June 10 – 16: “Are there any stakes higher than the threat of the world’s destruction?”

The stakes are high this week with ITW Members Toby Tate, Paul Kemprecos, Meg Gardiner, Lisa Brackman, J. M. Leduc, Richard Godwin, Jeffrey Wilson, Layton Green, Lisa von Biela, Rick Anderson and Yvonne Eve Walus: “The threat of the world’s destruction is popular in thrillers. Are there any stakes higher than that?”

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Meg Gardiner is the bestselling author of thrillers that include the Edgar Award winner CHINA LAKE and the 2012 Audie Award winner THE NIGHTMARE THIEF. THE SHADOW TRACER is her eleventh novel.

Jeffrey Wilson is the author of the supernatural thrillers The Traiteur’s Ring (2011), The Donors (2012), and Fade to Black due out June 14th. He has at one time worked as an actor, a firefighter, a paramedic, a jet pilot, a diving instructor, a Naval Officer, and a Vascular and Trauma Surgeon. He also served multiple tours in Iraq as a combat surgeon with both the Marines and with a Joint Special Operations Task Force.

Yvonne Walus is a member of generation X. Born in the communist Poland, she grew up in the apartheid South Africa and now lives in New Zealand. Although writing is a big part of her identity, Yvonne has a PhD in Mathematics and currently works for an education company as a project manager, business analyst and general trouble-shooter. She’s also a mother, a wife, a slave to two cats and a master to one dog.

Richard Craig Anderson started out as a fire fighter in 1971, became a highly decorated Maryland State Police trooper, and went on to accept a position as a counter-terrorist operative. An accomplished aviator and world-class scuba diver, Rick has enjoyed a life well-lived, thanks to the relationships and friendships he’s made along the way–and that includes Kobi, his Rhodesian Ridgeback.

Paul Kemprecos collaborated with Clive Cussler in writing eight books in the best-selling NUMA Files series. He is the author of a six books in his own detective series. His first novel, COOL BLUE TOMB, won a Shamus award for best original paperback from the Private Eye Writers of America. He and his wife Christi live on Cape Cod, Mass.

Toby Tate is the author of two adult supernatural thrillers and a young adult sci-fi thriller, THE GOD PARTICLE, released June 4, 2013 by Crossroad Press. He was a newspaper reporter for five years and is also a songwriter, musician and studio engineer. Toby lives with his family near the Dismal Swamp in northeastern North Carolina.

Lisa Brackmann‘s debut novel, ROCK PAPER TIGER, set on the fringes of the Chinese art world, made several “Best of 2010” lists, including Amazon’s Top 100 books and Top 10 Mystery/Thrillers. Her second novel, GETAWAY, a thriller in Mexico, was chosen as an ALA Summer Reading Pick and an Amazon Best Novel of the Month and was a finalist for SCIBA’s T. Jefferson Parker Award. Lisa’s upcoming book, HOUR OF THE RAT, features the return of ROCK PAPER TIGER heroine Ellie McEnroe, on another ill-advised quest that will take her to some of China’s most beautiful and surreal places. Lisa is a California native and a former film industry professional who has lived and traveled extensively in China.

Lisa von Biela worked in Information Technology for 25 years, then left the field to attend the University of Minnesota Law School, graduating magna cum laude in 2009. She now practices law in Seattle, Washington. Lisa’s first short storyappeared in The Edge in 2002. Her short works have appeared in various small press venues, including Gothic.net, Twilight Times, Dark Animus, AfterburnSF, and more. THE GENESIS CODE is her first novel.

Richard Godwin is the author of critically acclaimed novels Apostle Rising and Mr. Glamour.  One Lost Summer is his third novel. It is a Noir story of fractured identity and ruined nostalgia and available at all good retailers. His stories have been published in over 29 anthologies. Richard Godwin was born in London and obtained a BA and MA in English and American Literature from King’s College London, where he lectured.

Mark Adduci, writing as J. M. LeDuc is a native Bostonian, who transplanted to South Florida in 1985. He shares his love and life with his wife, Sherri and his daughter, Chelsea. Blessed to have had a mother who loved the written word, her passion was passed on to him. It is in her maiden name he writes.  J.M. LeDuc’s first novel, CURSED BLESSING, won a Royal Palm Literary Award in 2008 as an unpublished manuscript in the thriller category. It was published in 2010. He has subsequently written CURSED PRESENCE and CURSED DAYS, books two and three of the Trilogy of The Chosen, as well as a novella, PHANTOM SQUAD. He is a proud member of the Florida Writers Association (FWA) and the prestigious International Thriller Writers (ITW).

