February 14-20: “Readers seem to expect plot twists and surprises told inside a familiar story structure. How do you reconcile this?”

Join ITW members Larry D. Thompson, Sharon Linnea, Glenn Cooper, Kate White, Joe McKinney , Edgar Franzmann, Weyman Jones, John Dobbyn, and Neil Plakcy for another terrific Roundtable discussion!

You won’t want to miss it!

Larry D. Thompson has drawn on decades of experience in the courtroom to craft page-turning legal thrillers.  A Texas native, he tried more than 300 lawsuits before scratching the itch to be a novelist.  He continues to be a trial lawyer but has just completed his third novel, THE TRIAL, to be published by Thomas Dunne Books and St. Martin’s Press on March 29, 2011.

Sharon Linnéa’s latest books were a trilogy of thrillers, CHASING EDEN, BEYOND EDEN and TREASURE OF EDEN from St. Martin’s Press (new versions out next year!) Her next novel is THESE VIOLENT DELIGHTS, a mystery that will be released in May 2011. Sharon wrote award-winning biographies of Raoul Wallenberg and Hawaii’s Princess Kaiulani before turning to fiction. Visit her at SharonLinnea.com

Physician, biotech executive, screenwriter and film producer, Glenn Cooper’s debut thriller, LIBRARY OF THE DEAD, was published in 2009 with translation in 30 countries. It was a top ten bestseller in the UK, Spain and Italy. The sequel, BOOK OF SOULS was published worldwide in 2010 to similar success. THE TENTH CHAMBER is coming out in 2010/11, followed by THE DEVIL WILL COME. In total he has about 1.5 million copies in print.

Kate White is the veteran editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan, and also a critically acclaimed author of both fiction and nonfiction books, including9 Secrets of Women Who Get Everything They Want, Lethally Blond, andHush. White currently resides in Manhattan with her husband and two children. Her New York Times bestselling thriller Hush is just out in paperback.

Joe McKinney is the San Antonio-based author of several horror, crime and science fiction novels. His longer works include the four part Dead World series, Quarantined, and the crime novel, Dodging Bullets.  In his day job, Joe McKinney is a sergeant with the San Antonio Police Department, but he has also worked as a homicide detective and as a disaster mitigation specialist.  Joe currently lives and works in a small town north of San Antonio with his wife and children.

Edgar Franzmann, born in 1948, lives in Cologne/Germany. After thirty years as a newspaper editor he is now editor-in-chief of the official Cologne website. His first novel „Millionenallee“ („Millionaires’ Avenue“) was published in 2009, his second novel „Der Richter-Code“ („The Richter Code“) will follow in April 2011. He writes thrillers set in Cologne, a city of one million inhabitants and a history of 2,000 years. Franzmann is a member of „Syndikat“, the German mystery writers’ organisation.

Weyman Jones‘ writing career began with magazine fiction. He then wrote three books for young readers. HIs historical novel for pre-teens, The Edge of Two Worlds, went to seven printings and earned the Lewis Carroll Shelf and the Western Heritage Awards. It was selected by both the School Library Journal and Book World as one of the best books of the year and was designated a notable book by the American Library Association.   It’s now being prepared with a new set of illustrations for republication. A non-fiction book on computers was published in several languages, and his biography is included in Something About the Author, a reference series about prominent authors of juvenile and young adult literature.

John Dobbyn has two legal thrillers published by Oceanview Publishing. His first, NEON DRAGON, deals with the Chinese tong in Boston’s Chinatown. FRAME UP, ranging from Eastern Europe to London and Boston, deals with art theft and forgery as practiced by the Russian mafia. His third novel, BLACK DIAMOND, deals with horse racing and a skirmish between the IRA in Ireland and the Irish mafia in Boston. It is due for publication in Nov. 2011.

