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(if’n you want to be a thriller writer)
By Scott Nicholson

You’re either brave or stupid to be here. If you’re looking for the list of books for wannabe English professors, you’ve come to the wrong place. I tried to scare you away with the title, and all those in search of such brain-numbing drudgery as Moby Dick, Ulysses, and The Sound And The Fury probably haven’t even read this far.

Well, sure, Moby Dick has a great story in there, obsession and revenge and suspense. But it’s like digging a minnow from the belly of a beached and bloated whale: too much rancid blubber surrounding the real story. And the story is simply about a man going fishing.

Remember, if you want to be a writer, the story is everything. If you want to make movies, if you want to be a rock star, if you want to be a painter, the story is everything. In every creative form, ever since the first Neanderthal had to simultaneously teach and entertain her children. Ever since her mate learned from her so he could wow his furry buddies with tales of heroic exploits and sexist jokes.

So if you as a writer want to try for the eternal disdain of college literature students, grab for the literary brass ring and write dense and pointless drivel. But if you want to sell a million copies, then give them a story. And a story is, at the core, nothing more than a person with a problem.

Of course, good stories, the ones we keep returning to, are the ones that do more than that, but the character-in-conflict is the very basic element. Check my list of ten and see if this basic isn’t the bones upon which each classic thriller is constructed. There will be a test later.

(Kidding. You had enough of those in college. This is reality, and therefore more important. Here’s ten...)

This Perfect Day. A book that combines the social bite of 1984 with the adventurous pacing of Logan’s Run. I’m amazed that this one isn’t the most popular of Ira Levin’s books and has yet to become a movie. I, for one, would love to write a screenplay for it. The conflict here is simultaneously human against machine and human against the human race.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Huck in conflict, helping slave Jim run away even though Huck doesn’t think slavery in general is wrong. This is a quest-adventure story, another common element in the good stuff. It worked for Homer in The Odyssey, it works here, and it will still be working a thousand years from now.

Magic. Man against himself, maybe the greatest conflict of all. In this novel, one of the finest psychological thrillers ever penned, the conflict takes the form of a star magician versus his mannequin. We all want to believe in magic, and we all want to believe in love. Is that really so much to ask?

A Prayer For The Dying. This is about as close to "literary" as a good story can get. Told in second-person, which works for very few tales, but is absolutely the right for this one. Because before you know it, the "you" in the book becomes you the reader. This is an intense, personal story, horrifying and beautiful. The conflict here is ultimately man against God.

The Haunting of Hill House. This book is what you might call "literate suspense." You don’t even have to be a fan of ghost stories to enjoy it. The opening paragraphs are among the most delicious ever written, and any writer could do worse than studying the language and effect of those few lines.

Rebecca. Here is a character-driven plot that is of particular genius because the main character, Rebecca, never appears on-stage. In fact, Rebecca is dead. Her influence hangs over Manderley like a dark cloud throughout the book, and touches all the other characters’ motivations. This book is an example of how memories can haunt much more effectively than can ghosts.

The Killer Inside Me. Written long before intelligent serial killers became a fictional cliché. The conflict here is subtle, man against himself, but the man in question is so sociopathic that all his actions are perfectly justified, at least in his own mind. A first person that works.

Jaws. Look for symbolism if you want in this fish story. Any book that taps into a primitive fear will be a success. We like to be scared in safe places. The shark can’t get us while we’re reading in bed, though it might end up getting us in our dreams. The shark is the main character, but the supporting cast has a nice set of insecurities and personality defects to augment the main conflict.

Silence of the Lambs. Hannibal Lector is the shark with legs and human cunning. Though such a pathological genius could never exist in real life, that’s little comfort as you are swept up into this intense tale. Surrounding the basic plot, which is the search for another serial killer, we have one woman’s self-discovery as she fights for respect. Double-edged tales are always best in thriller fiction, but don’t forget that the basic story is more important than any theme you might be tempted to impose.

The Time Machine. H.G. Wells was a monster of a writer, combining elements of many genres (before genres really existed) in the same novels. Here there’s class conflict, one man’s conflict, a conflict of separate realities, and a love story. Plus some scary stuff.

Love. Fear. Hate. Murder. In short, stuff that thrills us. And keeps us reading.

-- copyright 2001 by Scott Nicholson. Contact for reprint permission.

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