In addition to writing, Layton Green practiced law at a large firm for nearly a decade. He has also been an intern for the UN, an ESL teacher in Central America, a bartender in London, a seller of knives on the streets of Brixton, and the list goes downhill from there. He has traveled to more than fifty countries, lived in a number of them, and has a burning desire to see every country, city, beach, moor, castle, cemetery, twisted street and far flung speck on the map. He currently lives in the Atlanta area with his family.

46 Comments
  1. Well, that’s a tough one. I suppose the threat of destruction of the universe and beyond would involve higher stakes by definition, but I don’t think my mind can encompass that! I think, given such a plotline, it’s important to personalize the effect of that destruction to really hit home with the reader. That’s where sympathetic characters struggling to survive come in. At least for me, the theoretical concept of the destruction of the world is best grasped when it’s made concrete, and when it’s seen through the eyes of a well drawn character trying to cope with it or combat it.

  2. I love the threat of doom. The dread, the panic, the heroic attempts to save humanity from the looming maw of oblivion—it makes me clap my little hands with glee. As I labor to complete PROJECT PALE HORSE here on my secret island, my minions—

    Sorry. That was meant for a different message board. Never mind.

    (Destroying the world should be the highest of high stakes. But unless the writer creates characters readers care about, both the book and its fictional world will get tossed in the Dumpster.)

  3. Are there any stakes higher than the threat of the world’s destruction? Absolutely. That would be a world populated by humans lacking all emotion. Or empathy, or feelings even for their own self. We could even expand this to include all plant, animal and human life, feeding upon one another without regard for cause and effect.

    I think H.G. Wells revealed such a world in “The Time Machine.” The surface dwelling Eloi were vacuous hedonists, while the subterrainean Morlocks fed on anything and everything.

    Such a world would mean the death to writers, since we need to build empathy for the characters we want readers to identify with. That said, the concept of such a world would challenge an author, since the plot would permit the inclusion of symapthetic, feeling characters.

    Otherwise, a world in which there were no feelings or empathy wouldn’t need to fear destruction, since that world would already be dead.

  4. You can look at this in two ways. From an external view point, world destruction is as extreme as it gets, but if you look at it from an internal view point, I think there is something far worse.
    The psychological anguish of moral loss would be much harder to bear than total world destruction. As an example, look at “Crime and Punishment” by Dostoevsky. Raskolnikov last only two days in his emotional prison before giving himself up to the police. He would rather suffer years of hard labor than walk around with the weight of his guilt.
    It is easier to battle external forces and than to try to do battle with our own emotions.

  5. Call me a callous female dog, but I don’t care about the destruction of the world nearly as much as I care about the plight of one individual. That’s why I find Harlan Coben thrillers so powerful: the threat of one father not coming home to his kids, the threat of one teenager’s life destroyed, the impact of a tragedy on one family.

    I used to think it was all down to how much I – as the reader – care about the characters. but you know? There is something far more poignant about one family suffering than a billion….

  6. For me, losing my soul would be a much higher stake than, say, the destruction of the universe. That is, if you believe in souls. But even though I don’t write Christian or spiritual fiction per se, the spiritual world permeates most of my writing, hence books with names like DIABLERO, LILITH and GOD PARTICLE. Even the bible says, “What shall it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his soul,” right? What good are riches if you’re conscience is eating you alive? Providing you have one, of course.

    A lot of people in my books fight to save not only their world, but to redeem their own souls, as well. DIABLERO, my first novel, is a good example of that. Edward Teach fought an inner battle throughout most of the book, the part that longed to do what was right pushing back against the demon that possessed him. The stakes were very high indeed: spend an eternity with the knowledge that he caused the extinction of mankind, or redeem himself by doing what he knew he should. I won’t give the ending away, but it involves his soul 🙂

    Saving the people of the earth versus the planet itself, say after all the humans are evacuated, is another question. Of course I would want to save the people no matter what, maybe even give my own soul to do it. But if it was between personal riches, power and other “earthly” things, there’s no contest – the soul would win every time. Without that, the world means nothing.

    1. “What good are riches if you’re conscience is eating you alive?”

      That should be “your,” not “you’re.” Proving once again that proofreading should not be done after 1 a.m.

  7. I have a tendency to tune out when the body count gets too high. I want to care about the characters, and it’s hard for me to cope with caring and mass slaughter at the same time. For me, and this is just my opinion, a lot of the time in books where a lot of people die, they aren’t characters that are fully developed and they aren’t designed for the reader to care about them. Mss slaughter becomes a kind of thrill ride, or intellectual exercise, neither of which really interest me.

