PICKING A PLOT
In the first chapter, we saw that thrillers come in various forms and genres. No matter how you first conceive a plot—with a specific character in mind, from an exotic setting, or in the midst of a slam-bang climactic scene that came to you in dreams—you won’t get far without deciding what’s at stake. In short, what is it that your protagonist(s) stand to lose or gain? Some of the classic plots include the following.
• Surviving a disaster. Whether localized or global, from The Towering Inferno to The Stand, protagonists are pitted against circumstances beyond their control. The adversary may be Mother Nature, pestilence, a swarm of hostile aliens, or the inevitable aftermath of World War III. It finally comes down to who will live or die, based on ability and/or alliances.
• Seeking revenge. Who hasn’t wanted to “get even” with someone, sometime, for something? Whether its King Menelaus declaring war on Troy for Helen’s sake, Michael Corleone wiping out the dons of rival Mafia families in The Godfather, or Avery Ludlow tracking the cruel teenagers who killed his Irish setter in Jack Ketchum’s Red (1995), vengeance is a powerful motive, propelling both heroes and villains to acts of great courage or seething madness.
• Children in jeopardy. A missing child is every parent’s nightmare—well, every normal parent’s nightmare—and thrillers mined that emotional vein long before our modern age of Amber Alerts and milk-carton mug shots. Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped (1886) cast pirates as the villains, while modern authors work more often in the realm of pedophiles, serial killers, cults, and kidnappings for ransom. Noteworthy examples include William McGivern’s Night of the Juggler (1975), Song of Kali (1985) by Dan Simmons, 24 Hours by Greg Iles, and Barbara Gowdy’s The Romantic (2004).
• Solving crimes. Whodunits may be cozy, comical, or stitched together from the stuff of nightmares. There’s a world of difference between Nancy Drew and Kay Scarpetta, but they both deliver thrills to dedicated fans. Within the interlocking realms of mystery, crime novels, and police procedurals it’s safe to say that any writer with a modicum of talent and imagination should be able to detect potential story lines. If you can’t think of one, consult the list of sources on conspiracies in this chapter’s offering of suggested reading.
• Preventing an atrocity. Closely akin to the previous category, commonly subsumed within the genre of police procedurals, these tales may not involve a mystery at all. The antagonist is generally known— if not specifically, at least as a member of some recognized terrorist group or criminal syndicate—and the protagonist must race against a ticking clock to avert disaster. Ian Fleming pioneered the nuclear-blackmail subgenre with Thunderball, while television brought it into real time with the drama 24. Jerry Ahern launched his Track series (1984–86) with the premise of a hero recovering one hundred stolen nuclear warheads, but the premise wore thin after two episodes and the series diverted into other avenues for its eleven remaining installments (the last three penned by replacement author Patrick Andrews).
• Cracking cold cases. A “cold” case is a crime that was either left unsolved for so long that police have given up on solving it or is undiscovered at the time it happened and revealed long afterward, when a solution seems impossible. In The Quiet Game (2000), Greg Isles begins with a real-life unsolved Mississippi murder from the 1960s, changes the date and victim’s name, then describes what might happen if new evidence surfaced thirty years later. John Grisham approached the same playing field from a different angle in The Chamber (1994). In that tale, a Mississippi racist has exhausted his appeals on a death sentence imposed for a fatal 1960s bombing. When his grandson, now a young attorney, tries to save the bomber’s life, it appears that the condemned Klansman may not have acted alone. A sampling of other titles wherein cold cases suddenly heat up includes Jan Burke’s Goodnight, Irene (1993), Bones (2000), Flight (2001), Nine (2002), and Bloodlines (2005); Virginia Lanier’s Blind Bloodhound Justice (1999); Ian Rankin’s Set in Darkness (2000); Michael Connelly’s Lost Light (2003) and The Narrows (2004); J.A. Jance’s Long Time Gone (2005); Linda Fairstein’s Entombed (2006); Jonathan Kellerman’s Obsession (2008); and Harlan Coben’s One False Move (2009).
