March 10 – 16: “What can thriller writers learn from the movies?”

thriller-roundtable-logo5This week ITW Members W.D. Gagliani, William P. Wood, Keith Deininger, Amy Shojai, Chris Pavone, Don Helin, Julie Lindsey and Bernard Maestas go from the notebook to the big screen, as they answer the question: “What can thriller writers learn from the movies?”


marrows_pitAn award-winning writer and poet, Keith Deininger is the author of The New Flesh, Fevered Hills, Marrow’s Pit, and Ghosts of Eden (Nov. 2014). He grew up in the American Southwest and currently resides in Albuquerque, New Mexico with his wife and their four dogs. He is a skeptic and a bit cynical.



Hide and Seek by Amy ShojaiAmy Shojai, CABC is the best-selling award winning author of two dozen pet books and channels her “inner pet” to write dog-viewpoint THRILLERS WITH BITE! Her critically acclaimed debut thriller LOST AND FOUND launched her fiction career in late 2012, followed in 2014 by the sequel HIDE AND SEEK. She specializes in stories that prompt an emotional response in both herself and her readers, and loves to write “furry” medical thrill-rides that leave readers gasping with delight. She’s currently writing SHOW AND TELL, the next book in the series.

Wolf's Cut by W.D. GaglianiW.D. Gagliani is the author of the horror thriller WOLF’S TRAP (Samhain Publishing), a past Bram Stoker Award nominee, as well as the other novels in the Nick Lupo Series, WOLF’S GAMBIT and WOLF’S BLUFF (47North), WOLF’S EDGE and WOLF’S CUT (Samhain), plus the hard-noir thriller SAVAGE NIGHTS, the collection SHADOWPLAYS, as well as MYSTERIES & MAYHEM (w/ David Benton). An active member of the Horror Writers Association (HWA), the International Thriller Writers (ITW), and the Authors Guild, Gagliani is also the author of numerous short stories published in many anthologies, plus dozens of book reviews, articles, and interviews. He lives and writes in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

suddenimpactWilliam P. Wood is the author of nine legal thrillers, including his latest book Sudden Impact. Two of his novels, Rampage and Court of Honor (“Broken Trust”), have been made into films. He also co-wrote several episodes of the CBS-TV series “Kaz.” Wood’s nonfiction book, The Bone Garden, is the definitive account of serial killer Dorothea Puente. As former Sacramento deputy district attorney, Wood had sent Puente to prison for drugging and robbing the elderly.

The Accident by Chris PavoneChris Pavone’s first novel, The Expats, was a New York Times, USA Today, and international bestseller, as well as winner of Edgar and Anthony awards for best first novel. Chris grew up in Brooklyn, graduated from Cornell, and was a book editor for nearly two decades, as well as an expat in Luxembourg, but now lives again in New York City. His second novel, The Accident, publishes on March 11th.


Murder Comes Ashore by Julie Anne LindseyJulie Anne Lindsey is a multi-genre author who writes the stories that keep her up at night. She’s a self-proclaimed nerd with a penchant for words and proclivity for fun. Julie lives in rural Ohio with her husband and three small children. Today, she hopes to make someone smile. One day she plans to change the world.


ITGuys_Proof2Bernard Maestas lives in paradise. A police officer patrolling the mean streets of Hawaii, he has a background in contract security and military and civilian law enforcement. His debut novel, “Say That to My Face” was released in December. When not saving the world, one speeding ticket at a time, and not distracted by video games or the internet, he is usually hard at work on his next book.


devilsdenDuring Don Helin‘s time in the military, he spent seven years in the Pentagon. These assignments have provided him background for his thrillers. His first novel, THY KINGDOM COME was published in 2009. His second, DEVIL’S DEN has been selected as a finalist in the Indie Book Awards. Don lives in central Pennsylvania where he is working on “Secret Assault,” to be published in Spring 2014.


