Got a taste for writing thrillers? Then today's post should get the juices simmering and the ink flowing!

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

When Cooking Up A Thriller, The Plot Thickens

The weather here in the New York metropolitan area is steaming beyond the danger point, so what better time for a recipe for a good hearty writer's stew. (Stews conjure up thoughts of winter and cold temperatures: don't you feel cooler already?)

If you're a novice stew maker, here's an old secret: make it thick.  That way even if it's not a gourmet's delight, it'll be satisfying. Later on, when you've had some practice in stew making, you can add certain things to give it that certain something and take it to a higher level.

How old is that secret? At least 18 hours if a minute. That's how long I've been mulling a delightful conversation I had with David L. Wilson, a fine novelist (his Unholy Grail, is a great read published by Berkley) and, the Coordinator of Volunteers for Thrillerfest, the annual gathering of thriller writers world-wide now going on in Manhattan under the aegis of the ITW, the International Thriller Writers, a really neat organization. Thrillerfest's a massive and magnificent event, made that way by unsung heroes like David and heroines like Wonder Woman Liz (Pink Cadillac) Berry, who orchestrates the whole four day shebang.

Anyway, David and I were discussing thrillers yesterday.  He had many interesting insights.  I had a Black and Tan. One of the topics was plot-driven or character-driven(Open any writing book to a random page and there's a good chance that'll be the topic of wisdom.) It could have been the Mets or the Yankees--some parts of our talk are still hazy.  But I'm pretty sure it was plot or character.

I believe we both came down on the side that, in thrillers, plot trumps character (almost) every time.  Now I'm not about to put words in David's mouth, even as repayment for him putting good ideas in my head, so I'll take responsibility for what follows, allowing him the out of claiming I'm depraved or, perhaps more generously, misguided.

So here goes: Thrillers are like stews. First make them thick (in a good sense) so that they satisfy readers.  And how do you thicken them you ask? Why with plot, of course. Thriller readers want plot.  They want excitement.  They want tremendous risks. Character? Character be damned! Come on--take some safety scissors and a sheet of construction paper and within 10 minutes you can create characters as good if not better than those found in many successful thrillers.

Characters in thrillers can be superficial. If fact, it's often essential that they be superficial, lest they interfere with the plot. Readers don't need to have an intimate relationship with characters in a thriller. Many don't want one. What readers so need is to be infatuated with characters in a thriller.  Not knowing much about them only increases the intrigue.

Wait, you protest. A lot of thriller writers say their books are driven by character.  Are they simply pulling a lot of legs?

Some may be, maybe.  And some may believe their books are character-driven, but really have no concept of what a well-rounded character is.  Others are motivated by LC--Literary Correctness, which seems to hold character above plot. A very few may be manifesting the symptoms of acute newyorkermagazeosis, which the DSM-IV describes as as the tendency to explain all aspects of fiction in terms of character while denying the existence of any sort of plot beyond "he said, she said."

Wait, you again protest. I've read lots of thrillers where the characters are well- developed and yet the plot doesn't suffer.

Yes you have.  But think.  Generally this is a series character who has become more developed over the course of several books.  Eventually memories blur and readers tend to believe that these characters were completely fleshed out right from the start. 


In fact, take a look at new characters, who are usually antagonists.  They remain construction paper characters in contrast to the recurring protagonist(s) now modeled in amazing 3-D from clay. Should they become recurring antagonists, well that's another story (and another novel and another).

Returning to our stew recipe: a clay character is one of things to give a thriller that certain something and take it to a higher level. But this comes after you've become proficient at making a stew thickened by plot, one that satisfies readers.

And now my stomach's growling.

Put on the pot . . .

It's time to plot!


  1. Maybe this explains why I can't write well...I can't even make a good stew.

    I love a good thriller, but for me personally, I have to have a good character in order to "bond" with the the book. I don't care how good the plot is, if I don't like who it's about, I am going to lose interest.

    I look forward to reading a thriller from you one day soon, Gary.

  2. Superficial or not, the thriller character needs to cook a long time. Getting tossed about with the celery and potatoes makes one go back more and more to lift the pot lid, breathe him in and see how he's bubbling along!

  3. newyorkermagazeosis - I love it!

  4. Stanley J. SolomonJuly 9, 2010 at 6:15 PM

    Kriss is absolutely correct--and unnecessarily apologetic--in proposing that in thrillers plot is more essential than character. This is true of all narratives depending on words (as distinct from, say, a narrative painting or a narrative ballet), and it comes from Aristotle, a critic almost impossible to challenge. The tendency to write "character-driven" fiction goes back at least to the 19th century, premised on the notion that there are really only about three dozen different plots while there are an unlimited number of characters. But for all practical purposes, the permutations of combined plots are virtually unlimited too. Characters must develop out of plots, though most contemporary writers would swear it was the other way around. They're wrong. Aristotle and Kriss are right.

  5. Your words make me stop and think. I will have to pick up some thrillers that I enjoy and reread them to see if it's the plot or the character that satisfies me the most. Great column! Keep up the good work. I really enjoy reading your stuff.

  6. I agree with the first person. If I can't get into the characters, the book just doesn't set right with me. I have to be able to envision the characters in my head, to be able to give them a face, a voice, even hair color, to be able to follow an intense plot.

  7. Hmmmmm, why can't we have both?? When I think about my favorite thrillers, I can't decide if it's the characters or the plot. I'm greedy, I want both. But you've made me stop and think about this Gary, and I know it will be in my head when I start my next thriller.

  8. Gary, it was great to have dinner with you and Dave that night and pick your brains r.e. the importance of plot vs character. Your advice about my pitch was quite helpful, and I probably would have contacted you the next day to ask for additional help if Jon Land hadn't volunteered almost an hour of his time to help me perfect it. The end result was nothing like what you heard at the bar, and was less than a quarter the length.

    AgentFest went beautifully, 19 of the 21 literary agents I spoke with requested additional material. Again, it was great meeting you and sharing thoughts over good imported beer. Now get back to writing, because I'm looking forward to reading this book!