    As a couple of other folks have said, you have to bring these huge issues down to stakes where readers are invested in the outcome. The easiest way to do that is to focus on well-developed characters whose actions and motivations are recognizable and relatable.

    Though I do love a good apocalypse now and again, I’m mostly interested in “ordinary” people dealing with recognizably real-word situations. The truth is, most of us are not James Bond action heroes able to save the world through our individual actions. If you’re going to go up against global conspiracies, you’re up against institutions and individuals that are extremely powerful, and all the weapons, both real and metaphoric, are on their side. Realistically, you don’t get to defeat those villains. Mostly, you just have to try and do your best and figure out how you’re going to live with that reality. That’s what interests me.

  8. World destruction is a hugely global theme and one that ensures the high stakes necessary for a high octane thriller, however the theme can be put through various permutations. Imagine a situation where the world is dying, humanity has destroyed its own resources and we have a colony in outer space created for the future of the human race. Imagine a mix of thriller and sci-fi in this scenario: men and women from around the world gather to take the big trip away from the earth beneath a dying sun, while some alien superpower threatens to destroy our space habitat.
    Another angle is this: to many people their own family is the most important, and a real moral dilemma would be this: the hero is fighting to save the planet while his children are kidnapped by the enemy, he can either save his children or the planet. What would you do?

  9. Richard, I would save my own children every time. I guess that’s why I prefer the thriller threats to be more personalised rather than apocalyptic.

  10. Lisa,

    “I want to care about the characters, and it’s hard for me to cope with caring and mass slaughter at the same time.”

    Beautifully said.

  11. Hi everyone,
    Though I am all for a good end-of-the-world James Bond style thriller, I chose this topic as I tend to think along different lines. I write international religious thrillers (my protagonists investigate cults worldwide) and I like to ponder humankind’s place in the cosmos, explore the origins of being, and question the state of the soul. If something beyond this life does exist – an “afterlife” – then it would seem to me that there are higher stakes than the destruction of the world (weighty though that may be). Also, I think it is likely that we will one day explore the stars and populate other planets, and so the destruction of this planet, or another planet, would not necessarily be the worst that could happen. Thus, I posture that the highest stakes possible are: 1) the destruction of the universe (come to think of it, that would be a pretty cool thriller), and 2) the destruction of an individual soul.

  12. Good morning all. Sorry to be late.

    I agree with what’s been said here wholeheartedly. For sure they idea of external versus internal view point is important when you write a story and like Lisa, I love stories that are primarily character driven. To that end what motivates your protagonist(s)– be it children, family, their own soul etc– has to become what captivates the reader.

    Perhaps the theme is global destruction, but to the character that may mean nothing except what will happen to her children, or his wife, etc.

    I like Richard’s premise of the conflict between saving humanity being in conflict with saving your family. That would allow immense character development.

    I also greatly appreciate the idea of the character losing their own soul or humanity being at times as high stakes as end of the world scenarios.

    One of the keys to Ludlum’s early work was the theme of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances and to that end I again agree with Lisa that this makes for great character study. In my work, that is why I am drawn to the supernatural twists I write into my thrillers. It gives me the freedom to build believable characters that help the reader accept the bizarre circumstances, sure, but it also provides tremendous opportunity to take the characters into situations where the reader can learn things about them which the characters themselves didn’t know before.

  13. So we’re in agreement about a few things, the big one being: If you don’t care about the characters in a story, there are no stakes.

    I have another question: Why do you think end-of-the-world thrillers are so popular? I have some ideas, but want to hear your thoughts first.

    And dibs on Layton’s Destruction of the Universe thriller, if he doesn’t want it.

    1. Meg I think their popularity stems from the sense of comfort derived from the anticipated ending in what is ultimately a morally conservative genre. We all return safely to our lives.

    2. Meg: it’s a big theme, we should collaborate. As to your question, I think end of the world thrillers are so popular because it takes arguably the highest stake of all (death) and makes it individual, since it would affect everyone on earth. I.e., it sort of combines what many are discussing in this thread, in that the end of the world becomes, by necessity, a personal story. Extending this line of thinking, a plausible scenario concerning the destruction of the universe, told in first person and centered around highly individual stakes to the narrator, might possibly be the most powerful story of all. A personal tale that could affect us all!

