February 17 – 23: “Is deception an essential feature of thrillers?”

thriller-roundtable-logo5This week we’re talking about deception! Join ITW Members Stephen Carbone, Lisa Von Biela, Jennie Mortimer and Brian C. Poole as they discuss whether or not deception is an essential part of thrillers and try to answer the question: “Would they otherwise be adventure stories?”


Trilemma by Jennifer MortimerAfter a mixed education in literature, science and commerce, Jennifer Mortimer has worked as an IT executive in many countries and industries. She is currently the R&D project manager at Weta Digital, the people behind the special effects for AVATAR, LORD OF THE RINGS, and THE HOBBIT. Jennifer and her husband Paul split their time between a colonial villa in Wellington, New Zealand, and a Cathar castle in the south of France. TRILEMMA is her debut novel.


THE JANUS LEGACY coverLisa von Biela worked in Information Technology for 25 years, then left the field to attend the University of Minnesota Law School, graduating magna cum laude in 2009. She now practices law in Seattle, Washington. Lisa’s first short story appeared in The Edge in 2002. Her short works have appeared in various small press venues, including Gothic.net, Twilight Times, Dark Animus, AfterburnSF, and more. Her debut novel, THE GENESIS CODE, was released in 2013. Her second novel, THE JANUS LEGACY, is due out in February 2014, and her first novella, ASH AND BONE, is set for release in May 2014.

Grievous Angels_FinalBrian C. Poole is an author, attorney and all-around pop culture junkie. A Boston area native and graduate of Boston College and Suffolk Law School, Brian’s published novels include Grievous Angels and Echoes of a Distant Thunder. You may also have read some prospectuses that Brian wrote, but for your sake, he hopes not.


Stephen Carbone is new to the novel writing world. His literary experience comes from penning regular articles for several aviation journals, a sort of open-door series. His thirty plus years in aviation were on both sides of the table – airline and government. Stephen has investigated major airline accidents; this first book, an aviation techno-thriller, closely parallels his first hand experiences with such disasters. Stephen and his wife of thirty-one years live in Virginia.

  1. Good question. I prefer to use the word ‘misdirection’; I believe that misdirection and deception are two separate concepts. In the techno-thriller story, one must throw suspicion in a different direction so the reader doesn’t figure out the problem too quickly. That requires that the author baits the reader, recommending they go off on another path while never closing the door to what really happened. I believe deception would ruin credibility; it would make the audience feel cheated that if the writer didn’t deceive then the reader could have come to the conclusion on his/her own. But by misdirecting, the author can offer multiple possibilities, driving the story in one direction without omitting the true culprit. You have to be honest from the start; it’s the difference between the truth versus the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

  2. Well, first of all, I think that at heart all storytellers are liars, to some extent, but that’s an issue for another time.
    I think that the point of a thriller, from the perspective of that label as a broad umbrella term, is to create tension. Deception is certainly one way to accomplish that and a pretty effective one at that. If you’re telling a mystery or detective story, deception is certainly a vital element to the plot, since some act of deception will surround the nut your hero or heroine is trying to crack.
    But I don’t think that deception is the only way to create that tension. A writer can take a more atmospheric approach, creating tension from turbulent emotions or high stakes that put the characters in heightened circumstances (for example, something horrible will happen if the hero doesn’t complete a certain task). You can create some kind of rival, someone trying to beat the protagonist to his/her goal, creating tension by endangering the protagonist’s end game. Tension could also come from an unexpected event, like nature rearing its fearsome head (damn you, Mother Nature!) or something like a plane crash or even something more far out, if your thriller has sci fi or fantasy elements. The environment could also be something like your characters’ drama playing out against the backdrop of a war, maybe being at the front or behind enemy lines, or in some kind of turbulent domestic situation, like a protest or rally that erupts into violence.
    Deception is a great way to create tension in a thriller and certainly the method of choice for a lot of writers, but I don’t think it’s the only way.

  3. Another interesting question to ponder and talk about. So, what makes a thriller different from an adventure story? I suppose it is the mysterious element. In adventure, one thing happens after another, and it’s all very exciting, but in a thriller, there is something unknown, untold to deal with as well. Maybe it’s misdirection, maybe it’s outright deception by an unreliable narrator of a character. I think that’s a key difference, the need to solve the mystery(s) that underlies the plot. How can you keep the reader guessing–and turning pages?

    I think it’s more than misdirection/deception, though. It’s in the timing of the reveals. It’s fun to end a chapter just on the verge of revealing something important, then go to another character’s POV or piece of the action for a while. Then the reader is nice and frantic wondering if the character in the prior chapter was hit by the bullet–or not–until that part of the plot picks up again. 🙂

    1. My feeling is that an adventure is a series of chutes and ladders; most of the mystery is taken out of the chase. That’s not to say a surprise doesn’t present itself, but the story is who (protagonist and antagonist) can find the quickest path between two points – the start and the finish lines. But a good adventure story is a thriller or a semi-thriller, especially when the antagonist’s identity is unknown until the end or the white hat turns out to be the black hat.

  4. Deception is the core of what I write. My plots start with the deceptions, and those are the parts of the story I like writing best. Oh the thrill of the double-pronged plant! The placement of the pope in the pool at the same time as the best clue, so your reader is so distracted they miss it!

    I guess we write the type of books we like to read, and so mine reflect those intellectual challenges of trying to outwit the author trying to outwit you and work out their deceptions. My absolute favorite thriller writer is Norwegian great Jo Nesbo – who is the most cunning deceiver I have ever read. Read his works and despair.

  5. Jennifer, your double-pronged plant sounds positively diabolical!

    The other thing that’s crucial is not only making the stakes mighty high and important, but throwing up plenty of tension-inducing roadblocks along the way to that ultimate goal. It’s just maddening (in a good way) when the author flings up a seemingly insurmountable roadblock at the end of a chapter, then goes on to some other aspect of the plot for a while. The more you’re invested in the protagonist and his/her goals by that point, the more deliciously maddening it is.

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