Learning from ThrillerFest 2011 – Part III
In my previous posts about ThrillerFest in New York City in early July, I have described CraftFest, AgentFest, and an overview of the general learning that I received at ThrillerFest. This week, I continue with the specific elements of that learning.
There were a total of 43 sessions at ThrillerFest, not including those at the initial CraftFest, which is really for novice writers, like me, leading up to AgentFest. The 43 sessions typically included a moderator and 4-5 panelists, so that the aggregate number of thriller writers presenting was in the ballpark of 200+. Both the moderators and panel members were full ITW members and accomplished thriller writers. A complete listing of the programs can be found on the ThrillerFest blog. Each of the sessions was taped and the list can be reviewed, and the tapes acquired. www.vwtapes.com
I am an attentive student when I need and want to learn. I attended at least one class in each session. As with any type of learning process, the critical element is to derive from the general discussions the points that are salient for one’s own work. My list, which I will pout to work in the re-write of Dust Scenario, follow:
1. Stage: Create an imaginary world and draw the reader into it.
a. Limit the number of characters to those needed to tell the story.
b. Make a promise (on the first page, the “hook”), then provide the payoff.
c. Pointless rabbit holes are distracting and frustrating.
2. Experience: The stakes must be intense, which is magnified by danger, anxiety (will the characters we identify with survive?), or mystery (there should also be a central mystery that has to be solved, even in thrillers).
a. Reader must be invested.
3. Research: Makes the author confident to tell the story. But research is backstory. No more than 5% of research is in the book itself. Thrillers are about entertaining, not informing.
a. Accuracy of geographic or other references or other details must balance the otherwise implausibility of the story.
4. Setting: Scenes should be described shortly (5-6 sentences).
a. Describe the details through the eyes of the characters. Keep the details in context. The description of something may be more powerful than the dry facts. Remember the intensity of James Bond seeing his new weapons in each movie at early point, knowing that they would be put to use later?
c. To keep the details from become boring, relate them to the inner-life of the characters.
5. Plot: Pacing is about exhileration, escalation continuously building:
50% of the book: Mystery/suspense should be – investigation of a puzzle (who, what, when, why, and so on). Questions make a reader think and empathize (“What would I do?”).
80%: Impending danger and threat to characters (“how will they get out of this mess?”). Pressure of the clock winding down.
Show the pre and post-elements of the scene.
Point of view shift can show impending danger to characters.
100%: Escape threat or solve the puzzle.
a. Draw each scene on a large board, then outline what will happen, page by page.
b. Be careful of transitions, which are generally wasted words and terminal to pacing. In a movie, there is just a cut at the end of scene. The viewer follows right along, anticipating or catching up.
c. Relentless action is tedious. Readers want more promises derived from the sense of impending action, than the actual event, especially if it is violent. Repetition is the enemy of escalation.
d. Break up action with change of pace. Conversation can be an effective interlude.
e. Questions make the reader think.
f. Climax should be unexpected and inevitable. Reader: “why didn’t I think of that?”
g. Fixing plot problems:
(1) Add emotion, suprises, or twists.
(2) What would the character naturally do here?
(3) Eliminate repetition.
(4) Escalate the action (make things worse).
6. Characterization: Intensify emotions relating to the important characters by surrounding them with family or people that generate intensity in the characters. Character is revealed by interactions.
a. What does the character want? What is she concerned about.
b. Series characters are, by nature, lonely, as their love interests are constantly being killed. Imagine Jason Bourne. Vulnerability can fill this void. For example, Superman could be brought down by Kryptonite; and Lisbeth Salander was subjected to immense abuse until she had no control.
c. Role of sex. Readers want to see the characters be happy. Sex is the ultimate happiness. But romance is not smooth in real life.
(1) Sex is about emotional engagement, not bodily fluids.
(2) Sex in the story can kill suspense about what will have to the participants.
d. Emotion is conveyed with feelings and instincts – hearing, seeing, touching, smelling, tasting, and so on).
7. Backstory: the data dump of amateurs. File the details where they belong, outside the manuscript. See Point # 3 above.
8. Edit, Edit, Edit: Every excess word must go, don’t stop.
Now, let’s see if I can put that learning to write and become a ThrillerFest panelist in the future.