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Author: Sarah Dunant
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Ian McMillan's Writing Lab interviews: Sarah Dunant on... writing a thriller

Updated Friday, 9th February 2007
Sarah Dunant talks about the tricks of plotting a taut thriller, in the last of our series of in-depth interviews with the guests from Ian McMillan's Writing Lab

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Actually, I think the plot is really important to any writer wanting to write anything since, if you think about it, the whole definition of plot is it's something that you don't necessarily know, that is going to be revealed by reading a book; and that seems to me to be one of the key mechanics of why people read in order to find out something.

So there's a secret, or there's a kind of McGuffin, as Hitchcock used to call it, that you needed to discover the answer to and that's what keeps you reading. So plot is absolutely central to a thriller. But I suppose by plot, I don't mean just "somebody's dead and we don't know who did it and we don't know why", I think it means something bigger than that, I think it means that the book may be about an issue in which somebody dies but there's a reason for it.

So when I was writing private eye novels, yes, there were murders: but in one case, they took place in a health farm because it was partly a novel about how far people were willing to go to become beautiful and the notion of cosmetic surgery. Or another one was a young pregnant woman and the story was actually about surrogacy and the kind of morality behind surrogacy. Or it was a scientist who'd been working on animals, and it was a plot about animal rights. So in that respect I think what I'm saying is that the plot has to be exciting, because there's something you don't know that you need to discover, but it also has to have some weight about it rather than just "oh, that's who did it and that's why".

I mean, there are writers who just do whodunits, and you don't know who did it, and in the end you do. But in some way that's such an old fashioned device now, and if there's one thing that we know living in the world we do, it's a rather complex world in which notions of good and bad shade into one another, and politics and government and NGOs and multinationals.... It's a very rich world for thriller writers out there are the moment because nothing is black and white, it's all grey. And that's a great place to place your thriller but it means you have to do some work and some research. So research is a key factor, I think, in creating a good complex thriller.

There's loads of stuff for me that never makes it into the plot because in order to feel confident, both about the people I'm writing about and the issues I'm writing about, I need to have done a lot of research. So if I'm writing a plot around the whole relationship between scientific experiments and animal rights, I will have read a huge amount so I can at any point pull on that. But if I overload the information, sometimes I can't get the aeroplane off the ground. That's the other thing. Too many facts and there's not enough excitement. Too few facts and there's not enough kind of balance, there's not enough seriousness.

There are two classic pitfalls that I can think of straightaway. One is that your plot is too simple, i.e., that the reader gets it or is bored by it too quickly. But equally the other danger is that your plot is far too complicated and that there is just too much information coming to you from all sides, so although the reader might like to be involved, they start to get confused. So somewhere along the line you have to actually tread between those two extremes, not too simple but not too complex.

I never know the whole series of answers to all the questions when I start, and this is because - and it sounds very scary but I think it's really important - when the writer knows everything before they start writing, there's no sense of discovery in the process of writing. I think unless you can surprise yourself sometimes by what you learn while you're writing, about character or an issue or how far somebody's willing to go to do something, or what somebody will do if the right or wrong pressures are put upon them, if you don't surprise yourself, you're really not going to be able to surprise the reader.

So, in some way, the trick is to start a thriller when you know enough to know that, in a sense, you can get it off with a bang. I liken it to driving the car at night along a road where there's no lights. So your headlights, although it's very dark, throw maybe a hundred yards of light in front of you. So you drive the hundred yards, and by the time you've got into the rhythm of driving, your headlights are actually throwing another hundred yards in front of you. And I think writing's sometimes like that, that if you knew the whole journey, there'd be no surprises, but you absolutely have to know some of it or you're going to get lost very quickly.

You're never going to know if a thriller works until it's finished because you're never going to understand whether or not the ways you've kept things hidden, and then the drip, drip feed of how you've given the information that the reader needs - both to feel tense but also to begin to get some glimmer of understanding, because those two things have to go hand in hand... You'll never know if you've going to have done that until you've finished it. And, of course, the real problem is you're probably never going to know it at all, because you know every word of the book by the time you finish it, which is why thrillers, almost more than any other genre of writing, need a clean, clear eye of not just your best friend, but somebody who's really willing to tell you the truth when they've finished. Because that person will be the first person to get all of the information for the first time, and they will be able to tell you, if not what's wrong with the book, then where they got confused, or where they got lost or where it moved too fast or where it moved too slowly. You will never be that reader yourself because you know it too well.