  14. When I was writing the NUMA Files, in each succeeding novel the threat of world destruction grew in degree and scope. In Polar Shift, the concept reached its zenith with the bad guys inadvertently near to causing a shift in the poles that would cause huge loss of life, and totally mess up the planet with volcanoes, earthquakes floods and other nasty things. When it came time to choose a concept for the next book, I wondered what could be worse than the Big Kaboom! Not much, I decided, so I went back to tried and true, the search for an ancient relic that held the key to Solomon’s gold mines. I think thriller writers will continue to devise clever ways to destroy the earth, but I wonder if we should all be alert to the risk of boring readers or becoming cliché simply by making the plots more fiendish. The way around this, of course, is not by escalating the stakes, but with appealing characters and a fresh plot. I tried to do this in my new novel. The stakes are still high, with thousands of deaths possible, and a portent of greater trouble ahead. But I worked hard on the characters, and hope that it works just as well as the Big Kaboom.

  15. I agree with Jeffrey and Lisa that it’s the ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances who reveal stakes that are higher than world destruction. The characters in Nevile Shute’s “On The Beach,” ordinary characters all, show this by revealing the end of all human life–all the loves, feelings and emotions that will also come to an end, even as the world continues on. “This is the way the world ends . . . not with a bang, but a whimper.”

  16. I think Richard is right on, Meg. I think readers (though maybe I’m projecting my preferences as a reader) like to see deep inside people and I think that the apocalyptic plot is a good way to get there.Or maybe just the thriller plots in general, with apocalyptic stories being just an easy and extreme example. You can see so much evolution and uncovered heroism as well as the dark side of characters when they are thrust into horrible situations. I have used this analogy before, but it is like the big, buff super confident dude, who tramples over a six year old girl when the gunfire starts at a grocery store, or the shy timid librarian who gives her life to save an old man. The situation unmasks all the fears and frailties and hidden gems of the characters in ways that other genres can’t.

    Leaving a story feeling like you grew up with the people the writer introduces you to is an awesome feeling as a reader and these situations make it easy to see the naked, inner person, stripped of their everyday masks

    1. Thanks Jeff. Yes I think the problem with dramatising end of the world scenarios is just that, most people are focused on their families and friends, so we start from the the microcosm and work our way out, perhaps that is why Moby Dick remains a seminal work of fiction, the Pequod is a microcosm of early US democracy.

    2. Thinking about Meg’s question I have one. Given the fact that the world is sharply fragmented in its identity, and the US and UK seen as enemies by large sections of it, how easy is it to make the sense of global disaster something all readers can relate to and care about?

      1. Interesting question. Considering that the destruction of the entire world would threaten everybody with losing their home and thus their lives, I think all readers could relate to it. (This is separate from whether end-of-the-world stories are popular in a particular part of the world.) And in a story, the world isn’t required to act as one. There can be factions and villains. Some thrillers I’ve read set up the USA as a bad guy.

  17. I think another aspect of the apocalyptic plot is the freedom it gives the writer to dump the everyday trappings. When your (hopefully well drawn, three-dimensional!) characters are facing stakes that high, you strip away the need to show them in their ordinary situations, going to work/school/etc. All that is cast aside and they’re forced to contend with new realities and challenges. I think this is part of Jeffrey’s point, or an offshoot of it.

  18. Nice to see so many of the authors agree on the need for character. I particularly like Richard’s comment about how the struggles of ordinary people facing the looming catastrophe in “On the Beach” are what make the book stand out from the doomsday crowd.

    1. Thanks Paul. Global issues are hard to render fictionally because it is too easy to lose the honed characters needed for good drama, readers want to care and it is hard to do that about a collective.

      1. I completely agree, Richard. So it becomes a challenge of point of view. You can still render a vision of a collective, but seen through the eyes of a relatable character makes it real and much more personal.

        End of the world thwarted by an action hero type character can work, but it can never give the gut wrenching emotional intensity of the same story told through the eyes of a realistic and relatable character just saving thier family or their soul in the setting of the end of the world.

    2. Thanks, Paul. I think Shute walked a tightrope with “On The Beach” because one error on his part and we’d have been left with a propaganda-ridden story instead of the deeply personal one that he provided. I once heard something that I love: “Sometimes the death of one’s soul is worse than physical death.”

  19. Great conversation. What’s at stake is what pulls the reader in. My preference is to both read and write stories in which the stakes are personal. Normal people tossed into unexpectedly violent or tense situations where at least their personal world is at stake, and likely a big part of the local population, but I don’t think global in scope of my stories.

    Personally I find that world destruction is not as great a threat as some might think. If a person comes at life from a Christian or similar worldview the end of the world, even the end of the universe is merely the next step to the good stuff. CS Lewis in the last book of the Chronicles of Narnia, “The Last Battle” portrays that end as a reward for the good guys. Similarly there is the Battlestar Gallactica template of flying off the big blue marble if things get bad.

