Having said that, there are some things I learned about thrillers while I was writing, reading or discussing with colleagues over a beer. You can read them and meditate, but remember: your dog wants to play with you:
Ideas come from the belly, not from the brain. Sometimes you struggle to find a good idea, and when you put it onto paper, you realize it’s as cold as a dead body. Whether you are doing it to meet the readers’ or the publishers’ taste, the result is always pathetic and forgettable. Instead, find a topic which is important to you. The suffering of the main character, the reasons of the killer, must resound in your deeper parts.
Your ideas must have good legs. As maestro Haruki Murakami says, writing a novel is a marathon. Not a race. Your plot must be enough for the number of pages you have set. There is nothing worse than a thriller which, after an exciting start, stretches unnecessarily to the final ending. And no, adding twists and turns usually is not enough. If you do not have enough material for a novel, write a short story instead.
Choose the point of view carefully. In a detective story, the POV we choose determines what information the reader will receive. With the first person, much loved by the European noir, we hear and experience everything that happens to the protagonist and, at the same time, we give the reader precise information: the narrator will remain alive, except with a ‘Sixth Sense’ ending. If you need to amp up the suspense, it’s better to use the third person, alternating the good character’s and the villain’s POV. Imagine a scene with a serial killer waiting under the detective’s bed. The two slowly converging, the detecive feels something wrong, the killer prepare the axe … Ok, it’s a scene as old as time, but believe me, it still works.
Characters…are you. The first thing I learned during my years with psychoanalysis is that we are all the directors, screenwriters and actors of our dreams. If you dream of your dead grandfather warning you of a danger, it is not a message from Above, but a representation. Grandfather is you with a mask, and that’s why he is so moving. The cop, the thief, the assassin, even a judge with a wooden leg… must be you. Build them from yourselves, not from what you have read or heard. Even if you are writing the story of someone who really existed, it is your soul that will make it stand. And, talking about souls …
Look inside yourself. The real center of a thriller is not the crime, but the dark side of the human soul. You do not need to be criminologists or psychiatrists to get there, just take a walk in the suburbs of your head. We are the good guys, but we must not forget the bad twin who lives in there. A twin capable of committing the most shameful acts, even murder. Can you picture yourself losing everything? Or to be forced to kill to defend your family? If the answer is yes, you can start writing.
Use suspense and twists in the right way. In a thriller, you need both, so learn how to use them. The suspense increases the emotional temperature of a narrative line, keeps the readers glued. The twists reveals something unexpected and make you jump in the chair. If you wish to learn more about this, nothing is more effective than Alfred Hitchcock’s famous interview released in 1967 to François Truffaut, that I quote unworthily by heart. If a bomb hidden under a table explodes into a room full of people, it is a twist; if we know the bomb is hidden and we’re hoping for the protagonist to be saved, then it is suspense.
Watch out for dialogue. Dialogue in a crime story is particularly difficult because it not only has to reveal the characters, but often convey information. I have two suggestions –
Be true: Do not let your characters say anything that they would not say in real life. Nobody says “Hello Sarah, my wife, how are our two sons, Abbot and Costello?” We say, more or less: “Hello, how are the kids?”. Find another way to explain the family tree.
Be false: if you try to comb through a recording, you will realize how much of a conversation is made by interruptions and gestures (this is especially true for the Italians). You will have to synthesise, respecting the rules of the written language. My trick is to pretend that the characters are smarter than the average human being, and that they always have the ready answer. What a wonderful world it would be…
First drafts always suck. If you re-read your pages and they sound like a goldies TV show, it’s hard to resist the impulse to throw everything in the trash can. Instead, you have to remember that the first draft is designed to put your ideas in line and see what the characters are capable of. The other drafts will remove snarls and bring the writing to light. It is no coincidence that weaks spots hide themselves behind complicated and useless words. There are two schools for editing. The first one is to get to the bottom of your novel before starting it all over again; the second, less efficient, to advance only when you are satisfied with the chapter. I use the latter; don’t be like me, ok?
You have to eliminate what is not strictly necessary. There is a technical reason. In a thriller, everything is scrutinised by readers, who don’t believe in randomness but in causality. If you describe a gun in the first chapter, sooner or later that gun is expected to fire. If it disappears from the pages, it remains in the head of readers. There is also a stylistic reason. Thrillers work on subtle atmospheres, superfluous bit turn it off and suffocate it. Maybe superfluous pages are those you have rewritten twenty times or the chapter that made you spit blood, but it doesn’t matter. If without them, your novel works the same way, then you have to cut them. Mercilessly. I just cut fifty pages of my new novel – I’m still crying, but I know I did the right thing.