  1. Hi Everyone: I’m delighted to be back with the Thriller Roundtable again, particularly as we address such an interesting topic.
    I’m not a big fan of TV, but I do love to go to the movies. I always gain ideas I can use as well as information about new technologies. Also it’s a great place to watch for things that don’t work in a story.
    I write military thrillers and really enjoyed Lone Survivor. I found some ideas about weapons systems I can use in my next thriller.
    Another example is the movie Non Stop. In this story, a terrorist is demanding 150 million dollars or he’ll blow up an airplane. The air marshal must stop it. I enjoyed watching the techniques the writers and director used to keep the story moving at a fast pace, and how they manage to slow it down. For example the hero takes a young girl under his wing and helps her get through the trauma of the attack. These provide “feel good” moments in the middle of the terrorist plot.
    There is one TV program I’m really enjoying and that is NCIS. It’s a perfect study on how an writer can use really interesting characters to flesh out a story. The variety of characters on NCIS is terrific, and the way they spinoff one another adds so much to the story.
    Plus movies are just plain fun to watch, and I do love popcorn.

  2. Hello fellow panelists and participants,

    I’m glad to be making a return appearance here at the RoundTable, too. I write thrillers that are steeped in horror — blending two of my favorite genres from when I was a kid (although I read plenty of hardboiled and noir crime and mysteries, SF and fantasy, too). My favorites at the time were primarily British thrillers, most of which tended to be wordy. Because of that, my own style developed in that vein, description-heavy and perhaps too often “telling” instead of “showing.” But eventually I became obsessed with the showing and now I attempt to show as much as I can in scenes from various points of view, so much so that my novels have occasionally been compared to “movie style” groupings of scenes.

    Although I wouldn’t cal myself a movie buff, I’m well-grounded in movie thrillers. One important lesson I find in well-made movies is the control of pacing. Scenes that add to the plot and characterization have become my goal due to the influence of movies and TV, to some extent (maybe due to shorter attention spans), because keeping the story flowing keeps MY interest high, too, and therefore I assume the reader’s. As much as I’ve always loved tales told completely in First Person (especially mysteries and thrillers) I tend to keep my entire cast hopping about now, and present the action — and sometimes the same action — from various points of view, while still dwelling on the protagonist(s) of course. But in a thriller, we are much more likely to be engaged if we also see things from the antagonist’s point of view, if we see what the bad guys are planning, rather than only what the hero sees or knows. Movies and good TV have taught me to make sure no one gets bored by endless pages of description or one POV.

    Don mentioned NCIS and I concur — I was never very interested in it until recently, catching some marathons with my mom, when I realized they hop very well between characters and scenes, and even more importantly, they use extremely tight dialogue writing to get a lot more across than just the words… certainly all TV shows do this, but the NCIS team excels and makes almost all their stories gripping mini-thrillers. There are other examples, of course, but that’s a good small-screen one to examine. Since I have a “Taken”-like novel, Savage Nights, I also accept that Liam Neeson has done quite a few projects that work well as thrillers due to their pacing. We writers must keep our readers on the edge of their seats as much as movies do, to some extent, or we may lose them. Exceptions to this are quite interesting, however: the Dragon Tattoo trilogy never grabbed me with the writing, yet it captivated many readers (perhaps they were not habitual thriller readers and found it more alluring than their usual fare), but I found the writing much too sludgy for my taste.

    I’m sure we’ll have more ideas to toss out!

  3. Greetings and salutations once again–two weeks in a row, this could become a habit! I love the movies. As an actor, too, and having read many screenplays, the form translates particularly well to writers and particularly thrillers.

    Movies/screenplays are so compressed (only about 120 pages) and virtually all dialogue, so the mood, characterization, and various plot lines must be shared via the actor’s delivery and the camera angle, setting, and lighting. It’s of course both a visual and auditory experience, with imagery telling/showing as much of the story and creating tension and movement as the dialogue and actor’s actions.