  20. You are definitely right, Lisa. But then that brings in another challenge. You still need to bring in some of the mundane whether through inappropriate humor seen in a moment of tragedy or reflection on everyday things during an ebb in the action. Done too much it terribly drags the pace of the story, but a little of the everyday can make the characters more life like and relatable.

    I also agree strongly with the Basil, and I think that is why we all seem to agree that the loss of soul, or humanity, or family, or self seems so much larger that just the apocalypse seen in isolation. End of the world works, but takes on much larger stakes in the context of personal loss for realistic characters.

  21. I think the appeal of apocalypse lit, aside from how it reveals characters stripped of their normal contexts, is that it’s the ultimate escape for readers — I mean, how many of us hate our jobs, are frustrated by our leaders, have trouble paying the bills, fight with our spouses and our kids? In the zombie apocalypse, you mostly worry how good your head shot is!

    1. And people always imagine that they’ll be among the survivors.

      I wrote a novel, China Lake, in which a violent religious sect thinks it can bring about the Apocalypse. One of the good guys explains why the sect longs for this: when it’s your apocalypse, you’re convinced you’ll be one of the lucky few who live. And everybody you hate — infidels, your mother-in-law, that annoying boss — will be gone, toasted in the cleansing fire.

      And think of all those free Ferraris, just sitting in the dealership ripe for the taking.

  22. Jeff writes: “the loss of soul, or humanity, or family, or self seems so much larger that just the apocalypse seen in isolation. End of the world works, but takes on much larger stakes in the context of personal loss for realistic characters.”

    Exactly. This is a huge reason why such stories exert such a hold over us. The stakes aren’t just life and death. The stakes are extinction: the loss of the future. And that frightens us on a visceral, primal level.

    I’m really talking myself into writing that end-of-the-universe thriller here.

  23. Lisa writes: “In the zombie apocalypse, you mostly worry how good your head shot is!”

    Meg writes: “And think of all those free Ferraris, just sitting in the dealership ripe for the taking.”

    My my, aren’t we some hedonistic authors! I will add that Venice will be much more navigable. And Francis Ford Coppola’s wine cellar might need a visit (though he’ll probably have found a way to survive.)

    On a more serious note, I agree with you, Meg, that all of this discussion has made me want to write an apocalyptic something or other. Some really great analysis on what makes those stories tick.

  24. I agree with Lisa B–apocalyptic thrillers take the reader far away from the everyday and in doing so provide the ultimate escape from daily reality. From the writer’s point of view, the escape from the everyday conveniently strips the characters of the daily “protections” we take for granted. Cell phones often don’t work, for example, so the character isn’t just a 9-1-1 call away from help. Cell phones are such a pain in the rear when you put your character in danger and want them to do something other than simply dial for help!

  25. I’ve gotten a little sloppy here, conflating the end of the world with a mere apocalypse. There’s a whole menu of apocalyptic fiction (zombie, asteroid, super flu, mad chicken attacks, etc) in which a remnant of humanity generally survives on Earth. (The Stand, The Road, World War Z.) In those books, a large chunk of the story often takes place in the aftermath.

    But in a true end-of-the-world tale, if worse comes to worst, Earth is gone, baby, gone. End of story. So the question for writers is: What’s the goal of the story? Saving the planet? Or is it evacuating to someplace else? If so, what’s the conflict?

    And can anybody think of novels where the world is in fact destroyed? The one that comes to mind for me is (spoiler alert) Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End. I read it in college and it truly freaked me out. Just thinking about it now, I want to go find a puppy to hug.

    1. Bingo.

      And the destruction of the world means the death of the future — no children, no “living on” through our descendants. It’s permanent night. Those stakes are pretty damn high, and should give characters in a story mighty compelling motivation to beat the Reaper.

  26. I think we all want to be a hero. An end-of-the-world thriller gives us a chance to become one, through the eyes of the character. How’s that for an explanation? 🙂

    1. Interesting way to look at it, Evonne.

      I’d say it’s a safe way of exploring the ultimate existential fear. If such a dire threat will “never happen,” readers can immerse themselves in a story where it does, and feel personally secure.

      It’s the same reason little kids love dinosaurs. They’re scary, but extinct. They can’t hurt you.

    2. That’s a great explanation. And, as always, stories can teach us how we might behave under extreme pressure — they can show us how to be the heroes we want to become.

      How’s that for confirmation?

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