Back To School: The Art of Thriller Writing by Dreda Say Mitchell

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As part of the blog tour for her new thriller Vendetta, Dreda Say Mitchell talks to LifeOfCri.me about the art of thriller writing.

Dreda I’ve worn a number of hats in my career and one of them has been teaching. In the classroom, one of the favourite catchphrases (after folding your arms) is “Now children – what have we learned today?” Another hat I wear is as a journalist and we’re all familiar with the top 5 tips or lessons feature. Meanwhile, in my work as an author, I’ve shifted direction with my new thriller ‘Vendetta’. What better way to prove that I can multi-task than by compiling a top 5 lessons I’ve learned from writing thrillers?

1. Characters

Characterisation is an important building block of any kind of fiction but in thrillers it’s an essential feature. Thriller readers tend to read a lot of books and they’ve got an eagle eye for cardboard cut outs and stereotypes. Heroes and villains may (or may not) be exaggerated versions of people you meet in everyday life but they still need to be grounded in reality. The question to pose is not, would a character behave in a certain way – but could they? In ‘Vendetta’, our hero Mac might go well beyond the bounds set by his job and personality – but is he a believable person?

2. Plot

A well-crafted thriller plot is rather like a Swiss watch and fits together like a jigsaw puzzle. It needs to be compelling enough to keep the reader hooked and provide them with evidence to work with, while at the same not cheating by dodging the rules of the genre. This is a very difficult trick to pull off. In ‘Vendetta’, Mac’s lover has been murdered and he has to find out by whom and why. The reader has to be there to help and work it out along with him but to share his shocks and surprises.

 3. Pace

Literary writers are allowed to spend ten pages describing a situation in which nothing in particular happens or theorising about the human condition but that doesn’t work in thrillers. The reader expects the author to get a move on. One classic method of doing this is to give your hero a set time limit to solve his case before it’s too late. In ‘Vendetta’, Mac’s got less than a day. The clock is ticking.

4. Series

A thriller doesn’t need to be part of a series to be effective, but as the saying goes, it helps. Once a reader decides a character is working for them, they like to learn more about them and see how they operate in different circumstances. I decided a series was how I wanted to write but I wasn’t interested in the lone hero model. In addition to Mac, there are two other main characters, Rio and Calum along with lesser characters. In the next book, ‘Death Trap’ I turn my attention to Rio as the main protagonist and in the novel to follow that, it’s Calum. When I decide some of minor characters have legs, there’ll be reappearing too.

5. The X Factor

We’re probably all familiar with people we know who seem to have it all. The ideal spouse and family, the great job, the interesting life – and yet it doesn’t seem to work for them and they’re booked with counsellors on a regular basis. Thrillers can be rather like that. Compelling characters, plot, lean, taut and effective writing, all of which leads up to that classic showdown in the final chapter. Yet it doesn’t fly, your attention wanders and it becomes one of those books you leave lying around, always meaning to finish. The frustrating thing for writers and readers alike is that no really knows why this is. I’m hoping that ‘Vendetta’ has the X Factor

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VENDETTA by Dreda Say Mitchell is out now in paperback and eBook, published by Hodder, £6.99. For more information visit www.dredasaymitchell.com and follow Dreda on twitter @DredaMitchell

Find out what I thought of Vendetta, with the LifeOfCri.me review here

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