bonding, book review, genre, genre notes, humor, parent, parent and child, psychological thriller, psychopath, sociopath, thriller, tropes
You want to write a thriller?
THRILLER: noun—A novel, play, or movie with an exciting plot, typically involving crime or espionage. —Oxford Dictionaries
Here’s a checklist to get you started on your future bestseller.
- Start with a thriller intro scene that’s plenty…er…thrilling. Gory murders work well here, but kidnapping adorable young children is also acceptable, especially if they cry for their mothers.
- Next butchered bodies should start popping up, but local cops/spies/amateur detectives/teenage cheerleaders living over a hellmouth/superheroes/little old ladies with cats can’t figure out what’s happening.
- Only your reluctant hero can put the pieces together. And s/he better get truckin because their Dark Moment is looming.
- Your hero enlists the help of a spunky sidekick/reluctant love interest/cat who is, of course, kidnapped by the Supervillain/Evil Corporate Exec/Other Side’s Spies—who turn out to be just as ruthlessly amoral as Our Side/Global Conspiracy/Government Agency.
- You’ll need plenty of deadlines, frequently exotic scene changes, and the odd cliffhanger. And surely you’ll want a timer counting down to zero before Something hits the fan.
- Your reluctant hero will survive, but things aren’t so promising for just about everyone else. In fact, you might as well issue red shirts with the Star Trek logos to the supporting cast, because things don’t look good for them. If your hero is a wandering type who takes on evildoers wherever he encounters them, the love interest in each book should probably just take out a good life-insurance policy and decide how s/he wants the tombstone to read.
Ready to give it a try? Here’s my idea for a sure-fire conspiracy thriller winner (with thanks to the Plot Generator). You’re welcome.
The Mangled Thumbnails
A Conspiracy Crime Thriller
by Hepsiba Heartburn
Mangled thumbnails and bruised puppies have been turning up all over Champaign Illinois and the inhabitants are scared. Ten murders in ten weeks, all committed with a slingshot, and still nobody has a clue who the puppy-kicking killer is.
Kickass Actiongirl is a height-challenged but hygiene-conscious artisan corn detasseler with a fondness for collecting exotic popcorns and antibacterial handwashes. She doesn’t know it yet but she is the only one who can stop the killer, who (rumor has it) is also a very bad tipper who plans to destroy every ear of corn in Illinois.
When her Hot Yoga Instructor, Bruce Geekly, disappears, Kickass finds herself thrown into the center of the investigation. Her only clue is a glittering bellybutton ring that seems curiously familiar. Depressed at the loss of her corn detasseling job, Kickass becomes addicted to binge watching old Walking Dead episodes and stuffing herself with popped corn from her exotic kernels collection. Then, at the bottom of a tin of salt-caramel popcorn that Bruce gave her for Christmas, she finds a matching bellybutton ring.
She enlists the help of Propeller Head, a spunky corn-loving private eye and part-time physics professor at the local community college.
Can Propeller help Kickass overcome her Walking Dead addiction long enough to find the answers? Will they uncover the truth behind the puppy-abusing killer and his deadly slingshot before every ear of corn in Illinois is destroyed?
- If this is made into a BBC mini-series, it will become a British Conspiracy Thriller. Propeller will turn out to be code name for MI-5 operative Horace Mungo. His mission is to stop deranged eco-terrorist Bruce Geekly from destroying the world’s corn crop to protest genetically modified corn strains, thus preventing flavored popped corn tins from being given out at Christmas, and plunging world commodities markets into total chaos (except for Russia, of course, where nobody would eat corn on a bet anyway). There will be lots of panoramic shots of iconic London locations, much international chase scenage, and a special appearance by Her Majesty, who will share a soothing discussion with Kickass of their favorite Walking Dead episodes.
- If Kickass is actually a sociopath genius who picks up clues such as the killer’s predilection to spit Old Maid (unpopped) popcorn kernels out of the right side of his mouth when stressed, and if she’s actually been sent by the Deep State to resolve some morally bankrupt situation that they can’t risk going public, it’s a Sherlock Thriller. Kickass’ slightly stupid sidekick Propeller will post it as a flash fiction short on his blog.
- If Kickass rocks cocktail dresses and/or tuxedos with at least one scene in an upscale international casino, has a license to kill, and a chase scene that wrecks cars which cost more than the entire annual corn crop of Champaign Illinois, it’s a shaken-not-stirred spy thriller.
- If Kickass and Propeller stumble onto a conspiracy involving ancient societies, puzzle-clues in famous works of art, the phrase “secret passed from one generation to the next”, the Catholic Church, and the basic foundations of everything we believe, then it’s an absinthe spy thriller and Kickass is probably the direct descendant of Adam and Eve (although nobody points out that so is everyone else…) and the Chosen One destined to locate the Garden of Eden on Google Maps.
- If Propeller wears trench coats and has Seen-Too-Much, leaving him a beer-swilling alcoholic in need of a shave, while still doing morally-icky stuff as demanded by his even more morally-challenged superiors, it’s a six-pack spy thriller. As the girl-of-the-month, Kickass probably won’t make it, and things don’t look good for Propeller either, unless he’s the anti-hero who travels America’s backroads bringing justice and a strong right hook in a multi-book series. Good news for you the writer! Every time Propeller goes vigilante on some redneck/foreigner/terrorist/international banker that local law enforcement just can’t take down, your conspiracy thriller sales will go up. And even better, every time some liberal wuss complains about “Propeller justice”, your sales will explode.
