April 11th to 17th: “What can thriller writers learn from the movies?”

Inception, The Bourne Ultimatum, Silence of the Lambs

Join ITW members Neil Plakcy, Charlie Cochrane, AM Riley, J. H. Bográn and Shane Briant as they discuss what thriller writers can learn from the movies!

As Charlie Cochrane couldn’t find any ‘classic age’ murder mysteries featuring a gay detective pairing (she refuses to count Holmes and Watson as partners in anything other than investigation), she decided to write her own. The eighth Cambridge Fellows Mysteries book from Samhain came out in e-book in February 2011. Charlie was named Author of the Year 2009 by the review site Speak Its Name.

Neil Plakcy is the author of Mahu, Mahu Surfer, Mahu 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.

As an actor, Shane Briant has starred in 35 films in the UK, USA, Australia, New Zealand and Europe. He has worked with 9 Academy Award winners. As a novelist, Shane has had 7  thrillers published, ‘The Webber Agenda,’ ‘ The Chasen Catalyst’, (Harper Collins) ‘Hitkids,’ ‘Bite of the Lotus,’ ‘Graphic,’ (Marburg Press) ‘ Worst Nightmares,’ (Vanguard Press) and ‘The Dreamhealer,’ (Marburg Press) His autobiography, ‘Always the BAD GUY,’ will be published in the UK soon. published in Australia, America and Germany.

J. H. Bográn, born and raised in Honduras, is the son of a journalist; he ironically prefers to write fiction rather than fact. José is the author of TREASURE HUNT, the first in the series of a professional thief that goes by the handle of The Falcon. Other works include short stories, contributor to The Big Thrill magazine, co-screenwriter for two TV serials and movie reviews for Honduran newspaper La Prensa.

  1. The biggest thing I’ve learned from the movies in general, and thrillers in particular, is when to begin and end scenes. I had a tendency to begin too early and carry on too long, and paying attention to movie structure has helped.

    I think we can also learn about the importance of visual information– how people are dressed, and what their surroundings are, can help establish the mood and the tension in our own stories.

    1. Neil – looks like we posted almost simultaneously, so excuse me for claiming to be ‘first off’.
      Love your point about visual information. Very important for the historical writer/film maker.

    2. I agree with Neil. It’s the immediacy of the medium of film that has persuaded me to write short fast chapters. Had I been Grahame Greene, Hemingway or the like I would have the luxury of being able to dwell on things that interest me in greater length. Yet because I write fast-paced thrillers I start strongly from the get go. I think thriller writers have to. When I write, because I have been a movie actor all my life, I see my words translated page by page into a visual image as one would see on the big screen. I like fast exciting films. But it MUST be intelligent and have lots of light and shade.

  2. Looks like I’m kicking off…

    What can Thriller Writers learn from the Movies?

    Don’t make the viewer/reader mad, for a start. I don’t know about you, but anachronisms or plot holes “do my head in” as my eighteen year old so politely puts it. I can wink at the odd error or loose end (wasn’t it Raymond Chandler who famously didn’t know who had committed one of the murders in The Big Sleep?) but if there are too many of them, I lose all interest in the film or book concerned. I’m a mild mannered girl (honest guv) but when it came to that bit in Jurassic Park where they talked about combining dinosaurian DNA with amphibian I almost threw a brick at the screen.

    So, lesson 1. Take care, check your facts and check your plot for holes below the waterline. Don’t lose readers because of something that was well within your control to sort out before your book hit the presses.

    Careful when you tinker about with franchises –the author of a series featuring a particular detective/s needs to be really cautious of changes to the bits that readers like and identify with. Look at the problems Conan Doyle had because of what he made happen at the Reichenbach falls. And it’s a rare film series that can keep up the quality – and make its fans happy – all the way through. I’m struggling to think of any original sequence of movies (apart from Wallace and Gromit!) which hasn’t tailed off in some way. Think of your own favourites (Star wars? POTC?) Was there a point where you realised that everything you loved from the first movie had gone overboard and the magic wasn’t there anymore?

    Lesson 2. Think long and hard before you make drastic changes to a much loved character/pairing/setting/concept. You might be getting a bit bored with your creation, but the fans might never forgive you for “ruining” things.

    Pace the action. Seems obvious to mix the roller coaster moments with a bit of time for readers/viewers to get their breath back although film makers/authors don’t always do it. That may be absolutely fine if it suits audience need, but sometimes it doesn’t. I was brought up on radio dramas, half an hour once a week, and they could be – just like the Saturday morning cinema serials – brilliant at getting the pacing spot on. Nice engaging start each week to get you hooked, natty little cliff-hanger at the end of the episode to get you to come back next time. If you ever read Charles Dickens’ books you’ll find a similar pattern, because he wrote for serialisation in magazines. Doesn’t have to be a big cliff-hanger at the end of chapters; a neat turn of phrase or a clear ending of one part of the story – a definitive action or speech by a character – works just as well and marks the transition to a new part of the tale.