• Pulling capers. Your protagonist doesn’t have to be a “good guy” or gal. Countless novels and films are told from the viewpoint of criminals planning and pulling off various crimes. Caper stories typically involve thefts, con games, and the occasional kidnapping, either played straight or for laughs. Donald E. Westlake’s tales of professional thief John Dortmunder include fourteen hilarious novels and eleven short stories, published between 1970 and 2009. On a darker note, writing as Richard Stark, Westlake followed trigger-happy bandit Parker through twenty-four adventures between 1962 and 2008. His first Parker novel, The Hunter, has been adapted for film three times—as Point Blank (1967), Full Contact (1992), and Payback (1999). Other well-known caper tales include Lawrence Block’s Bernie Rhodenbarr series, Peter O’Donnell’s stories of Modesty Blaise, Michael Crichton’s The Great Train Robbery, and John Godey’s The Taking of Pelham One Two Three.
• Countdowns to murder. A darker variation on the caper theme follows would-be killers and/or coconspirators through the machinations of plotting and carrying out homicides. Depending on the author’s take, the killer in question may be a sympathetic character (such as assassin John Rain, star of seven thrillers by Barry Eisler), an amoral mercenary who’s coincidentally been hired to slay an evil character (as in John Brunner’s The Evil That Men Do), or a sociopath who doesn’t think twice about killing anyone who gets in his way (like John Keller, in Lawrence Block’s Hit Man and its sequels). Most of these tales are purely fictional, but several have been based on actual assassinations (Executive Action, American Tabloid, The Killing of RFK, Libra), or on attempted murders of real-life historical figures (The Day of the Jackal, The Fist of God, Checkpoint, Red Rabbit).
• Recovering lost identity. Amnesia, typically induced by trauma, was a staple of pulp fiction during the early twentieth century. Tarzan rarely completed an adventure without being knocked unconscious and forgetting who he was at some critical point, and while lost memory can be clichéd if overused or handled clumsily, it still crops up from time to time in film and fiction—sometimes driving a bestseller. A gunshot to the head launched Robert Ludlum’s assassin Jason Bourne on an epic odyssey through print and film with The Bourne Identity (1980). Thrillers simply titled Amnesia include novels by G.H. Ephron (2001), Andrew Neiderman (2001), David Best (2004), Beverly Barton (2007), and Matthew Bowness (2012), while Roger Mullins offers us Lethal Amnesia (2008). On film, thrillers dealing with amnesia include Crime Doctor (1943), Dark City (1998), Mulholland Drive (2001), and Unknown (2011).
• Mistaken identity. Worse than amnesia, perhaps, is a situation wherein you know who you are, but others think you’re someone else—and they’re trying to throw you in prison or kill you. That’s Cary Grant’s dilemma in the Alfred Hitchcock thriller North by Northwest (1959). Novels mining the vein of mistaken identity include Mr. Murder (1993) and The Good Guy (2007) by Dean Koontz; Rosamond Smith’s You Can’t Catch Me (1996); Lisa Scottoline’s Mistaken Identity (2000); and The Gravedigger’s Daughter (2007) by Joyce Carol Oates. Cinematic outings on the same theme include The Wrong Man (1956) with Henry Fonda; El Mariachi (1992); Anthony Zimmer (2005); and The Tourist (2010).
• Men at war. Well-written war stories have a dependable readership base and a near-inexhaustible range of plots. You might place fictional characters in some real-life military campaign or spin desperate missions from your own imagination with no factual basis whatsoever. E.M. Nathanson’s novel The Dirty Dozen sprang from rumors of military prisoners recruited for a unit nicknamed the “Filthy Thirteen,” but research indicates that no such convict squad existed. The real-life “Filthy Thirteen” were members of the U.S. Army’s 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment who shaved and bathed irregularly while training for missions behind Nazi lines. Ex-Green Beret Barry Sadler launched his Casca series in 1979, tracking adventures of a Roman centurion cursed to wage endless war throughout time after spearing Christ on Golgotha. Sadler completed twenty-two installments before his death in 1989; other authors have penned fifteen to date.
