January 29 – February 4: “Are literary techniques going by the wayside?”

thriller-roundtable-logo5Symbolism…metaphors…allusion…personification…are literary techniques going by the wayside with the fast-paced thrillers of today? This week ITW Members Tim Waggoner, Susan Furlong, Marietta Miles, Thomas Perry, Martin Roy Hill, Dana King, Desiree Holt and Chris Malburg will foreshadow the future of these once-common literary techniques (See what we did there?). Scroll down to the “comments” section and follow along!


Desiree Holt is a USA Today bestselling author with more than two hundred titles available. Her taste as both an author and a reader runs to books featuring current and former military as well as law enforcement as heroes and heroines. She has two Kindle Worlds licensed to Amazon—The Phoenix Agency and The Omega Team, both based on bestselling series. Without Warning, Book #2 in her Vigilance series for Kensington, releases in March.


Thomas Perry is the bestselling author of 25 novels, including the critically acclaimed Jane Whitefield series, Forty Thieves, The Old Man and The Butcher’s Boy, which won the Edgar Award.


Marietta Miles’ shorts and flash can be found in Thrills, Kills and Chaos, Flash Fiction Offensive, Yellow Mama, Hardboiled Wonderland and Revolt Daily. Her stories have been included in anthologies available through Static Movement Publishing and Horrified Press. She is rotating host for Noir on the Radio, Dames in the Dark and contributor to Do Some Damage Writer’s Blog. Her first book, ROUTE 12, was released February of 2016. Born in Alabama, raised in Louisiana, she currently resides in Virginia with her husband and two children.


Martin Roy Hill is the author of the Linus Schag, NCIS, thrillers, the Peter Brandt thrillers, and the award-winning short story collection DUTY, and EDEN: A Sci-Fi Novella. Martin’s short stories have appeared in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, ALT HIST: The Journal of Historical Fiction and Alternative History, Mystery Weekly Magazine, Crimson Streets, Nebula Rift, Devolution Z, and others. A former national award-winning investigative journalist, Martin is now a military analyst.



Tim Waggoner has published close to forty novels and three collections of short stories. He writes original dark fantasy and horror, as well as media tie-ins, and his articles on writing have appeared in numerous publications. He’s won the Bram Stoker Award, been a finalist for the Shirley Jackson Award and the Scribe Award, his fiction has received numerous Honorable Mentions in volumes of Best Horror of the Year, and he’s twice had stories selected for inclusion in volumes of Year’s Best Hardcore Horror. He’s also a full-time tenured professor who teaches creative writing and composition at Sinclair College in Dayton, Ohio.


Dana King has published eleven novels, two of which (A Small Sacrifice and The Man in the Window) received Shamus Award nominations. The newest novel in that series, Bad Samaritan, was released on January 22 by Down & Out Books. His Penns River series of police procedurals includes three books, with a fourth (Ten-Seven) due in July from Down & Out.


Chris Malburg is a popular author, with over 4 million words published in 22 business books. Simon & Schuster, Putnam, Wiley and McGraw Hill all publish Chris’ work which is consumed in most western countries. After classes at Stanford Writers School, Chris crossed the chasm into fiction with his Enforcement Division series. Chris’ latest, Man of Honor, is a thriller about the storied Chinese PLA Unit 61398—the cyber warfare division.


Susan Furlong was introduced to the American Irish Traveller community when a family of Travellers worked on her home. After extensive research, her fascination with this itinerant subculture became the basis for her new suspense series. Susan contributes to the New York Times bestselling Novel Idea Mysteries under the pen name Lucy Arlington, and is the author of other mysteries as well. Raised in North Dakota, she graduated from Montana State University. She and her family live in central Illinois.


  1. I don’t think symbolism and metaphors are passé at all. They’re what make the craft of writing so fascinating and the result so interesting. I worked hard on my latest, Man of Honor, to fill this fast paced cyber thriller with literary devices, techniques, and metaphors that make it all the more interesting. My goal is always to engage my readers first in the characters, then their story. It’s okay to work for the true meaning of a passage—to avoid writing on the nose. Or show there’s a clue in here and to pay attention because it’ll come in handy later. It’s within the boundaries to surprise readers with a twist in a character’s persona they didn’t know was coming. These devices surprise and delight readers while giving more depth and a new dimension to the characters.
    Another favorite is use of a pause. Man of Honor explodes from the very first airliner disaster. However, every so often the plot takes a short break to allow the characters (and readers) to catch their breath, figure out the next strategy, and then re-launch. Often my characters talk opposite one another—answering a question with something totally unrelated. This multiplies the dimensions of a scene and increases the depth of the characters. Sometimes characters we thought we could trust turn out to be totally corrupt and undependable. Even better if I sprinkle clues early on that the character just may not be fully trustworthy. Another great device lets readers know something the other characters don’t. Engagement in the characters deepens. If I’ve done my job this set-up just might cause them to shout at the hero, “Don’t open that door!”
    To me, a thriller lacking the depth brought by the author’s skilled use of symbolism, metaphors, and literary technique probably wouldn’t make a very interesting read.


