Thrilleresque authors Julie Compton and Carla Buckley met last July at ThrillerFest 2008 and discovered they had more in common than raising teenagers and driving carpool. Below, they continue the discussion from their May 4 post as to what makes a thriller… a thriller.
CARLA: The very first thing I did when I sold my novel (besides jumping up and down and squealing in a high-pitched voice) was to ask: What is a thriller? You know, since I’d apparently sold one. I’d heard the term, of course, and I knew it was supposed to be a really good thing to be a thriller writer, but I didn’t know exactly what distinguished a thriller from, say, a mystery. So I very casually started poking around. The first definition I got was that a mystery is when the reader doesn’t know who committed the crime until the end; a thriller is when the reader knows who the villain is from the start and reads on to find out if the protagonist will stop him (or "it," since the villain doesn't have to be human) in time. In the case of the book I’d just sold, the villain isn’t human; moreover, the reader knows before cracking open the book exactly who the villain is.
JULIE: I think the jumping up and down and high-pitched squealing is a common occurrence among women writers who learn they've sold their first novel. I wonder what the guys do?
CARLA: Rev a Camaro. Buy cigars.
JULIE: I almost guessed "smoke a cigar," too. We think alike, Carla, have you noticed that? Perhaps they emit a low-pitched growl. Anyway, because my first novel was deemed a legal thriller – and I thought I had a pretty good grasp of that term – I really didn't start investigating the difference between a mystery and a thriller until a few reviews and interviewers referred to my book as a mystery. I started wondering, is my book a mystery? Or is it a thriller? And really, what's the difference? The definitions you found at the beginning of your search were the same ones I found, yet my novel didn't fit neatly into either definition. A legal thriller is simply a different beast. We know to expect lawyers, and we know to expect some sort of showdown in the courtroom, but otherwise, there seems to be a lot of leeway in the structure. I've read legal thrillers that have a murder near the start of the story, which would suggest they are mysteries, yet I can think of others that don't have a murder at all, or, if there is a murder, it occurs later in the plot (like mine) or the characters and reader are unaware of it until later. And then there are those legal thrillers that are more akin to a pure thriller, in that the protagonist is in a race against time to stop the "villain" – yet in many of these, even, neither the characters nor the reader know who the villain is until much later in the novel. Are you following, Carla?
CARLA: Completely. It’s a brilliant analysis. You must have been a killer in the courtroom yourself.
So, shortly after I got that definition and confidently bandied it around a few discussion forums (note to newbie authors: post under pseudonyms until you know what the heck you’re talking about), an author whom I respect said, Oh, is that what you think a thriller is? Which naturally made me stop and say, it’s not? She shook her head. A thriller simply is a book that employs a ticking clock, introduced early on, to add that thrilling, non-stop element. Now you have the protagonist racing against time to stop the villain. So I thought, okay. That makes sense.
JULIE: Are you kidding? I never know what I'm talking about. If I waited until I did, I'd never get to post anything using my real name.
Okay, so let me see if I understand. Your author friend considers a thriller to be any novel that employs a "race against time" (which, of course, adds the "thrilling" aspect to the story)? But she doesn't think it's necessary to know who (or what) the villain is right off the bat?
CARLA: Exactly. Think The Da Vinci Code. That clock is ticking so loudly you can hear it from across the room.
JULIE: I think I like that way of looking at it. It allows for a broader spectrum of structures when considering what constitutes a thriller. For example, in my second novel (which is not a legal thriller – I'm sure of that, at least), my protagonist is most definitely in a race against time to save his girlfriend's life, yet he doesn't know until later whom, exactly, he's fighting against. Hmm, I wonder if this makes it a quasi-mystery?
CARLA: Eek. Do NOT throw other terms into the blender. I’m confused enough.
So now I had two definitions, but which one was right? It seemed sort of urgent that I find out. After all, I’d signed a two-book contract. Before I began writing the second one, I thought I’d better have a firm grasp of what it was I was supposed to be writing.
Accordingly, I consulted The Oracle (aka, writer's blogs) and came across yet another definition that sounded pretty good: a mystery has the welfare of one person at stake; in a thriller, many people are threatened. I breathed a huge sigh of relief, because in my book, the entire planet’s at risk.
I have such a great villain. Too bad it comes with mucus.
JULIE: Oh, but it's the mucus that makes it such a great villain!
I've also heard that definition, but I think it's too limiting. Many thrillers are based upon a threat to only one or two people. Most often the threatened are loved ones of the protagonist. Think about Harlan Coben's Tell No One.
CARLA: Glad you like the mucus. It’s hard to write good mucus.
Anyway, I know what you mean. If we narrow the scope too much, then it excludes many books that by all accounts are considered thrillers. But I still think it’s a valid observation. When you’re talking about a threat that targets more than a single person, when the welfare of a community, or even the world, hangs in the balance – well, that’s pretty thrilling. It’s definitely not a mystery in that case, right?
JULIE: Agreed. That kind of book is most definitely a thriller. But so many others can also be considered thrillers, I think, that don't fit that particular definition. The more the merrier, I say.
CARLA: And that’s exactly why I like you. You’re like a party waiting to happen. Throw the margarita mix into the blender and throw open the doors. Everyone’s welcome!
JULIE: Just like ThrillerFest!
I think what I've come to decide is that there really is no one-size-fits-all definition for the term "thriller."
CARLA: Maybe determining what constitutes a thriller doesn’t really matter to authors. We write what we write. Maybe what really matters is how the sales teams position the books they are entrusted with and where the bookstores ultimately shelve them. One of my author friends wrote a mystery which she found shelved in the romance section of her local bookstore. She was upset, because she felt her readership wouldn’t be able to find her, but then she ended up winning a RWA award that year.
But that’s a story for another post…
Julie Compton is the author of the legal thriller, TELL NO LIES (St. Martin's Minotaur 2008), which is also published in the UK, the Netherlands and Spain. Her second novel, RESCUING OLIVIA, will be released in February 2010.
Carla Buckley is the author of OUT OF THIN AIR, coming from Bantam Dell in 2010. She is currently at work on her second Bantam Dell novel, INVISIBLE. Both books will also be released in Germany and the UK.
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