• Great escapes. Whether set in wartime, the Soviet Gulag, or a modern “supermax” prison, inherent drama resides in tales of escape from captivity. Sometimes, as in the TV series Prison Break (2005–09), the protagonist may be innocent of any crime. On the other hand, Clint Eastwood’s fact-based character in Escape from Alcatraz (1979) is clearly guilty, but the audience keeps rooting for him anyway. Even Ted Bundy and Charles Manson got a fleeting taste of freedom, courtesy of author Michael Perry in The Stranger Returns (1992) and Skelter (1994). No prison is required, in fact, to tell a great escape tale. Fugitives in flight provide their own brand of thrills, but caution is advised. Note how quickly the aforementioned Prison Break declined in quality and ratings once its characters broke out of jail.
• Clearing a reputation. You’ve been falsely accused of criminal activity or some scandalous indiscretion that threatens your life or liberty, family, or livelihood. What do you do? Fight back, of course! That theme pervades a wide range of thrillers, including such bestsellers as Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent (1987), Michael Crichton’s Disclosure (1994), and T. Jefferson Parker’s Where Serpents Lie (1998). Reclaiming your life and all you hold dear may be the ultimate challenge.
• Dangerous liaisons. Lust, obsession, and romantic triangles have spawned innumerable thrillers. Whether your protagonist is dodging a stalker, grappling with the impulse to betray a spouse, or plunging headlong into an affair threatened by the possibility of murder, you may be qualified to join the ranks of authors who built lucrative careers on romantic suspense and intrigue. James M. Cain set the standard with The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934) and his novella Double Indemnity (1935), the former filmed six times, the latter renowned as a 1944 feature film and the inspiration for Body Heat (1981). Modern masters of the genre include Catherine Coulter, Carla Neggers, Karen Robards, Heather Graham, and Lisa Jackson, among others.
• Retelling history. You may have dozed through history classes in school, but the blame for that lies with dull textbooks and teachers. Human history is rife with drama, from battlefields to smoke-filled back rooms. We may know what happened at a given time and place—say Dallas, Texas, on November 22, 1963—but that doesn’t leech the tension out of JFK assassination novels such as Executive Action, American Tabloid, or 9/22/63. Likewise, we know that Charles de Gaulle was not assassinated, but The Day of the Jackal still fascinates and frightens to its final page. Max Allan Collins solves some of America’s great real-life mysteries in his Nate Heller novels, while Jack Higgins springs New York’s premier gangster of the 1930s from prison to lead the Allied invasion of Sicily in Luciano’s Luck (1981). The possibilities are literally endless.
So, how would you select a thriller’s plot? If nothing springs to mind immediately—or you simply want to keep it current, without seeming too derivative—consider browsing through tomorrow’s headlines. Here are some that struck me while I was writing this chapter:
Police Link Shootings in Oklahoma; 3 Dead
All Accounted for After Navy Jet Crashes Into Apartments
Serial Killer Pleads Guilty to Two More Deaths in Texas
Former Spymaster Stirs Up Egypt Presidential Race
In Thailand’s South, New Worries After Latest Bombing
Maoists Refuse to Release Kidnapped Italian Tourist
Five minutes of concentrated thought on any of those headlines should produce at least one plot idea. In the first, who were the victims? Was the shooter captured, or are more killings expected? Did the victims have something in common?
For the second example, why did the jet crash? Was it caused by substandard materials or workmanship by corrupt defense contractors? Was the crash deliberate? Did it target a resident of the apartment house? Did the pilot bail out in time—or is he missing from the scene?
The third story involves a long-haul trucker with a torture chamber in his semitrailer. Was he a lone operator, or is his accomplice still at large? Could any of his missing victims still be found alive?
In the fourth, who stands to gain from the election-eve scandal, and what will some clandestine agency do to prevent it? Will “friendly” agents be exposed and jeopardized by breaking revelations? If so, who extracts them before they’re arrested?
In the fifth item, who’s behind the bombing? Revolutionaries? Drug traffickers? Foreign agents seeking to destabilize the government? Could an American agent be framed for the crimes to provoke an international incident?
Finally, who snatched the tourist? Why is he or she significant? Would wealthy relatives hire crack professionals to stage a rescue operation? If you came up empty for plots on all five, what can I say? Try harder.