View Full Version : Keeping an overview

04-16-2006, 09:44 PM
I am a novice thriller writer, and one of the many things that is taxing my brain at the moment is information management. What I mean is, obviously I want to have questions running through the story, and some will get answered and then others raised - but there's a difference between the reader having a question in mind as they read on, and them being totally confused about what on earth is happening. I find it hard to see the writing with a reader's eye, because I have the god's eye view on it all. So I find it hard to judge if what I'm writing makes enough sense, but raises questions.

I have started a system, using a simple table, to track information contained in the text. I have a column for 'scene/events', then another column for 'key information released to the reader in the scene', then another for 'reader's likely sense-making/key question'. This system seems OK, but feels a bit cumbersome, and I also feel like I'm reinventing the wheel.

Does anyone know of a good method for handling this issue? Does everyone feel the same about this issue? Hope you can help.

Linda Adams
04-16-2006, 10:24 PM
Setting up thrillers can be very challenging. The stories can lean towards overly complex, particularly if the reader and the characters don't get all the information they need to know. Some things that may help:

1. In a thriller, it isn't always necessary to keep information from the reader. It's one thing to keep the identity of a murderer a secret in a mystery; it's another thing entirely to reveal that Joe Smith is a dangerous villain and two chapters later, the reader is gripping their chair because the heroine is getting ready to meet with him, knowing Joe plans to kidnap her. So you may want to think about whether there are places where you can actually tell the reader without telling the hero.

2. If it's an important question for the plot, make it obvious and hit it several times in different places and in different ways. If it's too subtle, the reader will miss it and then become confused later on. You don't want someone reading on a bus with all kinds of distractions going around them to miss a crucial plot element because it was too subtle.

3. Make sure you know what the stakes of your story are and that they fit the payoff at the end. I'm in a thriller writer critique group, and everyone really struggles with this. It is very difficult to do. But if you have the stakes down, it makes it a lot easier to pick and choose what elements you need for the chapters.

4. No unfired cats. If you pose a question, answer it--and don't make the reader wait too long before you do. If you don't answer it, readdress it, add to it, do something with it. I read one book where the writer unfairly left information out. The chapter ended with something like, "I stared into the room, stunned at what I saw." Ten chapters later, she explained it. By then, I had forgotten it, and the scene certainly had lost its impact.

I don't do anything like spreadsheets. I do pay a lot of attention to how the story is set up and to the stakes. If those two aren't working properly, it makes it very hard to untangle all the questions and clues. On our first go-round, the setup and stakes didn't work, and we spent a lot of time mired in extra details and elements because we were shoring up what wasn't working.

The best suggestion I can give you is try different methods until you find something that you feel works best for you.

04-17-2006, 01:13 AM
Thanks Linda, that is really helpful. I do have some trouble with grasping how much the reader can know whilst still maintaining the tension. I know it's not like a whodunnit, but I guess to some extent I'm still trying to string the information out a bit like a whodunnit, and maybe I'm making my life harder than it needs to be. You've given me plenty to think about.

By the way, I get the point you're making, but what on earth is an 'unfired cat'?

Thanks, Deborah.

Linda Adams
04-17-2006, 01:40 AM
It comes from an article in The Writer. Basically, if you put something in the book and give it any level of importance, the reader will expect that it's important to the story and will be used somehow. If you have a cat in the story, the reader will expect the cat to be important somehow. If you have a gun on the counter, the reader will expect someone to use the gun. If it never gets used and leaves the reader wondering why it was there in the first place, it becomes, as the article called it, "an unfired cat."

04-17-2006, 08:44 AM
I'll second all of Linda's excellent points, and add one.

One of the problems of thriller research is that you develop too much information, and you at first feel the need to unload all this stuff on the reader. I wrote a thriller with the theme of a serial killer with a particular type of psychopathy, and my first inclination was to totally flesh out all this stuff in the book. Later, when I sat back and looked at it, I realized that it was excessive, making some parts of the book drag.

You have to cull and cull and put only as little as is necessary on the topic to carry along the thriller. Too much and you will lose the pace. You're not writing a textbook in thriller clothing. Getting good critiques is very important so that you don't have to judge this entirely by yourself.

04-17-2006, 01:40 PM
Thanks for this. I'd begun to reach this conclusion but it's good to have it confirmed by someone with experience. The stuff I'm cutting is all the research I'd done into west africa, where the story is set. I've realised I really only need enough to create the milieu (and a few other bits here and there). It's not critical to the storyline.

The kind of information I'm more worried about now is plot and character information. I know that information is released in a different way in thrillers than in mysteries. If I understand right then in mysteries it's absolutely crucial that you have questions but no answers, only clues and guesses. In thrillers you can know who's doing what, but you don't know how it's going to play out, and you're emotionally involved with the protagonist and so you care about how it's going to play out. I think that maybe what's troubling me is that I want to pace some of the information. I want some of the supporting characters to be ambiguous, the reader doesn't quite know which side they're on, or if they're even aware of what's going on, and whether they have the power to step in and do something. And I want some of the motivating factors of the main characters to be revealed in layers, so that you know who's doing what, but you don't entirely know why they're doing it. I'm not sure if I'm explaining that well. For some reason, when I think of this issue I keep thinking of a film rather than another book - I keep thinking of that Kevin Costner film, No Way Out. It's years since I saw it, and my memory of it might be way off. Maybe I should get it out and have a watch. Do other writers use thriller films as a kind of guide in this way?

Linda Adams
04-18-2006, 01:40 AM
The best thing you can do is read as many thriller books as you can. Most of what is available on them is comparing the crime thrillers with mystery, and they completely ignore the other subgenres. That makes it hard to figure out what the book actually needs--and unfortunately, movies aren't good examples. They're structured very differently than books because they have less time to work with and have to rely a lot on visual clues.

This will give you some names of authors and their current books: http://www.bookreporter.com/suspense_thriller/index.asp

04-18-2006, 12:46 PM
Thanks Linda, I'm glad you put me straight on the films issue. Of course they're different to books, I was willfully ignoring that because I thought a film would be quicker to work through scene by scene. Well, I guess it would, and there's a reason for that as you've pointed out. I have read plenty of thrillers, but I haven't read them with the express intention of deconstructing them to see how they work. I guess I'll go back to an old favourite, or maybe pick one or two off your list and work my way through with pencil at hand.

Many thanks for your time and attention.

04-24-2006, 12:16 AM
Hi Linda, I seem to have worked my way through my problem now. I just wanted to say you were so right in your advice. I think much of my struggling to get the big overview was because I wasn't telling the tale simply enough. I hadn't opened the story in a way that let the reader in on the essential conflict and that established what the stakes were. I was keeping too much from the reader (another of your points) and making the whole thing rather obscure - hence my own feeling of beffudlement with how I would manage the revelations of information within the story. I had a long think about your question about the stakes, and that was what triggered me to get there in the end - though I seemed to have to go through layers of puzzlement before then.

I'll definitely keep in mind all of your points as I keep on working. I'm sure they are all solid nuggets. Thanks for your advice, it is really much appreciated.