Asking that question is a bit like asking “What makes a man sexy?” or “What makes a plate of food delicious?” because for each of us, the answer is different. And that’s just the way it should be.
With that in mind, I will say at the outset that all the opinions stated in this post are entirely my own. When I started to write this, I realised I was prefacing every paragraph with “In my opinion” or “For me,” – so can we please take it as read that this is just what works for me and is in no way a definitive list of prerequisites for a good thriller.
The first thing that occurs to me is the range of books that are often classed as thrillers. I love all crime books, providing they are well written. But not that many of them actually make my spine tingle, and I’d been trying to analyse what it is that makes the difference when suddenly, it hit me. It’s all about point of view.
If a book is written from the point of view of a policeman or a psychologist – or basically, anybody who is unlikely to get hurt (because they need to live to fight another day) – I find myself in the position of observer. The story can be gruesome, and people can be chopped up or have their eyes gouged out. But these are not actually the people that I care about in the story. Because my time has been invested in the protagonist – in this case, the policeman. And he or she is not being threatened. By default, therefore, I don’t feel ‘thrilled’ by these books, however horrific the storyline. I might be excited, tense, and waiting to find out what happens next. But not thrilled.
This made me think about a few films or TV series – what had worked for me and what hadn’t. The first and possibly best example of all is The Godfather – which some of you may be far too young to have seen. I read the book first, and in the story a movie producer finds a severed horse’s head in his bed. I literally shivered when I read it. My arms were covered in goose bumps. But when I saw the film it had no effect at all. Why was that?
It wasn’t because I knew what was going to happen, because if the ‘thrill’ works, it would work time and time again. I have now realised that it didn’t work for me because we discover the horse’s head from an omniscient point of view. We are onlookers, whereas in the book we see and feel this through the emotions of the character. We feel him stretching his feet down and discovering something large, warm and damp – until gradually realisation dawns. When I read it, I was that man. I felt it with him.
Similarly, I’ve been watching a TV series called The Following, which is pretty ghoulish in places. But the bit that got to me and made me check that I’d locked the front door was when the wife of the villain was safe in her home. The police had searched the house thoroughly and she felt entirely safe. She walks towards her bedroom, unbuttoning her shirt. Then, behind her head, we see a pair of legs lowering themselves slowly from the loft hatch. Somebody has been up there all the time. My whole body tingled with fear – far more so than when some random person in whom I had not invested any emotion was brutally murdered.
So in my case a thriller is something that makes me shiver – and it’s only going to do that if I feel connected to the character that is being made to suffer.
With this in mind, I write books that are essentially from the point of view of a victim (and by that, I don’t necessarily mean the murder victim!). When I wrote Only the Innocent there was no doubt in my mind that this was Laura’s story. It wasn’t about the police at all. They initially only had a small role to play – but my readers fell in love with the sad and conflicted detective, Tom Douglas (and no, he’s not insane or an alcoholic like many are – he’s just had a few blows in his recent past) – and so he has reappeared in my new book – The Back Road – even though he has a slightly smaller role.
Some scenes in Only the Innocent had to be from Tom’s viewpoint, because he’s the one conducting the interviews, but in spite of some fairly gruesome goings on, the highlight of the book for me – the bit that makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end even after reading it at least twenty times – is when the murderer says why she did it (and it’s no secret that it’s a woman, by the way – that’s not a spoiler). She says just five words, beginning “I did it….”. And that’s the crux of the story. It’s the WHY that matters – not the how, the when or even the who.
As a writer, I have to almost become my protagonist – a bit like method acting, I suppose. I have to feel what she (or he) feels. And so I have to think of things that I find scary – things that I sense are a genuine threat. Sometimes these might be quite ordinary. The idea of opening my bedroom door in the middle of the night and finding a masked figure standing at the top of my stairs makes me quiver with fear. But just as thrilling is the sense of what might happen. Knowing that somebody is watching me from the depths of my garden may not pose an immediate threat, but it is really, really spooky.
In Sleeping with the Enemy – another old film – I didn’t particularly like watching Julia Roberts be beaten up by her controlling, obsessive husband. It made me sad, furious and disgusted. But it didn’t make me frightened. When she came home and opened a cupboard to find all her tins had been organised, we knew as viewers that this could mean only one thing. He’s been there. He might be there now. That is scary.
In my new novel The Back Road the initial threat to the main protagonist seems quite low – unnerving, but not necessarily physically dangerous. But the threat grows, and things start to come at her from all sides. I can feel the underlying sense of threat that she is experiencing, and I just hope that I have conveyed that to the readers.
So – for me (and I know I said I wouldn’t use that phrase) the perfect thriller is written from the viewpoint of the person who is threatened. It doesn’t have to be a physical threat – but it has to be something that I can recognise and empathise with. A thriller isn’t a thriller unless it has made me shiver with fear on the part of the protagonist at least once, and for the whole of the book make me wonder how the hell she is going to resolve whatever situation she finds herself in.
What makes your perfect thriller?
This post was originally conceived as a post for ThrillerInk