    There’s no time to waste in movies, as Don and W.D. have said, the action moves quickly. Characterization comes from the dialogue (no wasted words, either!), and mood from the camera shots/angles, painting with light and shadow, color and tone. Back story (info-dumps)are non-existent. The movie quite literally cuts to the chase, thrusts the viewer immediately into the action with very little time to introduce characters. There’s no narrator. No “thoughts” we can hear from the actors. These often can be troublesome for novelists who know sooooo darn much about their story, they want to share all the history that came before, and sometimes over-write. The “tell” is a pitfall we all strive to avoid, and seek to do justice to the “show” as well as movies.

    I love writing scenes in my thrillers that engage all the senses and prompt an emotional response in the reader. Since my “dog viewpoint” character’s sensory capacity outshines the human characters, that’s a challenge to bring to life on the page. Movies and video do a brilliant job of actually allowing the audience to “see” what various characters experience. So that’s yet another way to bring value-added dimension to thrillers–imagine you’re shooting a movie, what would be the camera angle, for instance? Looking up at the character, or from above, or through his/her eyes? How would the actor react to the smell of a decaying body–the movie can’t “tell” you he smelled such and such, so how would his face, hands, body indicate that noxious aroma? Use that in the thriller instead of “telling” us what he smelled.

  4. Hello *waves* This is my very first ITW RoundTable and I was nervous until I read the comments above mine. Looks like 1. I’m in good hands and 2. I’m going to learn a ton this week!

    I’m a shameless TV addict. I’m hooked on “my shows” (I have oh-so-many shows) in crazy obsessive ways and I love looking for new ideas and concepts to twist into novel submissions. I write mysteries with amateur female sleuths and humor so television often gets my creativity going. Watching the reactions of actors in key moments can make a scene pop and I try desperately to convey those same looks and visceral responses in my stories. I want to hook readers the way the screenwriters have hooked me. I make mental notes of funny things and irony too, because who doesn’t love a good dose of irony?

    I’ve been known to watch my favorite shows on a loop, trying to pinpoint what it is about certain scenes that make me respond so intensely. My TiVo is definitely the most overworked piece of technology I own.

  5. Hello! Everyone has already written so much this evening while I was flying home, so I’ll keep it brief. My writing is very informed by a couple of cinematic imperatives: the first is that I try to be visual, to give readers something they can see in every scene. Even if the passage is completely static—say, a woman thinking about her past—I’ll put that reflective inert woman in a car that’s being driven way too fast by a strung-out lunatic through the German countryside.

    The second is that I try to rely on dialogue to tell the story. I enjoy a good interior monologue as much as the next person, and there’s plenty of that in both my novels, especially for back story; but for the immediate action I focus on dialogue for explication.

    Movement and talking: that’s what I’ve learned from the movies.

  6. Guess I’m the last one to the party. Hi, everyone! This is my first Thriller Roundtable and I’m just “thrilled” to be here. (I’m sure that won’t be my last bad pun before this is over.)

    I’ve been interested in crafting and telling stories down to my earliest memories, long before I could read. The void of books was filled with a lot of movies from the action genre’s golden age and I can tell it had a significant impact on me as a storyteller. I’ve been accused of writing in a “cinematic” style and it’s been said that my plots often read like the story beats of a movie. I write a multitude of genres but my first published series fits loosely under the military thriller genre.

    I like to think that one of the things I’ve been very successful in doing is capturing and reviving some of the wonderful, lost character traits from the golden age of action movies such as the “Die Hard” and “Lethal Weapon” franchises.

    I wanted to add my two cents to what W.D. said about the Dragon Tattoo series. He really hit it on the head, the storytelling was very plodding in that series. Once it finally hooked, I thought it was very good, but I almost didn’t make it through the long, dry opening. That’s always something we have to be concerned about as thriller writers is hooking our readers early, getting their pulses up and keeping them there throughout.

    To echo what Amy said, movies are very condensed and that’s something that I keep in mind when I’m writing. When I’m laying out my story, I’m definitely picturing it as a movie that plays out in my head and I think that gives my stories a sense of urgency, operating under time constraints.