Neil Plakcy is the author of MahuMahu SurferMahu Fire and Mahu Vice (August 2009), mystery novels which take place in Hawaii, as well as the collection Mahu Men: Mysterious and Erotic Stories. His M/M romance novels are GayLife.com (MLR Press, 2009), Three Wrong Turns in the Desert (Loose Id, 2009) and Dancing with the Tide (Loose Id, 2010). His mystery novel In Dog We Trust is available for all e-book readers through Amazon.com and Smashwords. He is co-editor of Paws & Reflect: A Special Bond Between Man and Dog (Alyson Books, 2006) and editor of the gay erotica anthologies Hard Hats (Cleis Press, 2008), Surfer Boys (Cleis Press, 2009) and Skater Boys (Cleis Press, 2010). Plakcy is a journalist and book reviewer as well as an assistant professor of English at Broward College’s south campus in Pembroke Pines. He is a member of Sisters in Crime, vice president of the Florida chapter of Mystery Writers of America, and a frequent contributor to gay anthologies.

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  1. Interesting question. After some thought, I reconcile the conflict by finding that there is no conflict. First, to compare other genres, True crime stories thrive on the REALITY aspect of the bizarre crimes related. Romance novels depend heavily on some combination of sex and love. Historical novels would be empty unless the plot were draped around a good dose of teaching the reader about an unfamiliar era. (Broad generalizations I admit, but bear with me.) Mysteries as a genre, on the other hand, are primarily sustained by satisfying the readers expectation of original, unexpected, and surprising twists and turns of plot. The most defining ingredient is the final exposure through some unforeseen twist of the plot of WHODUNIT.Without the jarring revelation of the secret that is at the heart of the story, could we call it a mystery? Without a final release of the tensions and dangers that we’ve built into the lives of our main characters by some final explosive plot event that hopefully knocks the reader out of his/her chair could we call it a thriller?
    In other words, far from being a conflict, the genre is defined (with notable exceptions) by enough twists of plot and character to give the reader whiplash, the absence of which would leave the mystery/thriller buff in a state of abject boredom – not great for book sales.

  2. Okay, I admit it, this question gets to the heart of what gets my juices flowing. For some people, it’s finishing a Rubik’s Cube in 15 seconds, for others it’s extreme surfing. For me, it’s truly surprising readers while playing by the rules of the thriller or mystery genre. Give me a buzz every time.

    Taking a step back, my favorite thing about reading a thriller or mystery is…well, first, it’s finding a world I want to fall into, with characters I don’t want to leave. But then, it’s all about story. I want the author to weave a plot that has one fully satisfying ending, one that checks all the boxes and exhausts the needs of the main characters and makes the world a little righter place. I want it all to make sense. I want to heave a sigh of relief that it’s come to such a fulfilling conclusion.

    And I want to be surprised as hell at what it is.

    This is not easy for any author to pull off. Today’s readers—and viewers– are a very savvy bunch. We KNOW that the biggest name guest star, though a seemingly unassuming character, is the murderer and will have a star-turn before the show is over. We know, in a good mystery, that the perpetrator will be introduced early in the book (some formulas dictate within the first 50 pages), and it will be the last person you expect. Which means the last person you’d expect is the first person the readers suspects. We don’t want the author to withhold information in a cheating kind of way.

    So how do you pull off surprises while still using the most important rules of the genre?

    For me, as I said, reading thrillers or mysteries is an active sport. All the way through, with every clue or parsed piece of information, I try to figure it out. I try to see what makes sense, what the author wants me to think, and who is behind the curtain to the left. For spinning a good mystery is like being a great magician. It’s sleight of hand and misdirection.

    To do that, you have to turn the sport of mystery-solving into the extreme sport of mystery-shrouding. You have to know what the reader is thinking and use that to string her along. Hide your clues so they’re barely noticeable—and point in the wrong direction. The reader has to think he’s really onto you now. And for a while, let it seem that he is.
    My upcoming mystery THESE VIOLENT DELIGHTS is the plot of which I’m proudest. I’ve had the highest percentage of “I didn’t guess—but it made perfect sense” comments coming from readers. And here’s the secret of what I did: I gave virtually all the characters motive, including the actual culprit. In fact, I have someone speak out loud exactly who did it and how that person covered it up—then had another character give a (completely bogus) reason that theory couldn’t be right. The true motives are all deeply rooted emotional needs that are played out but not put into words. You see it happening right in front of you, but since no one speaks it, most people don’t notice. It’s the large issue that ISN’T discussed…the proverbial elephant in the room, like that great YouTube video where you’re so busy counting how many times the players pass the ball that you don’t notice a giant bear that walks by.

