Another Thriller? I Must Be Mad
Of the many different genres in which I’ve dabbled, thrillers are the trickiest. From the mid-nineteenth century novels of Alexandre Dumas onwards there have been thriller rules established that remain in place today. The genre enjoyed a postwar heyday through Ian Fleming, but largely fell out of fashion (kept alive by Lee Child) until the boxset effect of streaming channels made thrillers ideal for long-form TV viewing.
I’d played with various elements of the thriller for years, first with ‘Psychoville’, a twisted revenge plot with what I still consider to be my best ending. The closest I got to anything traditional, I suppose, was the novel ‘Disturbia’, in which two combatants challenged each other for the right to remain in London. I wrote a script based on this book which was better than the novel, with a much stronger ending – sadly it was too late to reverse-engineer the novel and I moved on.
When it came to writing ‘Little Boy Found’ (the title was the editor’s choice, not mine) I tried a new identity, LK Fox, and was persuaded to have it launched as an e-book first. Looking back with the knowledge of hindsight I can now see that this was a terrible idea, and that the book should have retained my name. It sold weakly and never received its promised paperback debut. It was a neat story, too; a boy stolen from the school gates, his two fathers attacked in the press, a young woman frantically searching for her baby, their fates tied together in a surprise denouement.
So why put myself through it again?
This year I had an idea on holiday that appealed. In thrillers, plots often become so convoluted that even the authors lose their way. This one was so simple that it left a lot of space around it for character development.
The other damaging problem authors face is the trial-by-fire of getting it through the right editor. I find that the more I rewrite to suit the editor’s taste, the less it becomes my story, and the less interested I become in writing the book at all. I recently abandoned a half-finished novel because I could not make it what my editor wanted it to be. There’s no right or wrong in these clashes – it’s just part of the artistic process.
I hate taking notes for novels, and would ideally sit down on day one at page one, writing from the beginning to the end without stopping. But I don’t have a concise or tidy mind, and a thriller requires concision. Critics always use certain words to describe thrillers; ‘tightly plotted’, ‘sharp’, ‘breathless’, and so on, implying there’s no fat, no wasted energy.
In a thriller, lots of things happen and keep happening. The hero’s ability to make choices when negotiating these ‘things’ is what makes the tale tick. Already, though, I can feel myself wanting to divert the process and bring in new elements – so concision must now be my watchword. Out goes most of the humour and description. In comes suspense and action.
Another problem; action is really boring to write. There aren’t many original ways of describing a fight. After a period of relentlessly moving characters around, fatigue sets in and you run out of stakes to raise. You also find yourself coming up short, pagewise, and these days every novel has to be fat (although read ‘Class Trip’ for a masterclass in tight writing).
All of which should be enough to put me off, but I’m still going to have another go. I want to find out, what happens if you write a thriller that doesn’t have characters leaping on and off of trains and planes every ten minutes? I’ll give the plot three months of my time and see what I have at the end of that. If it still doesn’t work, I’ll trash it. I’m ahead of my schedule on Bryant & May, so why not give it a try? What’s the worst that can happen?