  7. Thriller writer and movies, movies and thriller writers: it’s a two way street. From movies, we get pacing, structure, and the very visual style that readers now automatically want from a thriller in particular. By the same token, movies get a lot from thriller writers. Content, substance, full characters, just to name a few. But the important thing in either a thriller or a movie is the people. They are story and visuals. My first novel, RAMPAGE was filmed by William Friedkin, one of the great stylists and directors. He took the characters and the structure in the novel and then made them visual and always in motion, even when a character is simply quiet, we see the actor. William Friedkin’s most influential movie is THE FRENCH CONNECTION. Every thriller writer owes a debt to Friedkin and that movie. From how the story is set up, to the pacing, the relentless motion and drive of the story, thriller writers have followed how THE FRENCH CONNECTION and all of the lesser movies it influenced tell their story. Today there is a great melding of the visual medium of movies and the text medium of thrillers. When we write, we write movies even when we don’t realize it. The next question: is this good?

    1. “Is this good?”

      I think so, but then I’m a product of my times. *s* I write what I love to read in books and see in movies.

      The danger, perhaps, is to rely too much on action with a danger that characterization may suffer. While I love page-turners, I want to care about the characters, too.

  8. I think also movies do a great job of making the surroundings atmospheric (spooky, funny, stark, etc.) which can add greatly to the theme and plot, or even the characterization. In cinema, it’s sort of a shorthand for description, and sometimes less is more. I try to do this in my stories, too. In my first thriller, a freak blizzard colors the world with stark shadows–and color only reenters the world in the final scene when the bad guy is vanquished…and the sun shatters the gloom to shine stained glass peacock-bright. In the sequel, ominous flocks of blackbirds haunt the main character, and only fly away once she’s escaped her (very literal) trial by fire. In both I was very conscious of the imagery, and how I’d direct and plan the camera angles. Funny, I didn’t think of it that way at the time. *s*

    I’m learning a lot in this discussion, too!

  9. Like most of us, I watch a lot of movies. I think there is a lot that can be learned from them, especially about storytelling structure. On a storytelling timeline, a two hour movie has about as much content as a short story in the fiction world. To make a movie resonate, the makers have to be very discerning about the scenes they include. As fiction writers, we’re not under the same time constraints, but we can learn a lot about pacing and how to move a story forward more quickly, which is a very valuable skill for the thriller writer; gotta keep things exciting.

    Personally, I’m a huge fan of horror movies, as my own fiction tends to the dark and disturbing, particularly those that use the medium to accomplish something that can’t be done in other mediums. There are things movies can do that fiction cannot. There are responses we have to visual stimulus, especially the visceral, that are more difficult to accomplish with prose. There are, of course, always methods a fiction writer can use to similar effect.

    Unfortunately, there are an awful lot of movies that are nothing more than poor interpretations of their respective books.

  10. I agree very much with Amy and Keith. For better and worse we live in a world of snap pacing and visual imagery. But this isn’t really new, I guess. The opening scene in Faulkner’s SANCTURAY or Dickens BLEAK HOUSE are evocative, solid,and utterly cinematic. I’m a great admirer of Chris’ novel and he perfectly captured the thriller/movie imperatives without sacrificing the depth that good writing can give characters.

    When Joan Didion and her husband John Gregory Dunne adapted my novel BROKEN TRUST they necessarily discarded some subplots and then used very vusual cinematic terms, cameras and TV monitors, to highlight the novel’s story of a judge caught in a federal undercover sting. Their choices were drawn from the book, but they were completely movie directed, and thriller directed at that.

  11. Keith makes a great point about how many awful movies there are of great books.

    What I would like to point out is that there are plenty of bad novels that aren’t necessarily flawed from a story standpoint, some that have even been turned into good movies. With movies, there are so many people that go into making them, but the most visible are the actors and the directors. In a lot of ways, the writer plays a more minor role. As authors, we ARE the cast and the directors. If our characters give a poor performance or the vision is flawed, it’s on us. Good or bad writing can make or break a book the way acting and directing can save or damn a movie.

