Tuesday, May 22, 2012

DFWCON 2012: Thrillers Part 1

I recently learned that one of the hardest things to deal with while attending a writer's conference is not, in fact, pitch sessions or networking... but rather deciding which classes to attend.  With over fifty classes spread out across ten time slots, narrowing it down to best maximize your time is a daunting task.  Or at least it was for me.

For this reason, I would like to share some of my DFW Writing Conference class experiences with my fellow writers, especially those who had to miss out on the classes at the convention for one reason or another.

First on the list was a class taught by New York Times Bestselling Author James Rollins, 'Putting the Thrill in Thriller'.  I'll be honest, by the end of this one class, I felt like I got my money's worth for the whole shabang.

James Rollins, best known for his Sygma Force series as well as his young adult Jake Ransom novels, is not only a talented writer of thrillers, but also a genuinely down to earth guy and amazing speaker.  Before I get too deep into thumbing through my notes, let me go ahead and say that if you ever have an opportunity to take a class or weekly seminar with James Rollins, DO IT!  Thank me later.



Seriously it seems like this goes without saying.  Indiana Jones wouldn't have been half as exciting if it starred Ernest.  Not saying Jim Varney wouldn't have made an epic movie... cuz he would've, but for all different reasons.

I've never heard anybody describe what makes an over-the-top character better than James Rollins did: "What makes a person bigger than life is an ordinary man who does or says something that you wouldn't say or do."

The guy who stops when he finds a homeless guy collapsed on the side of the road, or runs up the stairs when he should be running out the back door (It's not just a great way to get killed in a cliche horror movie!)  They're the ones we cheer when they win and suffer with as they experience tragedy.

And why do we sympathize with them?  Because they possess at least one of 7 vital components:

  1. They demonstrate that they're very good at what they do (example: Dr. Gregory House)
  2. They're funny or humorous - which elicits a hormonal response 
  3. They show kindness - Selfless acts of kindness are 'magical' in this day and age
  4. Extension of #3 - they show kindness to kids, elderly or animals
  5. Undeserved misfortune - Stream of bad luck or a Cinderella complex
  6. Have other characters express affection (everybody likes somebody liked)
  7. Under dog... honestly, who DOESN'T love under dogs?  Besides bullies and villains...
While you probably shouldn't use ALL of these... character should be believable after all, at least one of these should be demonstrated within the first five pages of your book. If your audience doesn't find some attachment to your character, they have no reason to tag along on the adventures.


 While sure this actually includes 'exotic locations', what James Rollins was referring to also included beyond the "Employees Only" sign, the roof access of a building or that place where old buses go to die.  You don't have to show them the Sahara Desert or take them to Atlantis or a space station to give them something new, just the thrill of stepping beyond the red tape is enough.

Make it real, take them there.


All thrills start with a need or a want.  Every protagonist needs some goal, something to reach towards, otherwise they're just stumbling blindly and, frankly, come off as powerless characters (major turn-off, dude)

Antagonists are born, not created.  Also, they're not really a challenge unless they're smarter, more resourceful, and have a wider influence than the protagonist.  Winning should seem impossible save for that one EUREKA moment that pulls some hero ass from the fire just as the seat of his pants begin to smolder and ash.  As for the personality of the antagonist: they're real people (or creatures) with real emotions, real goals, and rationalization.  Nobody's evil for the sake of being evil - they need intention... motive... skewed or otherwise...  The best writers in the world will have the reader almost as attached to the antagonist as the protagonist.  To quote James Rollins - "If during the antagonists death scene you make your reader cry, you've written a great book."

So what keeps readers from rooting for the bad guys?  ANTI-SYMPATHETIC QUALITIES.  

Honestly, I'd list them out, but they're the same as I listed before, just backwards.

And this is where I'm going to end part 1.  Mostly because this is getting too long.  Tune in NEXT TUESDAY at 9pm Central for the next part.

And just so you know, tickets for the NEXT DFW Writer's Conference are on sale at the bargain price of $225 a ticket up through May 31st!  Get yours now!

1 comment:

  1. You did an excellent synopsis of James Rollins lecture, because he certainly utilizes these in his books. Thanks for posting your experience.