June 18 – 24: “Do thrillers always need to play on a large canvas, or can an intimate story thrill?”

This week, join ITW Members Joseph Amiel, Eyre Price, Vincent Zandri, Bob Mayer, Annie Hauxwell, Jean Harrington and Pamela Callow as they discuss whether thrillers always need to play out on a large canvas, or if an intimate story can deliver the same thrills.


Annie Hauxwell was born in London, the setting for her debut novel IN HER BLOOD. She has worked as a cleaner, cab driver, sociologist, psychiatric nurse and lawyer. She abandoned the law for a career as an investigator, combining this with screenwriting.


A member of the Nova Scotia bar, Pamela Callow is the internationally published author of the Kate Lange legal thriller series for MIRA Books. Her critically-acclaimed series has been compared to works by Robin Cook, Tess Gerritsen and John Grisham. TATTOOED, the third book of the series, releases on May 29th, 2012. Prior to making writing a career, Pamela worked as a Strategic Services manager for international consulting firm Accenture.

Jean Harrington lives in Naples, Florida with husband John (no cat, no dog, no kids anymore). After teaching English lit at Becker College in Worcester, Massachusetts for 17 years, she now spends her days writing and loving every minute of it. Jean’s published works have won several RWA contests. DESIGNED FOR DEATH is the first in her Murders by Design Mysteries, and she’s having great fun wallowing knee deep in fictional dead bodies.

Vincent Zandri is the No. 1 International Bestselling Amazon author of THE INNOCENT, GODCHILD, THE REMAINS, MOONLIGHT FALLS, CONCRETE PEARL, MOONLIGHT RISES, SCREAM CATCHER, BLUE MOONLIGHT and MURDER BY MOONLIGHT. He is also the author of the Amazon bestselling digital shorts, PATHOLOGICAL, TRUE STORIES and MOONLIGHT MAFIA. Zandri’s list of publishers include Delacorte, Dell, StoneHouse Ink, StoneGate Ink and Thomas & Mercer. An MFA in Writing graduate of Vermont College, Zandri’s work is translated into many languages including the Dutch, Russian, and Japanese. An adventurer, foreign correspondent, and freelance photo-journalist for RT, GlobalSpec, IBTimes and more, he lives in Albany, New York.

NY Times bestselling author Bob Mayer has over 50 books published. Bob graduated from West Point and served in the military as a Special Forces A-Team leader and a teacher at the JFK Special Warfare Center & School. He is the CEO of Cool Gus Publishing, which has grown to a seven figure business in just two years, and is one of the bestselling indie authors in the US. For more see www.bobmayer.org or www.CoolGus.com

Joseph Amiel is an internationally best-selling author, whose novels include STAR TIME, BIRTHRIGHT, DEEDS, HAWKS and A QUESTION OF PROOF. He has also won awards for screenwriting and for his comedy-mystery web series Ain’t That Life. A graduate of Amherst College and Yale Law School, he is married and lives in New York City.

Eyre Price was raised in Northeastern Pennsylvania, but has called a lot of places “Home.” A litigator for 15 years, Eyre left the law to become a stay-at-home dad–and write. His debut novel, BLUES HIGHWAY BLUES, will be published by Thomas & Mercer in June 2012. He has traveled the Blues Highway from Minnesota to Louisiana and stood at Robert Johnson’s fabled crossroads. He lives in Illinois with his wife and son.

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  1. There is nothing as dangerous as a family, nothing so murderous as a domestic relationship.

    So yes, an intimate story can thrill. But – and it’s a big but – I would venture that one of the chief difficulties facing a thriller writer is that the conflicts that arise in the family home, or between a couple, are very familiar to their audience, albeit not necessarily on the same scale as in fiction.

    We all have to live with people (at least some of the time). The intimate story can quickly become banal. Unless you’re Chekov.

    Murder and mayhem may not be the everyday outcome of situations we all encounter: betrayal, deceit, greed, corruption, loss (okay, so some people tiptoe through the tulips with nary a care in the world. More power to ‘em, although I’ve got a feeling it would be pretty boring). At the very least, most people have experienced the pressure cooker of domesticity or close personal relationships.

