Like all fiction, a thriller starts with story and character. To broadly paraphrase Henry James* (an unlikely source for thriller wisdom) “Characters drive the story; the story reveals the characters.” This tight fusion between story and character is especially important in a thriller.
But what kind of story? What kind of character? I’ll concentrate on the noir thriller here, since that’s where my heart is. Thriller or no, a noir novel will feature the moody thoughts and bleak outlook of a damaged soul. Beyond mood, noir most often includes five essentials:
- a crime or crimes—often murder
- an obsession—revenge, drugs, a McGuffin
- fatalism—a sense of impending doom, knowing there will be terrible consequences
- perversity—usually amour fou, mad desire
- betrayal—lurking in every plot twist, from everybody the protagonist trusts
The noir thriller—like all others—must have escalating stakes and make copious use of the ratchet-wheel of suspense. Without these elements, pages will not get turned, and the story will not be read—at least not by thriller lovers. Elmore Leonard totally nailed the concept, “I try to leave out the parts readers skip.”
Anyway, that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.
*(what ol’ Henry really said was, “What is character but the determination of incident? What is incident but the illustration of character?”)