  2. I don’t believe they are passé, although I don’t think they are used more judiciously. The key to a good thriller is clear delineation of both the action and dialogue, and judiciously used symbols and metaphors can enhance both the action and the dialogue. In Hide and Seek, the first book in my Vigilance series, I was careful with the use of both so I did not confuse the reader. After all, what draws readers to thrillers to begin with is the pace of the action and the enhancement of the situation by dialogue. I often use a metaphor to convey the true meaning of a conversation or an action, or sometimes to confuse readers so the action isn’t too predictable. But we have to be careful not to use either symbolism or metaphors to throw the reader too far of the track. In Hide and Seek I used symbolism to identify certain characters without giving away their true identities, but I also choose those that create a mental picture in the mind of he reader. But you have to be careful not to go overboard and interfere with the pace of the story which is, after all, what the readers are looking for.

  3. Symbolism and metaphor have long been a part of thriller novels. Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” was, at its heart (excuse the pun,) an adventure novel. Yet it was also a commentary about imperialism that used a number of metaphors (particularly darkness) to represent issues arising from foreign domination of native peoples. H.G. Wells’ “War of the Worlds” was also a metaphor about British imperialism—the invading Martians were doing to Britain what Britain had done to foreign lands across the globe. People today may be hesitant to refer to those novels as “thrillers” because they are considered classics; but at the time of publication, they were just adventure stories.

    Raymond Chandler was well-known for lacing his Phillip Marlowe mysteries with symbolism on both the macro and micro levels. On the former level, his books often reflected the chasm between the classes, with the wealthy of 1930s Los Angeles being merely a facade of the city’s underbelly of corruption. In “The Big Sleep,” uses rain and dampness as a symbolic attempt to cleanse the city. We also meet Marlowe’s client, the dying General Sternwood, in a greenhouse filled with orchid which Marlowe compares to freshly buried corpses.

    As in these books, metaphor and symbolism is way of making social commentary that I believe remains alive and well today.

    In my novel “Empty Places,” I use the wealthy California community of Palms Springs as a metaphor for the United States during the 1980s. Though largely forgotten today, the decade of the Eighties was a time of economic turmoil (the deepest recession since the Great Depression), political scandal and corruption (more than 100 members of the Reagan administration forced out of office, including the attorney general), and the deepening divide between the morbidly rich and everyone else.

    The latter is represented by Palm Springs’ contrasting environs—millionaire hillside palaces and luxurious country clubs on one side of the freeway, ramshackle houses, shacks, and mobile homes of the underprivileged on the other side. The plot involves a journalist’s attempt to solve the murder of his ex-wife. In the process, he unearths a shadowy world of sex, drugs, and political corruption. The title “Empty Places” refers not only to the vast empty desert that surrounds Palm Springs (and where much of the action takes place), but also the emptiness in peoples’ lives that they try to fill with drugs, sex, money, and power.

    I also used a lot of symbolism and metaphors in my book “Eden: A Sci-Fi Novella,” the story of a group of American soldiers who stumble on an ancient secret while on patrol in Iraq (where many believe the Biblical Garden of Eden was located).

    The story, in part, pits Captain Adam Cadman, a National Guard soldier who is an archeologist in civilian life, against his born-again Christian machine gunner, Thomas. Adam Cadman (a spelling variant for Adam Kadmon, the Primordial Man in the Kabbalah) is the logical scientist who confronts something that betrays his belief in science. Thomas plays two symbolic roles in the story: the idea of an evangelical Christian also being a ruthless machine gunner is symbolic of the belief of many people had that the Iraq war was a new Christian Crusade; later, when Thomas begins to doubt his beliefs, he becomes a latter-day Doubting Thomas.

    In the end, Cadman and a female soldier named E.J. are the only surviving soldiers. As they retreat from the symbolic Eden, E.J. admits her first name is Eve. Cadman realizes that, like the original Adam and Eve, expelled from Eden for eating from the Tree of Knowledge, he and E.J. are being expelled because they, too, have learned too much.

    I’m not alone in the use of contemporary symbolism and metaphor in writing.

    Jay Allan Storey, a Canadian author of dystopian YA novels, makes great use of the novel as metaphor. His sci-fi noir mystery, “The Arx,” is a cautionary tale about the power of elite secret societies. “The Black Heart of the Station” is a story about the power of faith. His latest novel, “Vita Aeterna,” is a metaphor for the threat which comes from allowing too few people to accumulate too much wealth and political power.

