Well, I thought that I’d talk about one interesting technique in the thriller genre that might be overlooked by people who are new to the genre. I am, of course, talking about scale progression. This is where the size of the crisis, drama etc… increases throughout the story.
This was something I ended up thinking about whilst reading Lee Child’s “A Wanted Man” (mild-moderate SPOILERS ahoy!) the night before writing this article. One of the interesting things about this novel is that at least the first third of it seems a little understated. Out of the two plot threads at the start of the novel, one is a police procedural detective story and the other involves a character being stuck in a car with three people that he doesn’t quite trust.
These aren’t action-movie style scenes filled with explosions and derring-do. They’re small-scale scenes that focus heavily on intriguing mystery and tense, claustrophobic suspense. Of course, as the novel progresses a little bit, the scale of the drama starts to increase gradually and things start to get a bit more action-packed and dramatic. And this gradual change meant that, every time I sat down to read some of it, I ended up reading twice as many pages as I’d planned to read.
So, yes, scale progression can be a way to make your thriller story a lot more gripping. There are two contradictory reasons for this. One is that it provides variation for your readers. It’s a bit like how, if a horror novel only contains one type of horror, then the reader will get used to it and it’ll become less scary. By including a mixture of small-scale drama, large-scale drama, suspense, mystery and action, you’ll be able to keep your reader interested. If they can’t predict what is coming next, then they’re going to want to keep reading.
The other reason is that, by progressing from small to large scale drama, you give the reader the sense that the story is becoming more and more dramatic. That, if they read “just a few more pages“, they’ll be rewarded with something even more gripping, dramatic, intriguing and/or suspenseful than what they’ve just read. Of course, once they’ve done this, then they’ll want to read “just another few pages” because they know that it will be worth their while to do so.
In other words, scale progression makes your thriller story both predictable and unpredictable at the same time. When done well, this provides all of the reassuring familiary of a predictable story and all of the edge-of-your seat intrigue of an unpredictable story. But, there is one important thing that you must remember if you are going to do this.
Using this technique means that you have to pay a lot more attention to the beginning of your story. If you have to start small and work upwards, then writing a beginning that subtly tells the reader “if you keep reading, then you won’t regret it” is even more important than ever. After all, if your reader is expecting a thriller story, then they might be a little bit puzzled or surprised when the opening chapters aren’t as epic, spectacular and/or action-packed as they might expect.
So, you need to use all of the techniques of the thriller genre in subtle, precise ways. Going back to Lee Child’s “A Wanted Man”, the very first chapter is split up into two short 1- 4 page segments that each focus on a different plot thread. This is like a distilled version of the “alternating chapters” technique used in many thriller novels. Even though the drama is fairly small-scale, the fact that an intense version of this technique is used in the first chapter tells the reader that this is a thriller novel.
Likewise, the narrative voice is the kind of fast-paced, matter-of-fact one that readers associate with thriller novels. Even though relatively little has happened, this writing style tells the reader that this is a thriller novel.
Then, there’s the fact that lots of intriguing mysteries and details (eg: an incomplete account of what could be a murder, a description of a scary-looking hitchhiker with a broken nose, a car stopping for said hitchhiker etc..) are thrown at the reader without a full explanation – giving the hint that they’ll need to read more in order to find out more. Needless to say, this also tells the reader that this is a thriller novel.
So, yes, although a careful progression from small-scale to large-scale drama can be one of the best ways to make your thriller story gripping, you need to pay extra attention to the beginning of your story. If the small-scale parts aren’t intriguing, suspenseful or compelling enough then your reader isn’t going to hang around for the more spectacular stuff later in the story.
Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