there needs to be something that Caitlin is trying to resolve. Otherwise the story, and the writing, fall flat. It’s easy to create conflict when the scene is action-based. The trick lies in maintaining equal levels of tension, suspense and pacing in scenes containing nothing more than two people talking.
But where are they talking? The best advice about writing I’ve gotten in the past decade was “When writing a scene, always know where the light is coming from.” Caitlin is such a rich character that I try to place her in equally rich settings, again even if that setting is as simple as an office, a car, or a restaurant. The scene in Strong at the Break where she confronts the villainous right-wing militia leader plotting a second Civil War is a perfect example. There’s no violence, not even the suggestion of violence, but it’s a seat-squirmer all the same because of the way I’ve framed the scene. I never use the omniscient narrator; every scene is told from a character’s viewpoint, so you see and feel what they’re seeing and feeling.
Great stories make us feel something because we’re vested in the characters; we truly care about what happens to them. The fun of writing Caitlin Strong lies not only in coming up with a plot structure worthy of her, but also an emotional arc to what’s confronting her. How she deals with the people who are most important to her. The great John D. McDonald (author of the Travis Magee books) once defined story as “Stuff happens to people you care about.” Thrillers always have stuff happening but nearly as often contain people we really care about. The outcome of a gunfight should be no more suspenseful than the outcome of where the relationship between Caitlin and Cort Wesley Masters and his two sons to whom she’s become a surrogate mother. It’s those relationships that define her much more than bullets and in Strong at the Break they are fully on display.