    Casual readers might never recognize the symbolism and metaphor we engineer into our stories, which is how it should be. But it doesn’t mean writers shouldn’t try to add a little literary flare to their thrillers.

  4. I don’t think so, though I can see why some might. Sturgeon’s Law says that “ninety percent of everything is crap.” That may be harsh—I doubt the actual percentage is higher than 85%–but his point is well-taken here. I doubt literary techniques are any less—of less well—used today than before, but we’re too close to today’s writers to see it.

    I agree with everything Martin says about Conrad, Wells, and Chandler, and would go one step further. We can use them as examples because their work was so good people still read it today. I’m willing to bet those three had contemporaries—maybe hundreds of them—who were at least as popular in their time but are not remembered today because they either ignored those literary techniques or used them maladroitly. It’s just that people only remember those who did those things well a hundred years later and we’re still waiting to see which of our contemporaries will stand the test of time.

  5. Dana got it exactly right. What makes a thriller memorable and lasting are the nuances and the complexities it contains. These come in the form of authorial technique–the metaphores and symbolism that engages readers and gives everyone something interesting to think about. Nicely said, Dana.

  6. I think that at the moment people aren’t very interested in ornamentation. Literary conventions and techniques evolve with the mood of the times. The techniques that effectively convey thoughts continue to appear, and the ones that are purely decorative die out or are replaced. Most of the thriller writing today is cinematic–fast and specific and clear. But there are still pleasing pieces of purely descriptive prose within that style. Today I ran across the following passage near the end of T. Jefferson Parker’s The Room of White Fire. Parker is a no-nonsense thriller writer who has won the Edgar three times. His character is flying a small Cessna very low over the Pacific coast near Coronado Island: “Almost touching the green-jeweled chop that glitters for miles around. Bright hulls, billowing sails, rooster tails of motorboats on the mounding swells, and the black rocks of Zuniga Point hurtling past,” The images are fast, sharp, and make us feel the speed and the beauty at once. People who love language will keep making it work for them, and they’ll use every tool they have.

    1. Symbolism needn’t slow down a thriller. Symbolism isn’t something you need to take time to explain to the reader; it’s just there. As I said before, the casual reader probably wouldn’t notice it. Neither Conrad nor Wells wrote in their books “this symbolizes imperialism.” They simply wrote damn fine stories and let the reader take from them what they could.

      “Moby Dick” probably contains the most symbolism of any novel. Unfortunately, Melville had a habit of explaining what you were about to read before going on to describe it. But Ray Bradbury’s screenplay of the movie has none of that redundancy. Yet it is very easy to see the symbolism: the mad man in black persecuting the white whale; dark vs light; evil vs good; etc.

      The one thing “Heart of Darkness,” “War of the Worlds,” and “Moby Dick” have in common is they reflect what the authors thought of the societies in which they lived. That’s what makes a story survive the ages.

  7. I don’t think metaphors and literary symbolism have been — or need to be — abandoned by writers of popular fiction, but there are types of stories where these techniques hinder rather than help. In science fiction, fantasy, and horror writers have to be careful of using symbolic language because readers can get confused. If I’m trying to describe a city bus going down the street, and I write “the green metal dragon trundled down the road, trailing smoke behind it,” readers of imaginative literature might believe I’m describing an actual dragon of some sort. There are many new or invented elements in SF/F stories, and readers are always working to orient themselves to the strange worlds they find themselves visiting. When they run across symbolic language, it makes them stop to try and figure out how they’re supposed to read it — literally or figuratively — and this throws them out of the story. While the same thing can happen in thrillers, these stories rely on speed of reading to a great extent. We want action scenes to be fast-paced, and we can use a fast pace to increase suspense. As I said earlier, symbolic language forces readers to slow down and think, and this brings your story to a screeching halt. Once readers get going again, they have to build up speed once more, and if they keep running into symbolic language, they’ll keep stopping until they may finally give up on your story altogether. Now I’m not saying thinking is bad, by any means. But if you’re writing a story that depends on readers not being thrown out of the world of your story or depends on their being able to race through the text during certain scenes, then you should use symbolic language sparingly, and in just the right places.

    1. Tim brings an excellent point–thinking slows readers smack in the middle of a fast-paced thriller. No question. But the real thinking may come for many after the section, once they take a break from reading. That’s when the great books sprint ahead of the also-rans. The great ones keep readers thinking, interpreting, and enjoying the piece after it’s over.

      1. I agree. It’s what draws he reader into the next chapter and the flow of he books But again,thereis a fine balance to be achieved so there isn’t an imbalance between literary mechanisms and the pace of he story in a thriller.

        1. Desiree nailed it. The writer and their technique need to stay in the background. The best writers are invisible to the reader. The action and the technique that makes it happen are just there, seamlessly. It takes a while working at the craft to get to the point where our own authorial tools don’t slow the pace.