    Bottom line: be a reader. Know the tricks you look for as you read. Then respect your reader, use the tricks, but to a different end.

  3. I’m the author of three fairly successful zombie novels: Dead City (2006), Apocalypse of the Dead (2010), and Flesh Eaters (2011). I’m also a regular guest at horror conventions across the country, where I’ve sat through more interviews and panel discussions on zombies than I care to remember. And all that talk about everybody’s favorite undead shambler has taught me that fans of the zombie genre really do crave unique twists on some fairly conventional plot structures. For example, pick up just about any zombie book, movie or video game, and chances are you’ll see ruined cityscapes, human bad guys who are far more monstrous than the zombies themselves, lovingly clinical descriptions of oozing wounds and cannibalism that are almost poetic in their grossness, a zombie plague originating from some kind of virus, and a ragtag assembly of unlikely survivors. Add to those conventional elements the fact that the market is simply flooded with zombie books, and it would seem difficult in the extreme to stand out from the crowd.

    Despite the fact that I’ve been writing professionally for several years now, I’ve held on to my day job as a cop. I’ve worked as a regular patrolman, a disaster mitigation specialist, a homicide detective, and, most recently, the supervisor of the San Antonio Police Department’s 911 Center. I’ve used elements of each of those jobs in my zombie fiction, and I think that unique perspective has helped me twist the conventions of the zombie story in some novel ways.

    Police procedure is nothing new to horror fans. After all, you can’t have a barn full of dead bodies without the sheriff showing up eventually. Zombie fiction is no exception. The difference, of course, is the scope of the horror. Traditionally, horror has been restricted to the experiences of one person, or sometimes a small group, such as a family, encountering something way beyond their control. Developing this type of plot is a fairly easy matter. Intrude the extraordinary into the ordinary, show it to the average Joe, and watch him squirm as he struggles to hold on to his sanity. Things get even better when that same average Joe has to explain the horror to a disbelieving authority figure. Think of all those horror movies you watched growing up, the ones where the two teenagers have to go to the local sheriff and explain the crazy things they just saw, and you’ll see what I mean.

    One of the things I noticed when I first started writing zombie stories was that most authors were still using the mechanics of the traditional horror story to describe the outbreak. Consider Night of the Living Dead – the movie that started it all – as a prime example. Here we have a global pandemic, the apocalypse reaching into every darkened corner the world over, and yet the story is told almost entirely within the confines of a small Pennsylvania farm house. The theatrical tension comes from the conflicting personalities of those caught in the farmhouse as they await the rescue by the police and the military. Fans of the recent hit movie Shaun of the Dead will hear echoes of this in Shaun’s plan to “head to the Winchester and wait for all of this to just blow over.”

    It’s this passive role of the main characters I wanted to play with. I didn’t want to have my characters hunker down and wait for their brutal end. I wanted my characters to move through the horror, get hip deep in it. Using police officers for my main characters not only allowed me to mix it up with the zombies on their own turf, but also allowed me to show the complete collapse of civil authority, which to me is every bit as frightening as the walking dead. So, instead of having a small cast of characters waiting on rescue, I had the rescuers experiencing the horror. I showed readers the conventions they wanted to see, but added that special twist they hadn’t seen before.

    Character is the key here. Find a unique point of view to tell the story, and even the same old tired plot conventions can seem new again.

  4. I agree with the first statement that thriller readers expect plot twists and surprises and why shouldn’t they? These devices are fun to read and fun to write and spice up a book immeasurably. However, I’m not so sure at all that these elements must necessarily exist within a conventional or familiar story structure. For example, make liberal use of surprises and twists but my stories usually evolve in multiple time planes with points of intersection which only become clear as the novels progress. Although some thriller elements are perhaps sacrosanct — strong protagonists and antagonists, big stakes, fast pace — I think readers are open to unfamiliar, unconventional or even experimental story structures. As long as there’s a good story!

