Tuesday, May 29, 2012

DFWCON 2012: Thrillers Part 2

If you missed the first part of my notes from James Rollins' lecture on "Putting the Thrill in Your Thriller", fear not, just click here.


Surprise and suspense are the key components to a thriller.  While these elements are interchangeable, they are practically opposites.

The explosion from a car bomb, that ghastly figure that walks in front of the camera, or an ear-splitting shriek that tears the tender fabrics of previous silence.  Each of these, properly timed, have the innate ability to leave the audience leaping out of their skin.

Outside of television and radio, these must be handled more delicately and, in some cases, more sparingly.  Moments of surprise are those clever 'WTF' moments that leave you blinking, then rushing back to the previous line and scanning it back and forth because you're certain you read it wrong.

While surprise comes out of nowhere, suspense if a dragging sensation that, much like an avalanche, increases over time.  When you know the bomb is nearby and ticking, the kids are in the dark woods with no awareness of the killer, or somebody's watching feet pace back and forth in front of their hiding spot while attempting to control their breathing, this is when suspense is running the show.

As James pointed out, both of them are necessary in a thriller.  People need the jump.  People need the nail-biting.  People need the thrill that follows.  The important thing to keep in mind is when and where to use which one.  Tongue twisted?  Good.


There's a reason why roller coasters always move so slowly to the top of the hill.  Sure there's safety precautions in there somewhere, but mostly it's all about the build-up.  Once that top has been crested and the people in front are staring down some ridiculous drop, the cars come to an almost stop, suspending the spectators from the inevitable plummet that awaits them.  This can't go on forever, naturally, and they're soon rewarded with the expectations their adrenaline has been building to.

Establishing suspense and dragging it out for too long is asking for a bored audience.  A fish will only chase a worm for so long, and that literary adrenaline will only flow for so many pages before the reader finds the perfect cozy spot for a bookmark.

This isn't to say that it's all Wam-Bam-ThankYouMrRollins.  A few shock-spots here and there will work wonders, but remember that the audience needs a break.  As James put, having an intense, 20 page boat chase can be pretty thrilling.  By about thirty pages, the reader is bored.  By page 50, they're really hoping somebody will die soon, and they're not choosing sides anymore.  Be sure to establish the breaks and vary the thrill-styles.


Closing up this session from the lecture is James' words on word count.  Aside from the ideas that readers don't like to wait, therefore it's cruel to leave all 'thrills' out for the first 100 pages or so, word choices play a big hand in scene impact.

In these moments, over-explaining a moment will break-up the fast-flow and kill it.  It's like taking the time to explain a joke.  If nobody laughed the first time around, it wasn't funny to begin with.  The best way to make a scene memorable is to use only a few high-impact words to get the point across.

That's it for this week guys.  Apparently I had more notes than I thought.  Stay tuned for the third and final segment of James Rollins' "How to Put Thrill in Your Thriller" next Tuesday night!

Also, the clock's ticking and there's only a little bit more time to snag tickets for DFWCON 2013 at a bargain discount rate!  Go here for details.

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