- If, however, Kickass’ parents and siblings were all killed in a fiery crash on their way to Disneyland, and had to be identified by dental records because their fingers were all missing—she only survived because she was adopted, and was left at home to care for the new puppy—and these new crimes are a horrific echo of her past, and if Kickass is then kidnapped by her mysterious assailant (Bruce Geekly, of course: she’d know that bellybutton piercing anywhere) who turns out to be her mother’s ex-husband—who she rejected just because he happened to be, through absolutely no fault of his own, a sociopath—t’s a Psychological Thriller. Sooner or later, somebody will be locked in a closet.
For a look at how one writer applies psychological thriller tropes, please see my review of The Runaway by Linda Huber below.
BLURB: The Runaway by Linda Huber
Keep your secrets close to home…
Bad things happen in threes – or so it seems to Nicola. The death of her mother-in-law coincides with husband Ed losing his job and daughter Kelly getting into trouble with the police. Time to abandon their London lifestyle and start again by the sea in far-away Cornwall.
It should be the answer to everything – a new home, a new job for Ed and a smaller, more personal school for fifteen-year-old Kelly. But the teenager hates her new life, and it doesn’t take long before events spiral out of control and the second set of bad things starts for Nicola.
Some secrets can’t be buried.
Or… can they?
A gripping family drama, perfect for fans of Diane Chamberlain, Linda Green, and Sophie Hannah.
Linda Huber is the author of psychological suspense novels Stolen Sister, The Cold Cold Sea, Chosen Child, and others..
My Review: 5 stars out of 5
We’ve all seen interviews with neighbors and even families of monsters whose crimes are finally revealed. But he was so quiet! Wouldn’t hurt a flea! Had a loving family! Went to church and gave to charity!
Linda Huber’s new book, The Runaway, could be one of those stories. Like many women, wife and mother Nicola has been struggling to hold her family together. But when her husband Ed loses his job and her teenage daughter Kelly starts getting into trouble, she wonders if the death of Ed’s mother will be the last straw. Instead, news they are inheriting her mother-in-law’s house in Cornwall, and even better that Ed can get a job there leaves Nicola hopeful they are leaving their troubles behind.
Kelly isn’t convinced. “Being fifteen was rubbish, you were old enough to know what was best for you but you had no rights to do anything about it when people were shoving you in the wrong direction.”
But it’s Ed who realizes his world is crashing.
Nightmares had chased around his brain all night, black dreams where he’d lost Nicola and Kelly and he was searching, searching, running across fields, up and down deserted streets, calling their names and hearing the answering ‘Where are you?’ without ever finding them, mocking laughter from someone he couldn’t see echoing around his head every step of the way.
Many of the hallmarks of author Linda Huber’s psychological thrillers are included in The Runaway. Her earlier novels have shown her mastery at dissecting the strengths and inherent pitfalls of the parent-child relationship. As always, she has no use for the traditional elements of the whodunit. Instead of ‘who‘, Linda is fascinated by ‘why‘. Virtually from the beginning of The Runaway, there’s no doubt about who the villain will be. But it’s the elegantly spare depiction of the seductive descent into mental illness, the flashbacks to earlier parent-child damage that The Runaway patiently peels back.
There may be debate in therapeutic circles about whether sociopaths are born damaged or become that way through trauma, but Linda Huber takes us patiently through the steps as one is created. Her villain is a painstakingly constructed victim of his own mostrous parents’ abuse. As such, he comes to see his own surrender to the “red mist” as sufficient justification for his inability to observe the rights of others over his own needs, and most especially, for his failure to feel remorse or guilt over the choice of violence.
But unlike a true psychopath, he does feel fear. He’s terrified the past he’s tried to bury will suck him back when his new life first cracks and then shatters against the memories buried in the house he left behind. In desperate self-defense against the monster his own parents created—both by direct abuse and by failure to intervene—he escapes to build a new life with a family whose love is supposed to keep him safe.
But when that fails, he reverts to the sociopath’s Machiavellian toolbox, hidden behind his outward mask of trustworthy sincerity. The true dawning horror for the reader is the breakdown of the most elemental of human bonds. At first, I was put off by the apparent ease with which what appeared to be loving relationships were severed. But gradually I realized they were only real as long as they represented safety and protection. When they could no long offer sanctuary, they became meaningless.
Linda’s books are exquisitely well-planned, so the tiniest details are echoes of the past and predictors of the future. Indeed, the image of a small child playing on the beach is the center of ripples that cross time only to finally come full circle back to that same beach.
The image of the house, and what it represents for each character is particularly interesting. Where one character sees it as the epitome of everything that’s gone wrong and justification for becoming a monster, another rises against similar trauma to become a better, stronger person. And still another uses the house to triumph over the evil menacing his child.
As with her previous books, Linda explores both that seductive slide into madness as well as the way ordinary people rise to extraordinary strengths. If you’re looking for a glimpse at the human stories behind horrific headlines, and at both the ultimate betrayal and triumph of the parent/child bond, I highly recommend The Runaway.
Thank you so much, Barb – really glad you liked The Runaway, which was indeed inspired by one particular news story a few years ago.
Your introduction was “Barb at her best”, and that had me glued for the reviews. Thank you!
Teagan R. Geneviene said:
“Kickass Actiongirl is a height-challenged but hygiene-conscious artisan corn detasseler with a fondness for collecting exotic popcorns and antibacterial handwashes.” Barb, you slay me! I can’t stop laughing. What? A review too. Hang on a sec…
… Kudos to Linda. It does sound fantastic. Hugs all around!
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