  5. For me, plot twists come out of character. How will my characters respond to what’s going on around them? They’re all human beings, with unique and strange reasons for why they do what they do. My detective hero, Honolulu homicide investigator Kimo Kanapa’aka, has a tendency to rush into things without thinking them all the way through. In many cases that pushes suspects to do something unexpected.

    Other times, a character will blurt something out that takes the investigation in a new direction. Or a new piece of evidence will crop up that sheds a different light on the investigation.

    Sometimes these are pure serendipity for me. The idea just pops into my head and I go with it. I often get about halfway through a book and then have to go back and plot out exactly how the crime happened, so I know which little clues to salt in– or how to make something that’s just come up work within the story.

  6. I’m a litle late in jumping into this discussion and for that I apologize. However, I must say that have learned much about the craft just from reading the posts so far. I also concede that I’m the new kid on the block. My second novel, THE TRIAL, is being published by Thomas Dunne/St. Martin’s on March 29. My first two novels end with a trial, as will my next. Having been a trial lawyer, one thing I have experienced literally hundreds of times is a twist in a real trial that I planned or sometimes I never saw coming, all in the confines of a familiar courtroom environment. My belief is that plot twists and a familiar story structure are not mutually exclusive. In fact, I think our readers want that story structure and the plots twists. Mayabe have their cake and eat it?

  7. In addition to writing mysteries and thrillers (Hush is my latest), I’m the editor in chief of a magazine, and over the years I’ve seen some incredibly crazy plot twists occur in my day job. One day I came in to work and was told that a young woman in the art department wouldn’t be in because she’d had a baby, but no one knew she’d even been pregnant. Another day my new photo director took me aside and told me she would need a fairly significant amount of time off because her husband had been kidnapped by the Taliban in Afghanistan and she was negotiating his release. Unfortunately when you put this kind of stuff in a book, it can feel lame or fake. That’s why I think you have to do what Neil says– make plot twists come out of character and that means you really have to develop your characters before you start writing. For the last several books I’ve written, I’ve actually interviewed a shrink I know to get a a sense of how certain personality types respond in different situations. It’s been very helpful. I also think a certain amount of foreshadowing makes plot twists seem more believable and less like deux ex machina.

  8. Last week I met my editor for the final discussion about my new thriller “Der Richter-Code” (The Richter Code) that will be published in April.
    We were reading the whole manuscript and she explained her thoughts and suggestions.
    The name of the bad guy is already revealed in the middle of the novel, not to the hero, but to the reader. She said: “At first I thought, this might be a fault. But reading on I saw, that you were right to do this. You changed the `whodunit` to a `whydunit` with a lot of new and surprising twists.”
    I believe that each mystery novel and thriller need those plot twists and surprises. That’s what the reader expects: always the same, only different.
    The author’s jobh is to have still one more surprise to come.

  9. Sharon, I’m with you. I want all of the things you do in a thriller/mystery, especially to be “surprised as hell” at the ending. As much as I want to figure it out, I love to find an author who can fool me. It’s my own version of a Rubik’s Cube!

    That said, the story structure can be familiar, but the twists and turns of the plot need to be fresh—along with the characters. Like Edgar said, “Always the same, only different.”

    Kate, you have hit on something that makes devising those twists and turns even more of an art form (if I may claim that it is!). Real life is stranger than fiction. So many things happen to us every day—things that if we included them in our fiction, that loud-mouthed voice in the back of our creative minds would scream, “Contrived!”

  10. Kate, you’ve given me a great idea for a lunch speaker for my chapter of MWA — a psychologist explaining how different personality types would respond in stressful situations!

    And I think you’re right about foreshadowing and planning. If you establish early on that a character is impulsive, when he or she goes chasing off after the villain it will be more believable. In a current WIP I established a bit of menace by having a low-rider car full of alleged gang members cruising around my hero’s apartment building parking lot. Later in the book, one of the twists is discovering who those guys in the car really are and what their purpose is.

    (And by the way, my M/M romance/adventure, MI AMOR, releases today in e-book form from Loose Id: http://www.loose-id.com/Mi-Amor.aspx)

  11. It seems pretty obvious to me that most of the commercial fiction published each year is formulaic. After all, a legal thriller where the underdog defense attorney fails to acquit his client, or the romance where the hero and heroine fail to hook up, or the vampire story where the vampire fails to wrestle with his tortured soul, or the thriller where the hero fails to save the day, is probably not going to get very far. It probably won’t even get published. There are exceptions, of course, but nearly every work published each year obeys the rules of its genre’s particular formula.