    As I’ve said, as an author, I see my books in my head as movies, partly because they’ve been so influential to me in my formative years as a storyteller. I’m very conscious of it and, as I’ve mentioned, it keeps my stories moving to think of being under time constraints. As an author, I have the freedom to go off and explore whatever subplots and backstory I want, but imagining restrictions helps keep me on task and keep my stories moving at a fast clip. That said, this isn’t a perfect formula. While writing my upcoming sequel, “Godwin’s Law,” I told the story I had in mind but came up with a novella instead of the novel I set out to write. It was a struggle to go back and find space to fill in details and background without sacrificing the relentlessness of the pace I was striving for.

  12. Often I think I would make a terrible movie director. It’s a talent I don’t have, taking all those scenes that were shot out of sequence and stitching them together. Which is funny, because it’s exactly what I continue to do in all my novels. No matter how much I proclaim that I will write a novel “A to Z,” I always get stuck somewhere, unsure where a scene should go — and my solution is always to jump somewhere else into my plot and start a new scene I know I will need later on. Do this often enough, as I tend to, and you end up with a lot of out of sequence bits that have to be united to tell the story coherently. As I attempt to connect them together, I am always struck by the movie director’s ability to do this a lot more easily than I can. My timeline is always affected by some of these decisions. Often I find that I placed a section in which action happens in a location *after* a section in which the action’s results were reported or disseminated to a character, creating a wrinkle. I end up moving those bits around a lot, or finding myself forced to either rewrite them or in many cases split them into earlier and later sections. This becomes quite stressful as the scenes pile up! I’m sure I’ve occasionally made an error that has snuck through. But the final result can be pleasantly manic and I always seem to be able to solve any problems I’ve created by simply writing new scenes to bridge the others. That’s one movies-to-thrillers observation I can make about my own work, not necessarily anyone else’s.

    About learning to be more “visual” in the writing: Yes! I am almost obsessed with trying to paint the scene with details, but I try to avoid what those thrillers I read long ago often did, such as spend a lot of time describing. I try to make the details pop by choosing just the right ones, and making, say, two details do the work that a half-dozen might have at one time. Choosing the right detail can be an art in itself, of course. Trying to find details with possible deeper meanings and making characters interact with them in useful ways. You want to avoid long passages of description, but sometimes they can’t be avoided — and let’s face it, depending on who’s telling the story, they can add quite a bit of color. The difficult part is deciding what to include and what to leave out. Dare I say, trial and error is fine. Ask your beta readers what works and what doesn’t. I routinely ask mine: “Is this too much?”

    Another note regarding my own personal approach: I love flashbacks and parallel stories. Parallel stories IN flashbacks. I know that some readers hate them, calling them dead stops in the flow of the narrative. And they can be. But I enjoy making them (I hope) into as interesting an alternate storyline as possible, so instead of being annoyed the reader is enthralled by the new direction and allows himself or herself to be held in suspense for the continuation of the primary storyline which I have interrupted. In that sense, I would say use the flashback if it can be just as involving as the primary action. I often write my flashbacks/parallel stories in sections on a separate timeline and keep them together until it’s time to seed them through my primary narrative. This requires some manipulation, and occasionally I have no choice but to pluck them out of one location to try another, yet again making me wish I had more talent as a director. As much as it is so often obvious to me that this process is full of roadblocks, I gravitate toward stubbornly doing it anyway.

    1. I’ve often wondered if I was the only one that wrote by jumping around, haha! I can’t write start to finish at all. I essentially write my entire novel at the same time because I’m constantly skipping from one chapter or even paragraph to another.

      1. Bernard, I sympathize! And I’m also glad I’m not the only one! Phew! I keep trying to get out, but it drags me back in…

        Seriously, maybe there’s some subconscious structural manipulation going on that we’re not aware of. Usually when I tell people about my so-called method they look at me as if I’m crazy. I’ve begun to believe it.