    The thriller writer has to find a way to leverage that experience to make their characters’ actions plausible and to give their readers a way to identify, without the story being predictable.

    So we use the bigger picture. Introduce the corrupt government, the crooked corporation, the arms trade, drug trade, or skin trade, and you’ve got yourself a cracking setting against which to explore your characters emotional dilemmas. The larger the canvas, the more that’s at risk.

    I may murder my lover, and that’s bad, but if I murder my lover and bring down a government, that’s thrilling!

  2. Do thrillers always need to play on a large canvas, or can an intimate story thrill?

    Depends on how you define thriller. An argument can be made that the intimate story is not by definition a thriller, but suspense. Thrilling suspense, perhaps, but suspense. And that the large-canvassed thriller usually presents an apocalyptic vision of a culture, a civilization, a world or worlds, in crisis. It paints with the broadest of literary brushes a high stakes game of winner take all or lose the universe.
    Unless someone intervenes, continents will collide, governments collapse, high-tech weapons implode, global warming will flood coastal cities, a monster the size of Rhode Island will terrorize the human race, all volcanoes on earth will erupt at once, the Mayan calendar is correct after all, and world’s superpowers are a finger flick away from annihilation.
    That said, the big thriller isn’t worth the paper its mayhem is printed on—or the digital space it consumes—if it doesn’t create a hero/heroine with whom the reader can identify. No one will care that this world in crisis is doomed if they can’t invest emotion—if they don’t care about—the fate of the fictitious people involved.
    But we do care when Bruce Willis, super weapon in hand, saves the world single-handedly. Why? He’s preserving life on earth for his beloved daughter. And when Luke Skywalker is pitted against Darth Vader—of all the men in the galaxy, his own father, for Pete’s sake–we care. Why? He’s fighting the man who gave him life to save his twin, Princess Leia and others from the forces of evil. What reader wouldn’t invest something of himself in a twisted family tree like that? Another example, who can forget, Stephen King’s Misery? A psychopathic woman holds a man prisoner by viciously crippling him, and ups his torture by refusing him pain medication. Are we thrilled, as in horrified, watching his fate unfold in front of our eyes? A rhetorical question.
    Ultimately the intimate story of individuals in the grip of personal conflict is at the heart of all fiction whether the canvas is painted in strokes large or small. A far-flung galaxy in crisis? Blah. A far-flung galaxy where the hero’s beloved is held captive on Spaceship Explorer XXII? Well now you have something worth reading.

  3. I believe an intimate story can thrill as much as a story played out over a large canvas. As always it’s what skills the author brings to the story…the tone, the pace, the setting (even if it’s a cafe table occupied by a man and a woman in conflict), the dialogue, the ability to use flashbacks as a devise to shift the setting from the intimate to the large.

    I’m reminded of that famous writing exercise in which the student is asked to write a story that has a beginning, a middle, and an ending and the only character will be a piece of fruit. But the trick is, the true identity of the fruit can never be revealed (You can’t start the story out by writing, “I’m an orange”). It can only be described. I’m also reminded of a movie I watched recently on Netflix about a contractor working in war-torn Iraq who has the misfortune of waking up inside a coffin buried in the earth. All he has on him is a cell phone and a lighter, and it’s either call for help or die. The story in particular was far too claustrophobic for me to endure the entire ninety or so minutes, but it was certainly thrilling.

    There are no real rules about writing thrillers (Okay, who disagrees with this statement?). Traditionally speaking, as both a writer and a reader, I prefer a pile-driving plot with an eclectic and rich cast of characters, and a story that takes my protagonist on the trill ride of his or her life. I have some novels, like the forthcoming Blue Moonlight, that has my main character, detective Dick Moonlight, chasing after a zip-drive that contains sensitive nuclear secrets in New York, Florence, Italy (Yup, there’s a Hitchcock-style chase scene between Moonlight and a leather-clad Russian thug on top of the Duomo), and back again. But I also have a new offering called Permanence, that although taking place also in the US and Italy, involves only a man and a woman in serious, if not dangerous conflict. I consider both thrillers, but while the former might please a large variety of readers, the latter is more suited to an audience that might enjoy a more ummmm, gasp, literary style psychological suspense read.

