Be a Better Writer--SUSPENSE/THRILLER

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Be a Better Writer--SUSPENSE/THRILLER

Post by glorybee » Sat Oct 25, 2014 8:55 am

This lesson is a great opportunity to review some literary terms. The first one is an essential element of almost every piece of fiction, but particularly in the suspense/thriller genre: conflict. Conflict, in fiction, is something that the main character (MC) has to overcome, and it can take many forms—something physical, something spiritual, another person, some aspect of society, even the MC herself. Without conflict, there’s no particular reason for the reader to keep reading, and that’s especially true of the suspense/thriller genre.

The second term you should be familiar with is antagonist. The antagonist is sometimes thought of as the “bad guy” (think Darth Vader, the Wicked Witch of the West, Goliath), but it’s not always as simple as that. It’s the person who is creating the conflict for the MC, and she may have her own perfectly good reasons—or not. Most thrillers will have an antagonist. In Christian fiction, this is a great opportunity to have a good vs. evil scenario play out.

So with those two elements—conflict and an antagonist—you’re well on your way to having a good suspense/thriller story. Following is a list of other elements of suspense/thriller fiction—you don’t have to include every single element in your 750-word story, but this should give you some ideas of what direction to take.

1. Put your main character in danger. This could be physical danger (being tied to the railroad tracks), psychological or emotional danger (as in the old movie Gas Light), or spiritual danger. Whatever form the danger takes, the reader should relate to the MC’s danger, and should wonder if and how she is going to get out of it.

2. Make your MC vulnerable. This, too, can take many forms: she could be ill, or alone, or injured, or facing a phobia, or emotionally fragile, or surrounded…you get the idea. Take away her physical or mental or emotional strength in order to heighten the suspense.

3. Put the MC under some sort of time pressure.

4. Give the MC something that she has to solve in order to get out of her dilemma. This could be a puzzle presented by the antagonist, or a physical barrier like a locked door, or a mysterious letter, or some other obstacle…you get the idea. If she has to solve the puzzle in a certain amount of time, or if the solution involves additional risk or danger, so much the better.

5. Keep an element of the unknown. There’s a noise in the basement…a shadow on the sidewalk…a voice on the telephone…a smell of something electric in the air…the feeling of something breathing on one’s neck (these are all great ways to introduce imagery, from a previous lesson).

6. Make something unexpected happen. A person sits down and clicks on the television remote—what do you expect will happen? Have something else happen instead. A person opens the medicine cabinet to get her morning vitamins—what do you expect will happen? Have something else happen instead.

7. Focus on just one character, or on a very few characters. Especially when you have only 750 words, it’s best to keep your characters to a minimum. One protagonist, one antagonist. One of Steven Spielberg’s first movies was called Duel, and it featured just one man and a truck that seemed intent on running him off the road. Classic suspense.

8. Suspense/thrillers are not the same as horror stories, and need not be gruesome or violent or evil. On the other hand, it’s probably best not to skirt the criteria for this genre and write a sweet story about a little bird in danger of falling from the tree, or a toddler trying to get out of his crib. Those stories may have an element of suspense, but will lack the requisite mood of foreboding.

9. A suspense/thriller story may have an open ending (The Lady or the Tiger?) or a resolution of the conflict, or a cliffhanger, or a surprise ending. But I don’t recommend a surprise ending where the reader learns that the danger wasn’t real after all, or (as in #8) the thing the reader thought was menacing was actually precious.

This website has helped me quite a bit with this lesson, and if suspense is a genre that intrigues you, I recommend it for further study.

This is where I usually post a link or two to stories I’ve written for the Writing Challenge that fit the genre—but I don’t really have any for suspense/thriller. I’m going to post a link, however, to a story I wrote as “Addie Pleasance,” because it contains a few of the above elements, and it might show you how to work them into a story that still maintains a Christian world view: We’ll Be Fine. In it, the MCs are (perhaps) in danger, the unexpected happens, and they have to overcome some unknown elements and their own emotional distance to solve their dilemma. It’s not very suspenseful or thrilling, but it might be sufficiently suspenseful to give you the idea.

HOMEWORK:

Discuss the lesson, or ask a question.

If you’ve written something that fits the suspense/thriller genre, feel free to link to it. Please don’t just link, though—tell us something about your writing process.

