The Secret to Penning a Run Away Thriller
By Dawn Ius
Harlan Coben was sitting on a bench in Central Park watching a musician play some John Lennon when the first scene of his new thriller, RUN AWAY, came to him.
In it, his protagonist—successful Wall Street financial advisor Simon Greene—is sitting on that same bench when he realizes the panhandler in front of him is his drug-addicted daughter, Paige, whom he hasn’t seen in six months.
When he tries to approach her, Paige runs, leading Simon—and readers—down a dangerous trail of secrets, violence, and suspense in a novel that many are calling Coben’s best yet.
The praise comes as somewhat of a surprise to Coben, who admits that even after 31 books, 70 million copies sold, and several successful Netflix productions, his primary goal for every story is to tell one better than the last.
“It’s very hard for me to be objective about these things,” he says. “But I do love this book. And I think it’s resonating for a lot of reasons.”
Not the least of which is the end—a final “twist” that leaves a haunting, lingering effect, long after you’ve navigated the book’s winding journey through hard-hitting themes such as drug abuse, the prevalence of cults, and the impact of DNA technology.
Coben admits he did take an ancestry test—with somewhat disappointing results—but that’s about the extent of his research for this book. Actually, it’s about as much research as he would do for any book.
“It’s not necessary to the story for me to do too much research,” he says, adding that it’s actually more of a deterrent, because the rabbit holes are deep. Too deep—and that’s a potential problem. “Research is more fun than writing, and that can become a procrastination tool.”
Instead, Coben writes a scene, and then fills in the research blanks later. Or, as is sometimes the case, Coben simply draws from real life. One of the characters in RUN AWAY, for instance, is a pediatrician—which Coben’s wife is—and the dog in the book is named Laslo—as is Coben’s.
“I often scoff at the saying ‘write what you know’ but the truth is, that’s what ends up happening a lot of the time,” he says. “I just make stuff up, and sometimes I need to do a bit more research to keep things real and authentic.”
For RUN AWAY, that meant creating a story in which the reader would find genuine sympathy for the character who in everyday circumstances may not be that likeable—a city dweller who on the surface “appears to have it all.” High-powered career, a beautiful non-suburban home, not a financial care in the world. An “ordinary” man thrust into extraordinary circumstances, as is the character trope in many of Coben’s books.
This limited backstory was about as much as Coben had about his protagonist before launching him into the story, knowing little about how Greene’s actual journey would unravel aside from how it would end up. No detailed outline, no pages of backstory, no tried and true writing rituals to keep him on task—this is Coben’s well-worn process, and it goes without saying that the “formula” appears to work.
“If you know where a book is going to end up, it makes it a bit easier to write,” he says. “After I’d written Page 1 of RUN AWAY, I had a pretty good idea of how it was going to come together. I tend to plan out a little as I go. The key to writing is to write—and anything that helps me produce words is good.”
Coben is in need of that “help” because in addition to penning his next novel—another standalone—he is deeply involved as a writer in his many Netflix projects. The Stranger is in week four of filming, and much like sales of RUN AWAY, Coben says things are going “very good.”