    Lesson 3. Make your chapters work for you, marking off parts of the story and helping the reader go through the tale rather than just being arbitrary divisions of the plot, or solely based on location. And don’t cheat! We can all think of examples (those Saturday morning serials were the worst but the radio could play fast and loose just the same) where the hero or heroine was stuck in some impossible situation, only for the solution at the start of next week’s episode to be a total cop out. How swindled did we feel?

    Don’t short change your readers. Don’t get your hero into a fix and then have something little short of divine intervention get him out. Don’t withhold vital information about your heroine’s situation/the crime she’s solving. Make your clues obscure by all means but do put them in and don’t suddenly produce a cousin (three times removed who stands to inherit the estate) like a rabbit from a hat three pages from the end. On the other hand, don’t be too blooming obvious. We all know that when the well-upholstered man states at the start of the film that he used to be a tightrope walker, he’ll be called on to make some daring rooftop foray at some point, probably perishing in the process but saving that nine-year old girl. May have been new in the 1970’s, but it isn’t now.
    To paraphrase a bit from one of my favourite films, “Subtlety, always subtlety…”

  3. I always find it useful to decided for myself – ‘Could this be possible?’ More to the point. ‘Is this believable.’ To answer the question I ask myself ‘Could I have done this with the appropriate skills?’ If so, I carry on writing. If the particular task is to assemble a nuclear suitcase bomb it’s a matter of research. Research is EVERYTHING, I think.
    Another thing. Try to go everywhere your characters go. If the novel is set i the Artic circle it gets harder – but you have to go there. I tend to set my novels in America and Europe. Why? Because the American readership is vast and I am told most Americans prefer to read books that are set in their country. So with my new novel, “The Dreamhealer” I set it half an half in Los Angeles and Paris – I could write both research trips off agaianst tax and I adore Paris. (LA isn’t half bad either.)

      1. I would REALLY hesitate about the Arctic but if you go there on a film it’s the best way because the production company has to look after you. So I’d get a cozy tent!

  4. What I learned from the movies?
    In three simple words: action, action, action.
    Okay, I can add another three: attention to detail.
    Not so much nowadays, but we used to hear “oh, the book was better.” Movies are able to capture audiences employing two of the senses: we see and we hear the movies. Some people may say a few movies also stink, but that is just figure of speech. 🙂

    We authors have all five senses at our disposal, and then some. So paying close attention to the thriller genre in cinemas we can extract the basics of connections and expand them until we make reader think he is inside the story.

    My two cents.

  5. Hi Charlie,

    When I wrote that, I was thinking of “The Sixth Sense”. How on the second seeing you can pick up the details like Bruce Willis using variations of the same clothing he wore the first night or how the color red means a barrier, etc.
    And yes, I´m a confessed trivia freak, so I love the freaking details! LOL


  6. Shane,

    I also love the research part of the story. You get to meet interesting people, some times even go to places.
    Do you feel like a film maker using a lens to determine the best shots when you are visiting a location you plan to use in your plot? I know I do.


  7. To go in the opposite direction for a moment, my partner downloaded The Social Network for us and we watched it last night, and I kept thinking about all the things the movie did that I hate in fiction. There’s a constant jumping back and forth between the present and the past, for one thing.

    Mark Zuckerberg is the subject of two lawsuits over the creation of Facebook, and just when the movie is moving forward, the director jumps ahead to the depositions, then back to the story. STOP! Don’t interrupt the momentum of your thriller.

    There’s a point in the movie when the creator of Napster shows up, in bed with a girl. We haven’t seen either of these characters before. My partner asked me, “Who’s that?”

    I don’t like to be startled by the introduction of a new character or new voice in the middle of a story. Use an existing character to introduce that new person (unless of course he’s the villain and no one knows yet).

    Good movie– but bad ideas for thriller writers!

    1. *nods* So is giving away the ‘twist’ in the first few minutes (book or film). My eldest daughter is even better than I am at getting what’s going to happen. Cue shouts of “That’s blooming obvious” at the screen/page.

  8. Neil, what is that old saying “never have Aliens land on chapter 25.”? 🙂
    I found the social network to be confusing as well.

  9. I was a film studies major in college (Fat lot of good that did me) and in between watching silent movies and documentaries about Eskimos, I actually learned a thing or two about narrative. And what I picked up from the movies is the value of pacing. Movies don’t have too much time to waste, so they often cut out transitional material. More writers could benefit from doing the same.

    Think of it as a literary jump cut. Get rid of the paragraphs of your main character walking into buildings or driving his car or shaking hands and introducing himself to a stranger. All readers care about is what happens once he’s entered the building or arrived at his destination or squeezed out information from that stranger. Your book’s pace will be greatly improved because of it.

    P.S. I must defend The Social Network. Fantastic writing and a brilliant bit of pacing. By cutting back and forth that way, Sorkin kept the narrative momentum going. What should have been a dreadfully dull movie became a bullet train.

    1. Todd
      Interesting point about cutting out the transitional stuff; depends if you’re using it to set the context. I write historicals, so a few points about how someone arrived somewhere and what they did ( in a carriage, raised their hat to a lady, left a calling card, talked to the butler but didn’t shake his hand) paints a subtler picture of the era than having two characters discuss the Titanic…

  10. It’s interesting to note that occasionally giving away the end of a story early is the way to go. Viz “Chariots of Fire.” It was initially shown to test audiences with the race at the end. But everyone seemed to know who was going to win and the audiences said it was dull and predictable. So…they edited and placed the race at the beginning, THEN told the story of the runners. The rest (and the Oscar) is history.