  13. I understand what Bernard is saying. In my first novel, Thy Kingdom Come, I’d written the first third and the last third, but believe it or not couldn’t sort out how to join them. Finally, one day out on a jog, I figured it out. Times like that I think to myself I really should outline more.
    I went to see “3 days to a Kill” last night. Kevin Costner is a senior CIA hitman who’s ready to retire and spend more time with his daughter. A rep from the CIA (stunning blond) demands he take one more contract. He refuses but she figures a way to get him to do it. The value of the story to me was how the writers kept up a “high octane” thriller while developing the relationship between Costner and his daughter.
    Little things. He remembers she liked to bike when she was little. He gets her a bike and we find out she doesn’t know how. “My dad wasn’t around to teach me.” He teaches her. A wonderful moment and great subplot.
    Confirmed for me how important relationships are in a thriller.

    1. I couldn’t agree more, Don. A thriller or a thriller movie is at its heart the story of people, who they are and why they are what they are. In my latest, SUDDEN IMPACT, the judge who accidentally kills a cop in a hit and run goes to terrible lengths to conceal his crime because he wants to protect his family, his wife and young daughter, as much as he wants to save himself. The judge’s frantic efforts kept me coming back to the pages every day.

      On another area, I’d be interested in everyone’s take on the value or lack of value in fracturibng a narrative. Thrillers do it all the time to great effect. It’s much harder to do effectively in a movie thriller. Does that give novelists more room to work with than a moviemaker?

        1. Sorry for the delay, Don. I meant the breaking up of the narrative into flashbacks, flash forwards, multiple points of view. This kind of wide ranging technique gives writers a great expanse to work in. Characters can be shown as they are, how they got that way, where they are going in a very jumbled order that the reader sorts out and with any luck, the reader then establishes a greater connection to the character and the storyline.

          I tried to do this in my newest book SUDDEN IMPACT, giving the police officer who is killed in a hit and run, a story that comes out in a very jumbled fashion, but one that makes sense as the current storyline involving the judge who fled the scene deveklops.

          This is something a movie has far greater trouble doing if only because movies are almost linear by definition. MEMENTO, for example, is a fun exercise in fractured narrative, but it always keeps the focus on the main character. A thriller can move from point of view to point of view and still not lose the audience/reader. I think it gives us as writers a more rich and vivid way to tell stories. CGI today notwithstanding.

          1. Fracturing a narrative is a great technique and one I’ve used to success. When I started on my upcoming GOWDWIN’S LAW, I had tons of back story, a lot of it critical for the plot to make sense, but I couldn’t write a half dozen chapters of background and not have anything happen. So I went the opposite way. I cut (literally) to the chase and sprinkled the background throughout along with comic relief or just as a brief respite so I wasn’t standing on the reader’s throat the whole book.

            This is a technique I got from movies.

            It’s easy to talk about the limitations of a medium and say how things don’t translate. Often it’s true, some techniques aren’t ideal, but sometimes they just work!

            Conventional movie wisdom says you can’t make a 4-hour movie but tell that to BRAVEHEART and THE GODFATHER. What would those films have been if packed neatly into a 90-minute movie? Of course, there’s a flip side. The original Swedish GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO was very faithful to the novel. It ended up being like 6 hours long and was just as tedious as the book. The American version picked up the pace and generally turned it into an exciting and watchable story.

            You say fracturing doesn’t work as well in films. It’s not ideal, that’s true… Except I turn your attention to PULP FICTION, a masterpiece by most standards. If shot in sequence, you’ve got maybe an above average film. Broken up as it was into seemingly unrelated stories all intricately entwined, you get near perfection.

            There’s also a famous episode of SEINFELD that runs entirely in reverse, starting with the ending credits. In sequence it’s maybe an average, mildly amusing episode of the show. Backwards it’s one of the show’s best. There’s a foreign director, whose name escapes me, all of whose award winning films such as BABEL and LOS PERROS AMORES are told in a fractured style.

            Maybe we have more freedom to work with it without risking losing our audience but some directors pulled it off, too.

