One of TG’s writer pals who is just starting a thriller requested this topic. TG is happy to oblige. First he will laugh at the idea that there are only five mistakes that thriller writers make, but to make it a bit less intimidating, we’ll start with five.
First of all, TG doesn’t need to go into the whole twin thing, does he? Is there anyone out there so deluded that he/she thinks that it would be clever to bring in a twin, known or unknown, good or evil, to solve a plot problem? Yes, I’m sure there are, but we can easily clear this one up by a total twin injunction. None. Not ever. Problem solved.
OK, the number one biggest mistake thriller writers make -- these are writers who run the gamut from unpublished to the biggest names in the business -- is introducing, or attempting to introduce, romantic elements into their story. From girlfriends, to wives, from femme fatales, to enemy agents, these ladies are always stunningly beautiful, smart and often deadly or totally naive. They are always brought in to fulfill some clichéd, supporting role. TG has always said that the most dangerous job in show business is being the wife or girlfriend of a thriller hero. Most of these babes are destined to end up tied to a pole in the grimy basement of some nutter’s killing lair while the hero dashes around trying to implement a rescue before all her extremities are cut off one by one or little holes are drilled in her head while the fiend keeps her alive and awake throughout the process. Thomas Harris pretty much invented this sub-genre, kept it alive and beat away anyone else who jumped in to copy him. And yet TG reads and reviews dozens of pale imitations of Harris’ books every year. Twenty years ago there was some room on this playing field, ten years ago you could join in if you had a brilliant twist, but now it’s just a matter of piling more crap on top of crap. (TG will admit that there a few exceptions that are good, but they are extremely rare.) So why do we keep seeing this tired plot played out again and again? TG is sorry to conclude that there are lots of readers out there who just can’t get enough of this stuff. They love it, they buy it and as long as that continues, writers will write it and sell it. So whenever a thriller writer introduces a hero who is happily married or in a solid relationship with a lovable, pretty, caring, funny love interest, TG mutters, uh oh, she’s a dead woman.
The chief function of a love interest is, as noted above, to introduce a female-in-peril element, as a ploy for sympathy for the hero when the woman gets killed, or to add some sex to the scenario. Thriller writers know that the bulk of their readers are men, and men love sex, right? So why wouldn’t they love some sex in their stories? It’s a perfectly good question, and the answer should be yes, some good sex might spice things up a bit, but the truth is that 99% of thriller sex is so badly written that it is almost always laughable and always cringe inducing. Why? Because it’s damned hard to write a good sex scene. TG knows this from first-hand experience. TG has told this story before, but it’s instructive, so here it is again.
When TG’s alter ego, Allen Appel was writing his first published book, Time After Time (available as a Kindle here) he wrote a sex scene between the hero and his girlfriend. Appel labored over this scene until he had it finely tuned, or so he thought. One feature of the scene had the female participant repeating the word Yes a number of times, Kent Carrol, Appel’s astute editor, simply wrote the word No in the margin of the scene. Absolutely right. ‘nuf said, he spared Appel the embarrassment of reading a detailed explanation of why the scene was terrible. (Just a question here, do women really yell the word Yes! during sex, besides in movies?)
Here’s the point: most of us, and that includes TG, just aren’t good enough to write workable, exciting sex scenes. To do it well, you’ve got to be good on the order of Nabokov, Lawrence or Updike. Bad sex scenes, even mediocre sex scenes, will kill a thriller’s momentum and pull the reader right out of the story. So here’s TG’s tip: just don’t try. As many have said, the writer’s greatest tool is the reader’s imagination. If you want to have your characters have sex, fine, walk them to the bedroom, shut the door and let the reader imagine the rest. If you’ve done a good job with your characterization, it will work.
Another reason writers try to put romance into their thrillers is because they feel this will make their characters more likeable, more realistic and less one-dimensional. TG is sure that this may be true of many books, especially when the word Literature is floating around, but it’s not only not needed in a thriller, it’s a mistake. I have even heard thriller writers say that they put the romance in to attract women readers to a male-dominated field. These are the same folks who have their heroes weep. But we’ll get to that in another essay. Those tactics never work. Here’s a secret: thriller heroes, and villains, don’t need to be rounded and nuanced. In fact you don’t want them to be. You want them lean and fast and dangerous, which is exactly the way you want your plots and your writing. I would say that in any other genre you can get away with and probably even want to have more complicated characters. But not in thrillers. There you want story and speed. Leave the complicated backstories in your outlines and research and first drafts.
So unless you’re a real master at it, and TG is here to tell you that you probably aren’t, leave out the romance. You can’t go wrong if you leave it out, and you can go very wrong if you put it in.
Now that all that has been said, TG admits that he has read many books, and thrillers, that include women as solid characters who add to the richness of the story and the complexity of the plot. After all, you can’t write a convincing book without women. Well, you can, but the world is half women so why would you want to? The problem comes when men writers try to write about the physical and spiritual elements of love. Most are just not any good at it. So why try to cross that particular minefield unless you absolutely have to?