For many authors, the secret to the thriller is a secret.
In Karin Slaughter’s novel Fractured, Will Trent tells no one except two confidants about his dyslexia. The special agent for the Georgia Bureau of Investigation strives to prevent people from using his disability to compromise his career. He suffers. The writing doesn’t.
In Harlen Coben’s The Woods, prosecutor Paul Copeland tries to keep secret his connection to the crime he’s compelled to investigate. As with Trent, backstory becomes backlash. His adversaries use that secret as a weapon. Coben treats it as an accelerant.
Both authors use that creative tension to drive their characters, and their stories.
How far would you go to hid something from your past?
A novel is a little like a small prop plane. Fly too fast and the scenery blurs. Fly too slow and the plane stalls.
Take the pop fiction of the ‘70s and ‘80s by authors like Sidney Sheldon and Danielle Steele. Some of those books streaked through plot as if it were aerial combat. Then there are writers like Martha Grimes, who tie down the wings for the night to give the reader insight into the life of a dog and two cats on the village green.
Others, like Robert B. Parker, Margaret Coel and J.A. Jance, alternate between action and reflection in short bursts designed to add depth while holding course.
I got to thinking about pace in mystery and suspense fiction after reading novels by Julia Keller and Iris Johansen. Keller’s A Killing in the Hills crackles with excitement while providing detailed portraits of her characters and their small town in West Virginia. At the other end of the pop-fiction spectrum, Johansen’s On the Run races through character and description to focus on the physical aspects of criminal and romantic pursuit. (Johansen does slow the pace in the middle of the book to create backstory, motivation and a simmering feud between the two romantic leads.) Both novels soar, just at different rates.
I generally give a book 60 pages. If the story hasn’t taken off by then, I’ll pull the ripcord. But that benchmark varies by author, genre and style.
When it comes to reading and writing, what’s your speed?