  14. Sorry to be odd man out, but I don’t get any inspiration from movies, zippo, nothing. For one it’s a particular person’s (the Director’s) perspective and even though I like the Hitchcocks and the Kubricks, they don’t give me any ideas; I can’t think of a scene that I’ve ever watched that made me run up to my typewriter. My genre is techno-thriller and I get my influences from everyday events or devices that scare me most – aside from what I do for a living, of course. I find other writers influence me more; the way they can turn a phrase or put me in the scene more than movies or TV ever could.

  15. I like your response, Don. It’s amazing how and when ideas come to you, isn’t it? I get these story epiphanies at the most random times, but that’s a little off topic.

    I find it surprising to hear from Stephen that he’s never gotten any inspiration from movies. Maybe it’s just me, admittedly being shaped in large part by movies, but I know I get so much out of them. It’s not necessarily story ideas, plots, characters, which you can get from anywhere. What I get from movies now, and what I think I’ve always gotten a lot of, is images. How to set a scene is especially important. I mean, regardless of medium, everything ultimately boils down to a visual, doesn’t it? Movies make it obvious and are easy to work with, but as an author, I’m always striving to set a very visual image of the scene in my readers’ minds. I do it with language, versus lighting and set design, but in my mind, it’s a visual thing, very much a movie set with every scene I write. I may be alone but I can’t imagine trying to write without picturing the setting vividly in my mind and trying to translate that onto the page.

    1. Let me elaborate. I think that if you look at the history of story writing, the ability to draw from movies has the ripple effect of a stone in a lake. I’m a fan of Dickens, Fenimore Cooper and Doyle; I’ve read everything they’ve written. Dickens didn’t write what he saw in movies, but captured the ordeals of his youth. I challenge any present day director to set up a scene like the opening of Bleak House, where the visual imagery allows the mind to ‘see’ the mood of the people and environment. And then there’s the ‘interpretations’ of these books. Natty Bumppo and Chingachgook never did the things or acted like the movie versions of Last of the Mohicans, so how can I draw inspiration from that? The visuals I’ve seen in movies are questionable: cars that explode when you hit them with a bus or other such special effects is why producers like Barbara Broccoli rebooted their heroes; they become unbelievable caricatures and thus the scene. Speaking from my perspective (and this is strictly my perspective), my stories are based in plausible events; they have to be possible. So when I look for credibility, I personally cannot look at the movies for it; they haven’t been realistic since colorization.

    2. I think we’re starting to blur the lines. It’s true that one doesn’t need to have watched any movies to be a great storyteller. But on the other hand, we’re talking about what thriller writers can learn from movies, not that we must. I still think the lessons (if any — it’s subjective) are about technique and structure and pace, not necessarily at all about content. I don’t get any inspiration from gunfights or explosions either. I do, however, get some good pointers on telling a story concisely and visually, on crafting believable dialogue (sometimes from seeing *bad* dialogue). I think thrillers by definition must engage viewers and readers in a certain way that’s different from non-thrillers. The style of the storytelling in a movie *may* ultimately become inspirational, even if the plot doesn’t. But again, the question was what *can* thriller writers learn, and I’d be first to agree that we don’t have to look to movies at all for any sort of inspiration if we don’t want to. But since we’d like to turn more moviegoers into readers, sometimes it might be beneficial to determine what works in that medium and put that same spark or element to work in ours.

      1. That’s what I’ve been getting at. My take from movies has been storytelling, pace, and sometimes, setting a scene (I draw some inspirations from the way a particular scene sets the mood with lighting, ambiance, background, etc.), things like that. My stories themselves come (loosely, sometimes) from my personal experiences. In fact, when I started laying the foundation of my INTERNET TOUGH GUYS series, one of the things I set out to do was move away from what everyone else had done with action scenes and stick to raw, gritty realism. However, what I learned, quickly, is that movies and, by extension, thriller writers have abandoned reality to an extent because, with realism, these things are often too short and fast to be interesting.

        A perfect example of this is car chases. In my book GODWIN’S LAW, I devote a whole chapter to a car chase but I found that I had to give in to some Hollywood elements to make it work. All the car chases I’ve been in in real life have been pretty short (my first one lasted all of about 20 seconds) and go very fast (when you’re driving a 120 miles per hour, you cover a lot of ground pretty quickly and don’t have much of a chance to appreciate the view). So, I ended up having to revert to my movie-watching roots to figure out how to make it work for the reader. In that regard, I do get things from movie gunfights and explosions.

