My daughter Sofia, my son Ricky and I were looking at a Tumblr post. It was a map of the U.S. with the caption, “What’s Coming to Get You by State.” Some of the states had really cool monsters. The Jersey Devil. The Boo Hag. But Oregon and Washington shared Bigfoot.
Now I ask you: does Bigfoot freak you out? Do you break out in a sweat at night afraid that Bigfoot might be climbing in your bedroom window right now, ready to carry you off and eat you alive, morsel by morsel? Or do you think he’s somewhere camping with the guys, roasting s’mores and drinking brewskis?
When I read the map, I was outraged. This was the Pacific Northwest. The land of Ted Bundy. The land of the Green River Killer. The land of single boots with the feet still in them washing up on cold shores.
And the biggest, freakiest, most thrilling thing the author could come up with was Bigfoot?
After I was done snarling about how Washington and Oregon cumulatively got shafted on the monster-meter, and how any yahoo with a pen or a word processor could do better than that, I realized that it didn’t matter.
To me, and to people like me, the freakiest, most thrilling thing in the world, is the thing we don’t see.
I’ve counted. Since I used to be a runner, there’ve been at least three times I’ve been out running a trail, I’ve nearly tripped over a corpse. And in Useless Bay on Whidbey Island, you don’t even have to be a runner to trip over something dead and interesting and stinky. You just have to be out on a stroll. Which brings me to my first point about how to create thrills, and it’s simple:
Get outside your comfort zone. And look—really look—around. To start creating thrills, you just have to begin with something that’s out of the ordinary. You don’t even have to go that far. You just have to use your imagination. For example: Let’s say one day you eat your breakfast and go out to school in the morning. There’s a shoe on the sidewalk. It wasn’t there yesterday. Maybe It’s the kind your cousin Brianna wears. You call Brianna. It goes straight to voice mail. What do you do? In real life, you might just walk past the shoe. But this is your imagination. Anything is possible. Even the strange.
In your imagination, you might pick it up, wonder about it. Maybe you call your uncle and aunt to make sure your cousin’s okay. Maybe they don’t pick up either.
Maybe there’s blood on the shoe. That would really amp things up, wouldn’t it?
The important thing is that, in the beginning of your story, something goes out of whack.
Now you’ve got the most essential part of your thriller, or any story, which is a conflict. If you call your cousin and everything’s okay, and you go on to a normal day at school, there’s no story.
Once you’ve got your conflict, the next important thing for creating a thriller is:
- Be Specific–Know Your Facts
There are a lot of components that go into creating a good story, such as character and setting, and just as in any story, the thriller can’t do without those. But they’re so important, and so well documented, you can ask your English teacher and they can help you out at more length.
Instead let’s talk about something that’s important in all fiction, but especially important in thrillers, which is know your facts. In the era of Wikipedia, it’s not that hard to suss out what you need to know. But your story will have more credibility if you write, “a black bear with dreadlocks on its butt attacked me,” vs. “a bear attacked me.”
Sometimes instead of googling what you need to know, you might have to call an expert. Don’t be afraid. Most people like talking about what they do every day. Here are some things I’ve learned from the internet, reading books, or asking questions to experts directly:
- How easy it is to fire a Kalashnikov;
- Why bloodhounds need to be kept on a leash when they’re on a search;
- How to make meth;
- Why some baby black bears have dreadlocks on their butts;
- The anatomy of a spiny dogfish.
- What idiot called “Useless Bay” “Useless,” and why. Although I’m not sure why it stuck. Useless Bay is awesome.
Now that you’ve got your conflict, your characters, your facts, it’s time to get to the important part–the climax. This is the piece of the story where the main character either gets or doesn’t get what they want. The showdown. It’s especially charged in a thriller. The important part of the climax is don’t overdo the language. If you’ve done your job with the rest of the story, you don’t need excessive splatter or coeds screaming and freaking out. Just tell it straight.
Here’s an example from real life:
Years ago I taught an intermediate writing workshop in a building that leased classrooms to King County Court System. Across from us was an anger management class that started a half hour sooner than ours. When I came in that morning and got off the elevator, I found a woman holding a scratchy, washroom paper towel to a bleeding arm. I said something stupid, like, “Oh no, you have a boo-boo.”
When I got to my classroom, I found everything set up. The Starbuck’s Joe-to-Go box was in one corner along with a platter of bagels.
My students were jumpy. Something was wrong.
Gradually, their story came together. The anger management class was across the hall was showing an educational film. My students heard pieces of it, but didn’t pay any attention, until one anger management student said, “Shut up! Give it a chance!” And another responded, “You bitch!”
The door opened. One woman ran down the hall. Another came out, chasing her, and threw a knife.
The result was what I stumbled on moments earlier. The woman bleeding from the arm? That was a knife wound, not a booboo.
It was all over by the time I got there. The police were taking statements; the woman who had thrown the knife was gone. My class was unsettled. I closed the door against the hall and we all had coffee and bagels and deflated.
All except for one student, Clara. Clara was the one who had had the presence of mind to call 911. She was still shaking.
Now it was my turn. How was I going to make everyone feel safe again? I’ve always believed that you can’t create unless you feel safe.
So finally I decided to turn the incident into a writing exercise. How to approach writing about what they’d just witnessed? “We were all freaked out?”
Well, duh. Who wouldn’t be?
“We didn’t know what to do.”
Another well, duh, with the exception of Clara.
“There was blood pouring down that poor girl’s arm.” Yet another well, duh. She’d had a knife thrown at her. Of course there would be blood. Plus it was sensational.
So I stuck to what we knew. I wrote a sentence on the whiteboard with a little space for improvement, hoping my class would pick up on what I was looking for.
I wrote: “A knife was thrown by a woman in four-inch heels.”
I turned to my class. “How would you improve this sentence?”
There was a moment of silence.
Clara, still shaking, raised her hand. “They were actually five-inch heels.”
Some people tittered. Everyone relaxed. Some wanted to embellish the story.
We finally came to what everyone, including me, thought the perfect sentence was to describe the event: “A woman in five-inch heels threw a knife.”
Notice what isn’t in there, like splatter, or fear. That’s left to the reader. The rest can be inferred.
In a thriller story, this could be the climax, where the big thrills happen. If you’ve done your job through the rest of the story, this part should tell itself. You should already have:
- A conflict at the beginning. Something that’s not quite right.
- Well-rounded characters (talk to your teacher about this)
- Credible, researched, specific facts. (Five-inch heels, not four.)
The most important thing you can do at the climax is to tell it straight. No extra splatter. No shrieking co-eds. If you’ve done your job in the rest of the story, writing the climax should be easy enough. Tell them about the woman in five-inch heels, and how she threw the knife, and, since we use our imaginations, what happens when the police caught up with her. I like to think they were polite but firm, even as they drew their weapons and onlookers crouched behind gray desks.
There’s one last thing I wanted to point out about my class across the hall from the stabbing, which is that when my students left, they weren’t shaking any more.
For those of you who have gone through something truly horrible, I don’t want to belittle your experience. I do want to urge you to tell your story, because sometimes storytelling has the power to transform the traumatic to something you can deal with over coffee.
It’s not hard to get started. Find a safe place to write, or a safe person to talk to. Then just tell it. Straight on.
And screw Bigfoot. He’s got nothing on us.