Any plot is going to have to have a number of facts that the reader is going to have to learn in order for the puzzle to make sense. And so it's partly about the speed with which you drop facts into a plot. So it's the tension between action which keeps people wanting to read because they're interested in tense and facts which they have to absorb in order to work out the crossword puzzle. And so sometimes, it's quite helpful if you do know the major arc of your story, to think about how, in which particular scene, one piece of information could or couldn't drop in, i.e. the puzzle, the sort of the jigsaw puzzle has to be fully complete by the end of it. Do you have to put the end pieces in first; do you colour one bit of the picture in first, and that's a decision that you do have to make. You might get it wrong but you have to have made it in the first place. It's all trial and error. And if this is the first time you're doing it, the really good news is it's really okay to fail at it because you're not going to learn how to do it except sometimes by making mistakes.

The classic method of exaggerating suspense, and it's a method that thriller writers have used [since] time immemorial, it's absolutely built into the form, is what's called the cliffhanger, it's the end of the chapter. And this originated when thrillers, and indeed novels, were only written in segments in magazines. So that last bit of the instalment had to grab you because you had to buy the magazine the next week to find out about it. And the most obvious example of it at the moment on the book stalls is still the Da Vinci Code where almost every chapter ends with an "err, oh my God what if...!"

But the basic building blocks of it are very simple. He was walking down a dark corridor at the end of which there was a door. He felt for the handle and pushed it open and inside there was a child. Bad end to a chapter. Good end to a chapter: He was walking down a dark corridor at the end of which was a door. He felt for the handle and pushed it open and then he saw it. Next chapter begins She was small and in the corner and crying, he couldn't work out what age she was at first because he couldn't see her properly. You see the difference. Now, do it too many times and it becomes a formula and people get inured to it; do it just occasionally and it's a real way of kind of moving the temperature up and jumping you from one page and one chapter into the next.

Thrillers are very sophisticated now, and thriller readers are very sophisticated, and that's partly because film thrillers are also so sophisticated - time moving backwards, forwards, every which way - so it's very hard to get away with a plot that doesn't pull the rug from underneath your feet a number of times on your journey. To mix my metaphors (which you shouldn't do in a good thriller), you therefore to do that need some red herrings. I think the trick is that each time you deliver a herring or you pull the rug, that that little journey that you make is in itself satisfying because once again, a bit like the cliffhanger every time, if you do it too much, people get angry because they start to see the mechanics underneath what they're reading. And it seems to me the great trick of writing is, although there may be a technique involved, it's so smooth and it's so effortless that you're not hearing the clunks and the bangs. In a sense the audience is waiting for the next double cross.

There's not a lot you can do. I'll give an example from a film rather than a book, actually, here which is that the best thrillers, it seems to me, when they do deliver the double cross or the triple cross, it's not always just about plot, that some of it is also emotion. There's a great film by Roman Polanski - now quite a classic - called Chinatown in which at the end, you realise that a whole series of things have happened which looked like forms of corruption because of an incident of abuse in a family that took place fifty years before. So everything in the plot looks like a multinational thriller, until you get to this one personal emotional moment on which the end of the plot revolves. So that's also a nice thing to do, to imagine that as well as it being about something, it's also about someone. The journey shouldn't just be a journey of the intellect, of working out a crossword puzzle, it should also be the journey of a character and you, through the character and how they feel and how the discovery of what they're discovering makes them feel.

I think character and plot are essential. Thrillers are very often narrated by first person, detectives, private eye or whatever. And what happens to that first person and how that first person is made to feel about what they discover, about the obstacles put in their way, about the violence that they may well be confronted with, is as important to the story as what they're actually discovering. Because if it's just plot, it's just a crossword puzzle, and when you finished one, all you want to do is to go on to the next. Whereas, if it's a plot which also resonates with you emotionally, where somebody has got hurt or suffered, and I don't just mean physically, but has had an emotional journey, then when you put the book down, it just stays with you for that little bit longer. That, for me, is a successful thriller.

