June 20th to the 26th: “All stories boil down to either, someone went on a journey or a stranger comes to town. Do you agree?”

The late John Gardner suggested that all stories boil down to either, someone went on a journey or a stranger comes to town. Do you agree? At their very core, how do you view your thrillers? Thomas Kaufman, Reece Hirsch, Sidney Williams and CE Lawrence will discuss that, and more!

Reece Hirsch‘s debut legal thriller THE INSIDER was published by Berkley Books in May 2010.  Reece is a partner in the San Francisco office of Morgan, Lewis & Bockius specializing in privacy, security and healthcare law.  He is also a member of the board of directors of 826 National, a San Francisco-based non-profit organization that conducts writing programs for young people in underserved communities.

Sidney Williams is the author of MIDNIGHT EYES, a new crime thriller from Crossroad Press. It’s currently available in e-book format and coming in trade paperback. He is also the author of several mass market paperback horror thrillers. For a number of years, he worked as a reporter, often covering the late night police beat. He has also worked as a librarian and web editor. He holds an MFA from Goddard College.

C.E. Lawrence is the byline of a New York-based suspense writer, performer, composer and prize-winning playwright whose previous books have been praised as “lively. . .” (Publishers Weekly); “constantly absorbing. . .” (starred Kirkus Review); and “superbly crafted prose” (Boston Herald). Silent Screams and Silent Victim are the first two books in her Lee Campbell thriller series.  Silent Kills comes out later this year.  Her other work is published under the name of Carole Bugge.

Thomas Kaufman is the author of DRINK THE TEA.  He is also an Emmy award-winning motion picture director & cameraman who has spent a lot of time with cops, filming “The FBI Files,” “The Prosecutors,” and “New Detectives” for Discovery.

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  1. I’ve always found that to be an intriguing comment. I also like Willa Cather’s remark that “There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before.”

    On the other hand, reductionist philosophies are all inherently flawed, I suppose – including this one. Though it probably accounts for a larger majority of stories than most, especially if you stretch it to be metaphorical or non-literal in some cases.

    In other words, someone “coming to town” could be the protagonist seeing a familiar character in a new way, etc. But I think his observation is a good place to start thinking about narrative – a good way of describing a lot of great Inciting Incidents, in all genres.

    My thrillers are all about someone “coming to town,” in a way, since they involve serial killers!

  2. I’ve always been interested in arch types and the heart of storytelling, so I believe universal human themes emerge in all tales. As a reporter, I once had to do a series of profiles on pastors, and I found myself checking their accounts of their lives against Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, and of course, each life included calls to adventure and descents into the underworld and subsequent triumphs.

    Boiling stories down to the elements in question for this week’s discussion seems like a workable model.

    With a little bit of open mindedness, every thriller could be said to be a mixture of stranger’s arrival and journey. It just depends on definitions of stranger and journey.

    Every client for every private eye could be a stranger, after all, and every investigation a journey. Every killer could be considered the stranger as well.

    My first non-supernatural thriller Midnight Eyes involves both. A stranger is killing businessmen in Sheriff Ty Hood’s jurisdiction. Hood’s son, Wayland, an FBI consultant, must travel home, on a journey back to self perhaps, to face issues with his father while assisting him on his case.

    A glance at many classic thrillers can reveal the cited elements as well. Jonathan Harker, real estate salesman, travels to Transylvania to call on a client, facilitating the London arrival of one of literature’s darkest strangers, Count Dracula himself.

    I took a look at a few others on the recent list of favorite thrillers from NPR listeners.

    Captain Trips could be considered a devastating stranger in Stephen King’s The Stand, and multiple journeys are triggered.

    A stranger’s arrival at the Louvre sends Robert Langdon on a fast-paced trip. The Nazi War Criminal comes to New York in Marathon Man, setting Babe Levy on a run for his life. Jason Bourne’s quest to find his identity is definitely a journey, and he’s a stranger even to himself.

    Each story is quite different, of course, so it’s how the trigger and the trip are handled by the author that makes all the difference. I’m sure there will be some disagreement. Should be an interesting week here.

  3. I once had the honor of interviewing John Gardner when he was teaching creative writing at Purdue University in about 1981. I was a journalism student interning at the newspaper in Lafayette, Indiana who harbored the ambition of one day writing fiction. I was very much in awe of Gardner. As you would expect from the author of “On Writing Fiction,” Gardner was full of strong and sometimes provocative ideas about writing and story, and this statement is no exception. I don’ t know that it is absolutely true that all stories fit into these two categories, but I think it’s true enough to useful.

    My debut thriller THE INSIDER is definitely a “someone went on a journey” sort of story. My protagonist Will Connelly starts out as a workaholic young attorney on the cusp of making partner in a large San Francisco firm. After witnessing a colleague’s fall to his death, Will’s well-ordered life quickly unravels. Soon he is an unwilling participant in a criminal scheme that involves insider trading, the Russian mafiya and a secret government domestic surveillance program. By the end of THE INSIDER, Will has been on a harrowing journey that leaves him with a very different attitude about what he wants from life and his profession.