    In the end, if an author really wants to break out of his shell and come to realize his true story-telling potential, he needs to experiment with different types of stories, different forms of writing, different POVs and certainly, different canvas sizes.

    As an author, what kinds of risks are you willing to take?

  4. What builds and holds suspense isn’t the size of the fictional canvas, but how much the reader cares about the characters’ fate. And that’s always personal, whether we’re talking about novels on as grand a scale as War and Peace or one individual’s personal predicament, like the blind woman trying to evade killers in her house in the play and film Wait Until Dark.
    I worked on a small, personal canvas in my courtroom thriller A QUESTION OF PROOF, which is launching at the end of the month. One reviewer called it a “masterpiece of suspense”, yet the fate of all mankind does not rest on the outcome, only the happiness of one man, a disillusioned, burned-out lawyer, and the freedom of one woman, whom he defends against the charge that she murdered her newspaper-publisher husband. As the Roundtable discussed a couple of weeks ago, readers are gripped by the characters and what’s at stake for them. In A QUESTION OF PROOF, the lawyer is not only in love with the woman, he desperately wants to know for certain that he is defending one person at least whom he can truly believe is innocent — his happiness depends on both answers. But is she innocent? What really happened? Is she using him? Can he save her at trial?
    Even the smallest canvas will thrill if the writer can make us care about the fate of the people at the story’s center.

  5. Joseph makes a great point. If we really care about the character whose life we’re living through the written page, then the canvass is almost of secondary concern…

  6. Do Thrillers Need to Play on a Large Stage or Can Intimate Stories Thrill?

    Like the honorary Fifth Horseman of the Apocalypse, thriller writers have long threatened the whole of humanity with its ultimate demise. Corporate conspiracies and terrorist plots. Pandemics and reconstituted dinosaur DNA. There are no limits to the diabolical fates we dream up for this big, blue marble of ours.
    And with good reason. A solid “end of the world as we know it” plot makes it easy to grab our audience’s attention. It’s the literary equivalent of putting a gun to the reader’s head and shouting “You are involved!” It’s undeniably effective.
    Effective, but not necessary. While we speculate what exactly our Mayan ancestors may have foretold of our future, the cold, hard truth of this life is that each of us faces our own private apocalypse. I can’t say I’m an adherent to the philosophical tenets Solipsisim, but I can’t deny that one day my world is going to come to an end. (Hopefully not for a long, long time. And, if I’m lucky, not even then. See, Kurzweil, Raymond) But all of us live on the precipice and from a very personal perspective, my end will be every bit as final and absolute as one of Flemming’s baddies actually detonating their doomsday device.
    As thriller writers, the trick is to create characters that compel our readers to share in the peril of a very personal “end of the world.” In Daniel Erickson, the hero of Blues Highway Blues, I tried to create a man who maybe wasn’t always likable, but whose faults and fears were shared by many of us and whose efforts to overcome them would offer an invitation to join him in that personal adventure.
    There is, admittedly, very little at stake. The world will keep turning whether Daniel survives his odyssey or not. The hope, however, is that the reader will finding him deserving of the emotional investment necessary to bind their fate together for a couple hundred pages. And if that happens, then the scope of the stage doesn’t matter at all.

  7. It’s all in how it’s defined. I’ve always thought, as noted by others, that a thriller has high stakes. Stakes so high, that the reader is implicitly involved in the stakes.

    A suspense novel is about the fate of the characters. So the focus is much smaller. The reader cares about the characters.

    Early on, I was told in a thriller make the stakes very, very high. The fate of the world, the galaxy, the universe and the local Starbucks.

    On the other hand, when you use a big canvas you have to be careful not to get overwhelmed. For example, when I see the President in a synopsis, I get worried because there are so many people around the President, how do you write it? There are always ways around it. Fail Safe was brilliant in this: a thriller involving the President but isolating him with his interpreter. Moscow and NY end up getting nuked. That’s pretty high stakes.

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