Monday, May 28, 2012

Wordcraft -- James Rollins on writing thrillers

Surprisingly affable for a guy whose bestselling thrillers rack up astounding body counts, James Rollins divulged his writing secrets not only to me, but to everybody at the recent DFW Writers’ Conference. I didn’t even have to threaten to reveal his hidden identity.

“I’m going to give you very practical tips that will sound cheesy,” he told the audience at his “Putting the Thrill in Your Thriller” seminar. Cheesy or not, they apply even if you’re not writing a thriller that, like his most recent, The Devil Colony, involves exploding a monstrous volcano beneath one of America’s favorite tourist destinations.

The first tip -- have an idea. But how will we know if it’s a good idea? “If you can describe your story in less than twenty-five words, you’ve probably got a pretty good story. The less words you can use to describe the story, the stronger it is.” His favorite was a two-word pitch he once heard: Jurassic Shark. (Sorry, it’s already taken.)

And have a market or platform in mind. Make it something of universal interest. As mentioned a couple of paragraphs above, the end of the world as we know it usually gets people’s attention.

Oh, and you’ll need a main character. Make that character bigger than life, using Rollins’ definition: someone who “does or says something we wouldn’t do or say.” It doesn’t have to be earth-shattering. His example was the character James Stewart played in the 1956 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much, a bumbling tourist who witnesses a shooting. The police tell him to move along. He doesn’t.

Ready to start writing? Not so fast. “There’s no thrill in that thriller if you don’t establish sympathy.” And Rollins went through a list of sympathy-inducing characteristics. Just don’t lavish all of these on a single person.

The first sympathetic characteristic -- expertise (especially helpful with otherwise unlikable characters); followed by, a sense of humor; kindness to those less powerful
(bonus points if the main character is kind to kids, the elderly or animals -- cheesy, maybe, but true); undeserved misfortune; being an underdog; or having the sympathy, respect or affection of other characters.

You’ll also need a setting for your book. “For thrillers, as a general rule, you‘re looking for an exotic location.”

But Rollins’ definition of exotic is taking readers “someplace they’ve never been” -- as simple as going through that door marked “employees only,” or wherever else will drop readers down a rabbit hole into an unknown world.

(Next Monday -- Rollins continues with a discussion of the all-important antagonist, openings, and the difference between surprise and suspense. Oh -- and his hidden identity? Maybe not so hidden, since you can find his legal name, James Czajkowski, on the copyright pages of his books.  To contact him, or read his own blog, see )

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