Tuesday, October 9, 2012

What the **** is a Thriller, anyway?

SPOILER ALERT – In the following I do reveal a few secrets about my novels. Just a few. Not enough to spoil them for the reader. But if you want to be totally surprised by my tales, then please don’t read any more! STOP, NOW!

One of the most frustrating questions I am asked from time to time is ‘what kind of novels do you write?’
I normally stick to a nebulous ‘thrillers’ and hope the interrogator will settle for that. Alas often ‘what kind of thrillers?’ is the next thing I hear.

You would think it was an easy question to answer. I am, after all, the bloke who has spent months and months writing the beasts; surely I must know where they slot in in the general gamut of the thriller genre? Yet I do find that a complex issue to resolve.

Thrillers, as a genre, is really a collective description for a style of novel rather than a specific type. I like James N. Frey’s description, in his excellent book ‘How to write a Damn Good Thriller’. There he states that “writing a thriller is like riding a bobsled down Mount Everest. You can let your imagination run. You can make up wild and crazy characters and stuff them into woodchoppers. You can blow up cities. Lop heads off. Sink ships. Go to Mars. In the world of thriller writing, anything goes—as long as you thrill your audience.”

That description says it all. There are references to sci-fi, horror, dystopian, disaster and terrorist themes in that description. So why bother about sub-divisions. Isn’t it just about thrilling your audience as he states?

He goes on to quote the “American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language” which defines a thriller as fiction "that thrills, especially a sensational or suspenseful book, story, play, or movie." He makes references to pacing, to emotional rushes, to suspenseful sensations and to exhilaration-driven narrative. What he doesn’t say is that they are sci-fi, romance, horror, chick-lit, psychological, paranormal, YA, or any of the other popular categories.

Why’s that?

That’s an easy one to answer: because a thriller can be ANY of those. Thrillers are more about the way you write your tales than the kind of tales themselves. So we could have a Horror thriller and a Technological thriller side by side and although their story lines would be radically distinct, their essence, thrilling their audience, is the same. Yes, I have just compared Robert Bloch’s ‘Psycho’ with Tom Clancy’s ‘The Hunt for Red October’. Why not? They are both outstanding thrillers.

So back to the question ‘what kind of thrillers do I write?’

If pushed I will say something like ‘contemporary thrillers with a paranormal twist’. Sounds good, doesn’t it. 

Contemporary (present-day, dealing with 21st Century issues) and paranormal (weird things that happen in our world). For me, that just about covers it. After all ‘2012’ deals with the End of the World brought on by a fanatical Spanish businessman with an imminent war between China and the United States over oil resources as a backdrop; ‘Full Disclosure’ is a covert Special Operations caper with drug trafficking overtones, set at a moment when the US President announces contact with extraterrestrials; ‘the CULL’ is about the tracking down of a serial killer, set in a world where real vampires exist, products of genetic mutations; and ‘Leaving Shadows’ involves the kidnapping of a high-level spy and weather warfare. 

So yes, contemporary and paranormal.

Although I usually end up giving that answer, I’m not happy about it. Why? Simple really. As we all know, the whole writing business is going through a complete shake-up and reorientation at the moment. E-books don’t just mean a new support for the reader but greater opportunities for the writer. My argument is that now is the time to break moulds, to try out stuff, to do something new. In short, to push the limits of preestablished labels.

So, you out there! Yes you! The writer! The one cowering behind the manuscript! Don’t follow the herd. Find your own path. Do something different. Werewolves and space monsters? Why not? Romantic spies? Go for it! Be original.

"Stick labels in your pipe, and smoke 'em!"
When I power up my PC, for a brief instant a few words flash onto the screen before Win-doze chimes in. These words are my favourite Einstein quotation: “Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere.” He also said “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.”

So to all of the aspiring thriller writers out there: ignore labels, go embrace the entire world! Let your readers put labels on what you write if they want to. If you’re lucky, they’ll call your novels “the books I love to read” rather than…


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