    1. Shane
      I think we’re watching different versions of Chariots of Fire. I don’t remember the race being at the start – the runners exercising on the beach is.

  11. I just looked again at the title when I was browsing down and realized of the titles listed:
    Inception, The Bourne Ultimatum, Silence of the Lambs… only the first one is an original script while the other two were based on novels.

    Digressing maybe, but I find it fascinating to see how both mediums seem to feed on each other. Here we are discussing what we can learn from the movies while they are reading novels looking for their next blockbuster.

  12. Excellent comments, many thanks for the insight and discussion. My father is a playwright and theatrical director and I wonder if that background sometimes finds its way into my writing, not that I’m complaining. But your advice to engage all the reader’s senses is very sound.

    Just on a point of books –> movies, I’ve always found it fun to “spot” the change in TV serialisations when they run out of original material to TV-ise, and turn to original scripts. It’s a completely different feel, and personally I find the characterisation and plotting much thinner. But by then, of course, they hope the viewer has taken the series to their heart.

    1. ##TV serialisations when they run out of original material to TV-ise, and turn to original scripts. It’s a completely different feel, and personally I find the characterisation and plotting much thinner.##

      Excellent point, Clare. What’s the expression about series “jumping the shark”?

  13. Sorry to come so late to the party, folks. I work in the film industry, as it happens, and the schedule is unpredictable and merciless.

    The one thing I’ve learned from film is that character has to drive the story. The audience must feel engaged with a principal character. That character can be an S.O.B. as long as we can understand and sympathize with some aspect of his/her struggle.

    Film almost always cuts in on action these days. As mentioned above, there is less of a need to spend time on establishing location and character in film because so much is presented to you visually. (one picture worth a thousand words…) A good actor can bring a lot to a character that, perhaps, even the writer has not imagined.

    The best actors, you will notice, don’t give it all away. They are like big mirrors that the audience can imagine their own feelings in. Don’t describe TOO much. Let the reader experience the character in the story.

    The other thing I think I’ve learned from film is that marketing is everything.

    1. Am
      Good points. I started to answer this along the lines of ‘reminds me that books need a good start, to angage the reader’ and then went off on a tangent. If you pay to see a film at the cinema you’re pretty well stuck there till the end, unless it’s so appalling you walk out. Do you start looking for something in even the worst film to make you feel you’ve had your money’s worth? With a book it’s different – if it doesn’t grab you at the start you don’t have to buy it/finish reading it. Easier to ‘walk out’.

    2. Great point about character, AM. One thing that always bugs me (in both books and movies) is when a character is just flat and lifeless. I’d rather see a character make bad decisions than no decision at all and just let the action happen to him/her. This is seen more often in films than in books, but there are a lot of authors out there who feel an engaging character is secondary to an engaging plot. I prefer an engaging character AND an engaging plot.

  14. Charlie, I’ve walked out of theaters! I’ve even asked for my money back. Many theaters will reimburse you if the film is bad and you leave within a certain time limit.

    But I see your point. A slow second act won’t lose an audience and film makers know that and will gamble against audience boredom to cram in important information, or performances or scenes that are too beloved to cut. Writer’s can’t really afford to be precious. One bad chapter can lose a reader.

  15. AM calls it continuity…that’s worthy of an entire blog in itself. When you set a reader’s expectations, you have to follow through and either keep the rest of the story consistent with those expectations or violate them with due deliberation and stunning force.
    When a character sprains an ankle, the character must either hobble for days or accept shocking pain and joint damage in order to run.
    When a certain emotional outline of a character is drawn, the reader should be allowed to assume that anything triggering a reaction contrary to expectations is extremely important to the story. While layering of characters requires coloring outside the lines to a degree, groundwork should be laid and consequences accepted.
    How often do you find your characters shocking you, so that you have to sit back and consider where that came from and how to make it work in context?

    1. ###How often do you find your characters shocking you, so that you have to sit back and consider where that came from and how to make it work in context?###

      All the time!

  16. Great point, Amber. I was on a panel this evening with Christine Kling and PJ Parrish, and we all agreed that when something major happens to your character it has to matter, and to impact how he/she operates for the rest of the book– or series. The character who gets shot is not only physically hurt but can be emotionally hurt as well. That’s something that the movies often miss– the good guy gets banged around and immediately jumps up and goes on. In books we have to make sure the characters are more believable.

    1. I have a pal (you met her at the Old Market tavern in Bristol) who has a bee in her bonnet about tattoos and how people in books have major work and then next minute are running around like Spring lambs!

  17. AM,
    When I wrote movie reviews for a domestic newspaper, I couldn’t walk out of the theater even when I desperately wanted to in some occasions.
    On the other hand, we are big movie renters in my household. I love my wife’s rating system, if she falls sleep, the movie sucks. If she stayed up till the end, then it was good.

    And yes, “continuity” is the key word for details!


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