Point of view is absolutely crucial insofar as, if it's the first person (when I got in, there was a telephone message and it said Mrs so and so was coming to see me about her lost daughter) - then, unless your narrator is being deliberately deceitful, everything he or she learns or sees, they will do at the same time as the reader learns or sees it. So the reader is that first person, they are the private eye, they are the detective and at the same pace, they go through the story, which also means of course that sometimes they pick up the same red herrings because the first person narrative is saying "oh and I really understood then that this was the case". Well, so you understand that it's the case - until you discover that it isn't.

So it's a very effective way of bringing in red herrings, it's a very effective way of having distractions. And also, I think it's very nice for the reader because the reader is then always pitting themselves against the "I" person. And sometimes people will say to you "oh, I read that, but I got it before him, you know, I got it at the end of chapter seven". The best thing is when they go "I got it at the end of chapter seven, but then of course, it wasn't it, was it, at the end of chapter nine so I had to wait until chapter eleven". But they're invested, they've got something invested in following with that character and that's what's important.

I've only ever chosen third point of view once, when somebody was being stalked in a house and I didn't want them to know what was happening. And in that case, it was more important for me to keep a sense of mystery going on than it was to keep a sense of the thriller and where atmosphere was extremely important. But for the most part, I think, thrillers rely more heavily on first person narratives than a lot of other fiction.

I think you have to be very good at two things to be a thriller writer. You have to be very good at the complex plot. You have to enjoy plotting, you have to enjoy making it hard to peel the layers off the onion, that has to give you pleasure. And secondly, you have to be a really good writer but - and here's the catch - not to elaborate a writer. If your dream is to write beautiful, long, perfectly crafted poetic languorous prose, you're in the wrong business of writing thrillers because by definition, the prose in a thriller needs to keep the reader a little bit jumpy. It needs to work as fuelling adrenalin, and languorous poetic prose is not about adrenalin.

The master of this - and it's no surprise that he's one of the great foundation stones of thriller and crime writing - is Raymond Chandler. Now, Chandler was a fantastically good writer, but his prose was punchy rather than languorous. He would use one image rather than seven. And he would also be able to paint very quickly a scene. Thrillers will be lots and lots and lots of different scenes and places, and a bit like a camera moving in and taking a pan shot, you need to establish quickly. You're not a painter. Every little brush stroke is not what's important here. You have to get somebody in fast. So there's a great opening to one of the Raymond Chandler books where he describes a real hood sitting a bar and he says "Moose Malloy" - and I hope I get the words right - "was sitting on the bar stool like a tarantula on a piece of angel cake". And it's a very arresting image, it's very short, it's very visual and then you're onto the next.

If it's humanly possible at the end of any day writing, always begin the next thought or the next chapter. Always propel yourself forward because, by then, you have warmed up and your muscles for writing are working. Every morning when you come to that screen, cold, it is hard to start. And even if you have four or five sentences that are propelling you into the next chapter or the next thought or the next bit of the plot, you have something to work on. It's much less lonely that way.

Technically, it ought to be possible to write a really good thriller without resorting to violence. Thrilling somebody is about keeping them on edge, keeping them in a state of tension. It's about adrenalin. And adrenalin is as much about threat as it is the delivery of threat. In reality, thrillers have become more and more violent over the years, and I suppose the important thing to say then is, if you are a writer who wants to write thrillers, you have to think about violence. First of all, you have to think about your own attitude to violence, how queasy does it make you, how much do you enjoy it, is it the kind of thing you love when you read or watch? How realistic do you want it to be? It's very easy to do violence which is almost slap bang violence but is that emotionally truthful.

It looks very easy writing a thriller because there are so many of them on the bookshelves and they seem so successful. But if you want to do them truthfully, with your heart as well as your head, if you want to do them in a way where you can't answer the questions that you want to pose until you've written the book, then I think they take at least as much work, if not more, than writing a regular novel. Because they need all the same ingredients of a good novel, they make you want to read on, they're well written, they've got rounded characters, they stay with you a little bit after the last page, and yet you can have all of those things and not a good thriller unless you have a fantastically compulsive plot.

So, all in all, thrillers are much harder to write than any other kind of book. Good luck!


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