Thrills & Chills

on June 21, 2012

I’m preparing for my RWA workshop: Thrills & Chills. Writing Romantic Suspense and Thrillers. Normally, I don’t do a lot of preparation for workshops because I only give a few of them, and I’ve given them multiple times so I can practically do it in my sleep. However, T&C is new. I presented it at the Arizona Dreams RWA conference and realized I had far too much information to share in a one hour time slot. So I’m focusing on the one thing that truly separates suspense from all other genres: stakes.

There are three things that work in tandem to create a good thriller: character, pacing and stakes. As our own Toni McGee Causey has often said, “Story = Character + Conflict.” I need to touch upon character (and some character pitfalls to avoid), and definitely need to discuss pacing (essential to a thriller, so I will spend a bit more time on this), but because I’m limited to a one hour workshop, I want to focus on stakes.

Stakes are different in suspense novels because there is someone at risk. It may be as localized as a psychological thriller where there’s only one person truly in jeopardy (usually the hero or someone she cares about), or a broad thriller where innocent people are at risk. Since crime thrillers are the easiest to analyze and extrapolate into other types of thrillers, and because I write them, I’ll be dissecting the stakes of key movies and television shows.

Right now, I’m analyzing season one of NCIS — it’s one of the best paced television shows out there. I’m identifying the core story, the midpoint, and what’s at stake. Stakes here vary in every episode, from “small” (i.e. preventing someone from getting away with murder–there’s no threat to anyone else) to “huge” (i.e. stopping a terrorist attack.) Because this is all done in 44 minutes, the pacing needs to be perfect, and the stakes need to be clear.

For example, in “YANKEE WHITE,” Season One, Episode One, the viewer knows nothing about the characters or even much about the show. The set-up: we’re on Air Force One and the Naval Officer assigned to the President dies after having lunch with the President. Immediate high stakes: is the POTUS in danger? At the midpoint, after a lot of investigation and work (and planting of clues that are important at the climax), a critical thing happens: NCIS manipulates the FBI and Secret Service and gets the body and the physical evidence. This raises the stakes because IF they don’t solve the case (which many people think is natural), the President could die. Without this key evidence, they wouldn’t have been able to solve the case. The midpoint in ALL shows and books is a critical juncture that clearly identifies the stakes and problems. The midpoint usually gives the hero a different direction to pursue (hope) or reveals that he was wrong all along (despair.) The midpoint often reveals key character: for example, in the above, Gibbs asks Kate (then a secret service agent assigned to the president) if she’ll stall when Air Force One lands so he and his team can take possession of the body. She says no, she won’t defy a direct order. She says she’s sorry, and Gibbs says, “Never say you’re sorry.” This is such a key character trait and important for the series, as well as what Gibbs was actually doing.

In movies and novels, there is a bit more room to move around and create escalating stakes. In writing STOLEN, I have three layers of stakes, and it’s only the first that my hero knows about. When one is solved, a new threat is revealed. I also realized last night while I was writing that there was a ticking clock — another great pacing trick for thrillers.

I’m also using LAW & ORDER: SVU, GRIMM, CASTLE, JUSTIFIED, SHERLOCK, LUTHER, SUPERNATURAL and BONES. Yes, far too much for a one-hour workshop which is why I’m putting all this in a handout. I rarely do handouts, but I felt after the Arizona conference, that a lot of what I wanted to share could be read by attendees after the workshop, and therefore I spent too much time on examples and not enough time on solving story problems.

For movies, I need to focus on what people have most likely seen that best illustrate what I’m trying to show. THE MATRIX is a great example, and one of my favorite hero’s journey movies. THE AVENGERS, FINDING NEMO, THE DEPARTED, STAR WARS, DIE HARD, NORTH BY NORTHWEST and THE MALTESE FALCON. (FINDING NEMO is a thriller in many ways–a father looking for his missing son. Good thriller material!)

NORTH BY NORTHWEST and DIE HARD are two good examples of how to incorporate a romance into a fast-paced thriller. And CASTLE and BONES are clearly romantic suspense more than straight thriller, so those need to be analyzed as well. (Just don’t get me started on how they screwed up the relationship in BONES! Argh!)

To effectively do this, I need to re-watch all these movies … what a hardship!

What movies do you think are great examples of escalating stakes and all-is-lost moments? Or, what movie are you most looking forward to seeing? (I already saw THE AVENGERS twice — FABULOUS movie. And I’m looking forward to the 2013 Prequel to MONSTERS, INC!)