          1. Yep. The best use of literary techniques is not unlike the best use of political opinions in a book: between the lines. The reader needn’t be–possibly shouldn’t be–aware of them as she reads, but afterward that’s what sticks in their minds when it’s done well.

  8. If used sparingly and as support, literary devices such as symbolism, personification, or allusion can actually help set and maintain a quick pace. They can tell a large part of the story in a shorter amount of time without losing pace.

    The writer should be careful, if there are too many devices peppered throughout the tale or they are poorly placed you risk confusing the reader or pushing them from the story. Perhaps even worse, the writer may lose the trust of the reader.

    However, a literary technique can perk up a lifeless passage and still continue the storytelling. Instead of taking several sentences to say one thing a metaphor might convey the image best.

    In my first novella, ROUTE 12, one of the situations was so grim that the only way to describe it was through metaphor. Without that veil, that layer of protection, I believe the reader would have turned away.

    1. Marietta mentioned the reader’s trust in the author. This is something I’m always aware of and consciously try to earn or at least not breach. To me, the fastest way a writer can blow it with a reader is by over using literary devices. It’s like over salting the soup. A little goes a long way. When I see that, I see the writer almost shouting, I WENT TO WRITERS SCHOOL AND LEARNED ALL THIS. And it sometimes seems they want to show off each and every technique and literary device.

      The great writers don’t need to do that. It just may boil down to confidence in the writers’ abilities.

  9. Yes. I’ve noticed that there are fewer literary techniques like allegories and metaphors included in contemporary thrillers. Part of the reason, I believe, is a shift in the way readers absorb information these days: quick spurts vs. longer, more drawn out prose. Genre readers expect thrillers to unfold at breakneck speed, but I feel there is still room to include symbolism. Intense scenes, written with concise dialog and heart-pounding action, pop when they’re interspersed with slower-paced narrative scenes. My favorite thriller writers know how to create rhythm in their stories with natural waves of tension and release. I think this is best accomplished by building up peaks of stress and emotion and saving literary elements for the downswing.

  10. Something that I think will effect he use of symbolism and metaphors as they relate to the pace of a story is the emergence of Radish, Now with more than 500,000 users, the app beaks novels down into bite-sized pieces. In that situation the pacing isle-important, so readers will be salivating to get the next bite.” Does it hinder the flow of a story? Maybe, but no more than a serialized television show.

  11. From some of these comments, it seems “symbolism” is being mistaken for writing style. Merriam Webster defines symbolism as “the art or practice of using symbols especially by investing things with a symbolic meaning or by expressing the invisible or intangible by means of visible or sensuous representations: such as a : artistic imitation or invention that is a method of revealing or suggesting immaterial, ideal, or otherwise intangible truth or states.”

    Introducing symbolism into a story should not affect the story’s pacing or tension. We’re not talking about writing some flowery scene or some kind of mumbo-jumbo scene like the ending to the movie “2001: A Space Odyssey” (whatever that ending meant). As I said earlier, the casual reader will never notice the symbolism in a thriller; the astute reader will. You don’t have to understand all the symbolism in Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea” (man vs nature, age vs youth, allusions to the agony of Christ, etc.) to enjoy the story. It’s a just great adventure tale.

    Last year, I had a sci-fi short story published call “Soldiers Gone.” In the not too distant future, a drone pilot loses his aircraft in combat. That should be no big deal; he’ll just get another one. But he’s scared. He’s noticed that drone pilots who lose their aircraft are transferred out of the command and are never heard of again. While being transported to a new duty location, he runs away. A wild, deadly chase ensues. In the end, he discovers that the use of automated and remotely operated weapons systems has only made never-ending war. The world leaders have secretly determined that the war must have a human cost. So, whenever a drone is lost, its operator must be sent to a termination depot to be killed. The leaders hope someone will finally get tired of the death toll and end the war—only they never tell the populace of their agreement.

    On the surface it’s just a ironic, fast-paced sci-fi thriller full of aerial combat with drone aircraft, deadly robotic guards, automated medics, and other things that are on the military technological horizon. However, in my day job, I am a military analyst. I am very concerned about the increasing reliance on automated weapons and drones in combat. I believe we are trying to sanitize war by hiding its true costs, much as the Bush administration tried to do by refusing to put the costs of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars in the general budget so Americans could see how they were draining the treasury, and forbidding photos of flag-draped coffins returning thousands of young Americans killed in the wars. “Soldiers Gone” is a story as metaphor of my concerns.

  12. I agree with Chris Malburg’s comment. If my readers don’t trust me they will not buy my books. And “overselling” (I like that, Chris!) I think hides the flavor of the story. I think we should not confuse literary techniques with writing style. Thrillers definitely make use of literary techniques but I believe more sparingly because of the type of book it is.

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