A Thriller Indeed

Alan OsiThe son of a civil rights activist and founders of a leading management consulting firm, Alan Osi inherited an eye for the tension between society and the soul. Raised in Arlington, MA during Reagan’s 1980s, his sensibilities were informed by his family’s dedication to social change as pioneers of the new black experience. Osi attended high school within the ivy-covered walls of Concord Academy in Concord, MA before heading south to study psychology at Morehouse College in Atlanta.

A seeker of experience and truth, he expanded his understanding of people and the world by traveling on the USS Universe Explorer with the Semester at Sea program, visiting nine countries around the world. Soon afterward, he went on to study creative writing at American University in Washington, D.C. Osi’s astute understanding of character and place has been honed both in and outside of academia, having worked gigs ranging from assisting an expert glass blower in Brooklyn to pumping gas in the Pacific northwest and managing corporate customer relations behind a desk in Cleveland, OH.

Osi has written for several papers and e-magazines, including The Real Deal, Submodern Fiction, and The Tilden House Review. Visit him on the web at AlanOsi.com.

What makes a thriller compelling? As a reader, you know it in your bones: as a writer, one eventually learns the ingredients empirically, or one realizes the need to return to business school or some other, more sensible, life path.

Foremost, writing a thriller is a question of stakes. This is the oldest advice in literature: the stakes must be high! Tension, suspense, come from the audience’s understanding of why the events told in a plot matter to the characters, what they stand to lose or gain, why they are fighting. This sounds easy enough, right? If you’re writing a thriller, make the stakes ‘saving the world.” Mirror the fears of society: if, like now, the world is struggling with terrorism, create stakes where, should your hero fail, terrorism the likes of which have never been seen will strike.

But this is too easy. We have all read books where the stakes could not be higher- evil plots world domination- but the story is boring. We have all also loved stories where the stakes were more humble- a woman fights to save her daughter from kidnappers- and the story couldn’t be more dynamic. Why?

Failure must seem real! No matter how high your ‘stakes’ seem to you, if you reader feels the ending is a foregone conclusion, they will be bored. The hero may face insurmountable odds on a battlefield, but if every bullet fired from their handgun savages enemies rocking assault rifles and grenade launchers, readers will quickly realize the deck is stacked, and lose interest. With stakes, size matters not: meaning, they can be personal, or societal. The question is how much they matter to the hero, and why, and whether the reader fears a negative outcome.

If proper tension is achieved, the plot will move. But there is another element: love. I don’t mean a “love interest,” such as the ever-present bikini-clad Bond girl, but our collective love for James Bond. Sure, he’s a murderous, drunken womanizer: but he’s OUR murderous, drunken womanizer. However, now and then, some Bond films were real stinkers. In any we didn’t love him, such as all starring Timothy Dalton (who redeemed himself in “Penny Dreadful”, let the record show), we dislike. The reason is simple: empathy. If we empathize with the hero, we will love her: her stakes become our stakes. If not, we wonder: “Why do I care?”

A seminal question, given the example I used of Dalton’s Bond films, is: why didn’t we love Dalton as Bond? I can only answer for myself: I didn’t know him. He quipped, he shot, he made out with beautiful women. But did he have a soul? I saw none. What were the stakes for him? Was he simply a robot, programmed to destroy evil?  I couldn’t tell you if he cared a whit for the world he protected.

I am not saying the hero must be a good person. They can even be total jerks, aka ‘antiheroes.’ However, there must be empathy: in its absence, apathy reigns. Goodness knows, being a jerk has rarely stopped a person from being loved by someone. The trick for the storyteller is how to create a lovable a-hole.

The last element to a good thriller is a fully rendered world. A writer may do a beautiful job of stakes for an empathetic protagonist, but a flat villain will ruin the magic spell that is every good narrative. Why? Because a poor rendering of the opposition, or supporting characters, or even the world in which the story takes places, lowers the stakes. If only the hero feels real, every audience member will know that he can’t help but succeed. What protagonist couldn’t kill a paper tiger? A villain needs real teeth, a personality, a soul. What are the stakes for this enemy?

A Hunter's MoonBut the writer cannot stop at rendering a Hero and Villain. Is the world they move through real and exciting? What are the stakes for the Villain’s henchman, or the random people caught in the conflict? These questions could not matter more. Luckily, it is quite easy to provide an example of an excellently rendered world: Hogwarts. Admit it: sometimes Harry Potter got on your nerves, and sometimes Voldemort bored you with his uni-dimensional evil. But you were hooked, you came back again and again, because you loved that school. Everyone attending had something to win or lose, magic was literally everywhere, and even rote homework was potentially deadly!
So there you have it: Alan Osi’s guide to the basic ingredients of any good Thriller. High stakes, a hero with which we can empathize, a world that feels real, populated by a fully-fleshed supporting cast. If you’re thinking this sounds easy, well, you’ve never tried. Any good story is really made up of a hundred little stories. Keeping the stakes high in every step, for example, Harry Potter’s second year final exams or Jason Bourne’s trip to the US embassy, is extremely difficult.

Luckily, there are endless ways a writer can achieve these things. The good re-use the myriad methods we have seen before, spinning them into a new arrangement. The great ones, however, find devices and/or make narrative choices no one has seen before.

When it comes to that, you know it when you see it.