In honor a Mother’s Day – here’s a little about the Thorne & Cross thriller, Mother ... and writing thrillers in general …
Thrillers are a little different from mystery and a little different from horror. Though all these genres tend to blend and merge to varying degrees, writing them – and reading them – is a slightly difference experience.
Generally speaking, the mystery novel’s goal is to solve a crime while thrillers seek to prevent it, but never having been big on following rules and regulations, my collaborator Tamara Thorne and I fiendishly merged these standards together for our thriller, Mother. We eagerly thrust our protagonists, expectant couple Claire and Jason Holbrook, into the hotbed of an already deadly situation; by the time they arrive at the scene, many unsolved crimes have already commenced. Unbeknownst to them, of course, the greatest offense has yet to be committed, and it’s up to them (with the help of some eccentric neighbors and a couple of reluctant priests) to prevent it from happening.
As well as mystery and suspense, Mother also incorporates strong elements of horror and black comedy – but at its core, this is definitely a thriller. That being said, there are a few things we’ve learned along the way that we believe not only apply to the thriller genre, but all genres.
The most important thing, we believe, is to keep the readers reading. No one wants to trudge through page after page of information to get to the good stuff, nor should they have to, so the first thing we focus our attention on is the opening scene.
The opening scene is a tough one because it should have enough action to excite and enough information to intrigue while still retaining its mystery; it should make promises of more to come. This requires walking a thin line, indeed. In Mother, we began at the end of the original “crime” – which becomes the driving force that propels our protagonists.
The protagonists are very important … and therefore, often the most difficult to write. While side characters can often get away with being one-dimensional, the main characters need a few more layers. It’s important that they be likable, but not boring. They should have weaknesses and strengths, triumphs and failures, and plenty of psychological complexity. And though they might do what they believe is right, they must make mistakes. If every character made the right choice at every turn, there would be a major shortage of damn good stories out there.
And having a damn good story is everything in this business. There are only so many themes in literature which have been recycled over the centuries, and it’s important to know what yours is. Are you writing a story about death and rebirth? A quest for higher understanding? An attempt to restore order and normalcy? A crusade to make the world a better place, or – as it is in Mother – a slaying of the dragon to reassert independence? Whatever your theme, know it and know it well, and make sure your characters go through hell to deliver it to the reader.
No one likes a story about people who coast through life, and this is why it’s important to put your characters through hell. Bestow upon them unimaginable grief and unspeakable horrors, and just when you feel like any further affliction will surely shatter your beloved character into a thousand pieces, double up on the damage. We want to see them struggle. We want to see them writhe and scramble and strive. Of course, we want to see them triumph, too … but not until the end … and sometimes not even then. But above all, we want to see them change – and grow.
Creating characters that change and grow as a result of their trials and tribulations is imperative. Think of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. The penny-pinching Ebenezer Scrooge goes through a night of torture that brings him face-to-face with the demons of his past, the misery of his present, and the horror of his future. By morning, he’s a changed man … and we love it.
We love it because it teaches us something about being human … and teaching the readers is perhaps the trickiest thing of all; fiction readers generally want to be entertained, not taught. Yet, if a writer is smooth enough to educate without hindering the flow of the plot, the story resonates with readers on a deeper, more meaningful level. But good authors do not take advantage of their readers and use their attention as an opportunity to sermonize or push opinions. In Mother, our “lesson” was simple: The real monsters are not necessarily strangers – often, they’re the people you trust and love, the people you look at every day. Our goal was to get this point across through the story, not by wagging our finger at the reader and lecturing.
There are a million ways to tell a story and an endless list of do’s and dont’s, but no matter how you go about it, one thing is certain: Readers want to be thrilled. Whether by means of terror and dread or by the promise of justice, they want to be ensnared by a story that compels them to keep turning pages. And writing a thriller that really thrills is the best way to make that happen.