    There’s nothing wrong with that. We buy commercial fiction knowing full well what we’re getting. We are willing to read the formulaic story because it satisfies some craving within us. I’ve bought books knowing how they’re going to end, and that knowledge hasn’t done a thing to diminish my pleasure as I read through to the last page.

    So why do we keep coming back? If the formula is so set, why don’t we just read the same book over and over again?

    The answer, as several of us have stated above, is character. There’s nothing new plotwise in Tony Hillerman’s books, for example, but we read them because Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn gave us characters we hadn’t seen before. There are countless examples of this, but the final answer is that character is king. Show us a new point of view, a new way of looking at the same old thing, but with different eyes, and we will read late into the night every time.

  12. Neil and Joe, I’m with you! To me, the plot exists to reveal character; in fact, I always feel that the hero(ine) is having this adventure, coming up against this villain at this time in his or her life for a reason. They’re in some ways yin and yang. (In fact, my private joke is that all of my books could have the same subtitle: The Redemption of _____ Name of Protagonist). By the end of the story, she’ll have confronted many of her fears and demons; she’ll come out the other end stronger, older and wiser, sense of humor intact. Hopefully that is the journey the reader will want to go on, every bit as much as the surprises in the plot. That’s what truly breathes life into the beats of the book.

    And, by the way, when we speak of formula here, I think we’re talking of things that work for a reason–for example, introducing the perpetrator early on instead of having it be someone at the last minute you’ve never met and had no way of suspecting–not complete story beats where you can put names and locations into a software program and –poof!–have a novel. Although if someone invents that, let me know.

  13. Ah, that’s the crux of the problem, isn’t it, Joe? How do we stay within the formula, yet be creative and perhaps novel in how we do it. I think that keeps all of us awake as we outline the novel (for those of us that do) and send the characters on their way through the story. Personally, I want my legal thrillers to be different from the others and from the ones I’ve already written. I choose not to write about the same characters with each novel. Part of the reason is that I often see our fellow writers taking those characters and merely re-arrranging the furniture. Sometimes, I think, “I’ve read this story three times already.” But then I keep reading because the writing captures my attention. I have a proposal out to my publisher as we “converse” that I believe will be a legal thriller that readers will consume, hopefully in a couple or three sittings, but captures that different feeling that I keep looking for. We’ll see if I can pull it off.

  14. Sharon, you make an excellent point about plot elements that work for a reason. Your example of introducing the bad guy early on so that we as readers don’t feel like you the author cheated on us is spot on. But I don’t think we’ve really even started to describe the many ways a new type of character can make the same old same old seem brand new. Look at any master thriller writer, and then look at their characters, and you can see this is true. From Martin Cruz Smith’s Arkady Renko, to Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan, to David Morrell’s John Rambo, to Tony Hillerman’s Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn, great characters have a cascading influence throughout a work. They color our perception of every other story element. Setting is just one of a huge list of examples. Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn got such an enthusiastic welcome from readers because they showed us the beauty and uniqueness of the world as they know it. They open doors for us, give us a look into cultures we would otherwise have never been lucky enough to see. Great characters, in all their uniqueness, put us under such a thoroughly convincing spell that we as readers tend to forget that the plots they inhabit obey a fairly typical formula.

  15. just two final thoughts as the week winds down:

    Neil, I think a psychologist would make a great speaker. A lot of us write about not just psychopaths (by the way, I recently heard a mystery writer recommend a great book on the subject, Without Conscience, and it’s been very helpful) but also border line personality types, narcissists, etc. The shrink I know has been able to tell me how characters with these conditions would behave in certain situations. It’s helped plot the twists.

    Also, though I like to think I’m pretty good with twists, I recently handed in a new thriller and my editor suggested a final final twist. I liked the idea a lot. And of course could kick myself for not thinking of it. Made me realize that even when you think you’ve nailed it, it’s always good to play the What If game one last time.

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