        I think we’ve covered well, already, that a lot of us learn lessons about pace, conciseness and dialogue from movies because we’re under some similar constraints writing thrillers as Hollywood is making movies.

  16. Sorry for the delay (dear friend’s funeral this week). Great discussion! I asked this question in a “reader” group and it was interesting some of the comments. One person was quite vehement that movies and books couldn’t be compared easily and a writer couldn’t “learn” from movies any more than a sculptor could “learn” from a composer.

    I disagree. While movies are very visual, and books have the advantage of hearing interior dialogue, I think that thriller writers especially can improve our skill with pacing and painting word-pictures (since we are NOT a visual medium) by studying movies. Stephen, I’ll agree with you that a movie hasn’t ever sent me racing to the keyboard. But the way some directors set up scenes gives me inspiration. Focusing a camera on a bloody knife on the floor, or a plane spinning out of the sky, for example. Word-painting. Using symbols as place holders or hints/shorthand for what comes next.

    Artists see and experience things differently than non-artists, and whether you are a composer or horror writer, stained glass artisan or opera singer–I believe we not only create, we experience as we create, almost a visceral sensation. The best movies do that for me, make an emotional connection. I can hope that my words on the page do something of the same.

    1. Amy, sorry to hear about your friend. My condolences.

      Reading this statement about artists being unable to learn from other mediums was absolutely shocking to me. It took me a moment to get my jaw from the floor and stop and think that, maybe, it’s just me. I’m often a little odd and have to remind myself that I’m not always indicative of the “norm”.

      I’m a creative person. I’ve dabbled in most mediums at one time or another. For a big chunk of my life, I did comic books and got some praise for my artwork (and not just from my mom). I’ve played in bands that had huge followings and had (or went on to get) record deals. I’ve written, directed and acted in movies. I can’t imagine not taking things from one medium to the other, I do it constantly!

      You might say an author can’t learn anything from a musician, but I’d be surprised if most of you don’t write with music in the background. You may never look at a scene the way I do and say, “if this was a movie, this is the song that would be playing.” But, I would be very sad to hear you’ve never heard the melody of a song that captured the mood of your scene and helped you put it to paper. Have you really never looked at a picture and been touched in that creative part of your soul and expressed it in prose? I’m not talking about a picture of the Eiffel Tower inspiring you to write a story set in France. I’m talking about the connection of your creative soul to the piece in front of you, stirring something that spurs you to create, in this case, to write.

      Movies have easily the same effect on me. As Amy said, camera work for example, the focus of the frame on a bloody knife on the floor, can (and maybe I’m just weird, but I think SHOULD) touch that writer’s part of your mind and make you think of how you might describe that scene in one of your books.

      I completely disagree that no movie has ever sent me running to the keyboard just as I would disagree that no song has ever moved me to words. I turn to all sorts of mediums to find inspiration, to move me when I’m stuck and to teach me how to be better at everything I create.

      Am I alone here?

  17. Bernard, thank goodness I’m not the only weirdo, LOL! I’m a playwright, musician/composer, stained glass artist, teacher, actor, dog trainer (yes, that’s an art!)…and on and on, and each part I find brings a different texture to the writing work. You are not alone.

    An actor friend who read my debut thriller in beta told me it read like a radio play–I took it as a huge compliment. *s*

    For me, the creative part of my brain needs a constant outlet and if not through the writing, it bleeds out in other avenues. Heck, I know from being a singer that writing music requires both rhythm (which colors mood, among other things) as well as places to breathe. So I sometimes think of scenes in my fiction in musical terms–staccato, or adagio, for example–and never ever forget phrasing that includes places to breathe.

MATCH UP: In stores now!


ThrillerFest XVI: Register Today!



One of the most successful anthologies in the history of publishing!