    Most of my favorite thrillers are journeys of one kind or another that build to a full-throttle narrative momentum. I think it’s easier to build that momentum when your story involves a journey, whether it involves an innocent man being chased by criminals or a hunt for a killer.

  4. Sidney,
    That’s really interesting re: Joseph Campbell’s real life parallels. I wonder if your pastors also experienced Refusal of the Call, which I always find an intriguing aspect of the Hero’s Journey.

    Also, if you turn the Hero’s Journey inside out, it can be viewed as someone leaving town (the hero) and also a stranger coming to town (the hero as he arrives at his various destinations.) I find Campbell’s work has such resonance in so many ways.

    I look forward to reading your book you mention – I love all things SF. If it weren’t for the earthquakes, I’d be living there.

  5. C.E.,

    There were definitely refusal of the call moments described to me in some of those interviews. That is an interesting component of the Campbell model, I agree, and probably truly one that plays out for people over and over at different times of their lives.

    Since the first posts, I’ve been turning over the idea of the bare bones of stories or the templates that thrillers and other tales are built on.

    It’s kind of fun to play with what might be called: “Where have I seen that before?”

    Die Hard or the book it’s based on, Nothing Lasts Forever by Roderick Thorpe, came to mind first for me.

    The hero of that piece is certainly a stranger in a new town, and he’s, of course, the modern version of the gunslinger who rides in to find out a marauding band’s terrorizing the town and has to be dealt with.

    I know the idea of the American “loner” detective as cowboy’s been discussed and dissected endlessly, but it’s kind of fun to revisit in this context.

  6. Excellent example, Sidney! I agree entirely with you about Die Hard being an updated version of the gunslinger character. And speaking of which, don’t you find it interesting that the Kurosawa films like Seven Samurai and Yojimbo, etc. are so much like Westerns that they later remade films like The Magnificent Seven based on them!

    In responding to the second part of Dan’s question, there’s no doubt in my own thrillers that it’s always essentially a stranger coming to town (so far my villains are all serial killers of one kind or another.)

    So just to recast the terms a bit, maybe we can think of story in terms of community for a moment. When a community is threatened by a killer, deadly virus, invading military forces, etc., there’s a sense of defending the group against that force, and the “hero” is usually someone within the group, chosen by them.

    However, in a movie like Shane you have a stranger who comes to town who becomes that hero – which is also more or less the plot of Seven Samurai. So someone comes to town, but to save the town, not invade it. So I guess the further subdivision of Gardner’s statement is the genre of story (and there are many) where the “loner” or hero isn’t even part of the community, and when his job is over, he must leave (in Shane there’s that terrifying and wonderful scene where we’re pretty sure he’s dying as he rides off.)

  7. Maybe one of the reasons serial killers are so threatening is that they often come from within the community – they aren’t outsiders at all, like John Wayne Gacy, for example. So there’s a real sense of paranoia that the killer is one of us.

  8. That’s a good point about the serial killer, sort of the monster who can’t be recognized by appearance. Maybe he is among us, seems to be one of us but is still a stranger.

    I’ve kind of harbored the notion that, with the romanticizing of the vampire, the serial killer has inherited some of the vampire mantle. In a rational age we don’t really fear a supernatural being any longer, but a serial killer just might be lurking around the corner.

    I suppose Jeff Lindsey’s Dexter may twist the serial killer arch type the same way some authors have moved the vampire.

  9. That’s a good point, Sidney – and certainly vampires and serial killers play to our darkest sexual fears and urges, both as victims and predators. Talk about someone “coming to town!” Ha – playing in a bedroom near you.

    And in the Middle Ages they had the incubus and succubus, which served much the same function as the vampire, visiting you at night in your bed and essentially raping you as you slept. It’s interesting how the externalization of our sex drive is often monstrous in form.

    I’m also fascinated by women who are drawn to serial killers – once he was in prison, Ted Bundy had groupies, fans who wrote to him. What’s that about?? Is it some expression of masochism, or a reformation urge, or some odd combination of both??

  10. Re women drawn to serial killers. My first crime novel (still working on it) is about a serial killer. In researching, I read everything I could find on types of serial killers. In one of the books, this attraction was explained very fully and understandably. I cannot for the life of me remember much of it or where I read it, but the reasons were many and completely logical, even if the entire idea is repulsive to us (normal people). It follows along the lines of people having certain types of problems growing up with parental issues, and how that shapes to whom we are attracted (such as male children victims of abuse growing up to be abusers themselves). I wish I could remember, but…if you search the internet, I am certain you can find this really fascinating information again.

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