If this is a kind of writing that you enjoy (or if you enjoy reading it), please feel free to add pointers to my lesson.
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Re: Be a Better Writer--SUSPENSE/THRILLER

Post by DustBSH » Sat Oct 25, 2014 11:17 am

Great. An exciting topic again. Thanks so much for these lessons and links. They must take you quite some time, but they are much appreciated.
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Re: Be a Better Writer--SUSPENSE/THRILLER

Post by LindseyRuby » Sat Oct 25, 2014 6:12 pm

Hi!
I feel like I missed the mark on the fantasy piece, what I did was more of suspense and thriller genre, I think.

I'm grateful for these Be a Better Writer tips. I've only been a part of FW for a few weeks and I am learning so much.
She asked me to explain why the sun rose in the morning and set at night.
I tried to explain that the idea of the sun setting and rising was just an illusion.
The sun never really rises or sets, but that it keeps shining brightly all day long.
There is more to life than what we can see.

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Re: Be a Better Writer--SUSPENSE/THRILLER

Post by glorybee » Sat Oct 25, 2014 6:20 pm

LindseyRuby wrote:Hi!
I feel like I missed the mark on the fantasy piece, what I did was more of suspense and thriller genre, I think.

I'm grateful for these Be a Better Writer tips. I've only been a part of FW for a few weeks and I am learning so much.
If it was fantasy or sci-fi with elements of suspense, you're probably still fine. Thanks for the kind words!
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Re: Be a Better Writer--SUSPENSE/THRILLER

Post by GeraldShuler » Sat Oct 25, 2014 11:07 pm

I wrote a short piece called "Tick Tock" http://www.faithwriters.com/article-det ... p?id=74976 that I think fits the guidelines for suspense. The only reason I wrote it was to see if I could get some emotional inner turmoil realistically on paper (or on the ethernet, or wherever it is we writers put our words now). I chose to have a man that had decided to murder someone deal with his thoughts about what he was about to do. He is the bad guy but I don't think he is the antagonist. The watch is the antagonist... am I correct in this conclusion?

Thank you, Jan, for these remarkably helpful classes.

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Re: Be a Better Writer--SUSPENSE/THRILLER

Post by glorybee » Sun Oct 26, 2014 12:41 pm

Gerald, this is a superb example of suspense, with a unique anti-protagonist and a unique antagonist (the watch). Thanks so much for sharing it!
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Re: Be a Better Writer--SUSPENSE/THRILLER

Post by wheelygirl58 » Sun Oct 26, 2014 10:32 pm

That story IS very good, Gerry! :bow
"And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him who are called according to His purpose." Romans 8:28 This is,another of my life verses!!

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Re: Be a Better Writer--SUSPENSE/THRILLER

Post by tomoral » Mon Oct 27, 2014 5:35 pm

Well, I did a non-fiction piece, and wish I had read this before I entered mine. It is full of suspense, but the MC was murdered. I might not get top marks for topic. :(
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Re: Be a Better Writer--SUSPENSE/THRILLER

Post by glorybee » Mon Oct 27, 2014 5:57 pm

If it's creative nonfiction (that is, nonfiction with many of the elements of fiction), it should be fine. And there's no reason why a murder at the end should make it off-topic. If it's suspenseful and thrilling, I'm sure it'll be fine.
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Re: Be a Better Writer--SUSPENSE/THRILLER

Post by Allison » Mon Oct 27, 2014 11:08 pm

I'm not sure I know how to write suspense/thriller. This is definitley one genre that is out of my element, so I'm really going to try to stretch myself and enter.

This entry is the closest I have,I think. It's more speculative fiction, maybe? But I wonder if it might also fit suspense/thriller.

Just a clarification, since I didn't make this clear enough in the story. "Father" is not the girl's father, but rather the man's title. Everyone in the community calls him "Father." And the capitalization is to show what/who "Father" thinks he is, or at least how important he thinks he is.

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Last edited by Allison on Mon Oct 27, 2014 11:13 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Be a Better Writer--SUSPENSE/THRILLER

Post by glorybee » Mon Oct 27, 2014 11:13 pm

It certainly fits many criteria of suspense fiction--the girl is in danger, and vulnerable. It lacks the time pressure element, maybe, but I wouldn't consider it off topic if I were a judge and this was in the "suspense" week.

Thanks for sharing this, Allison!
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