February 26 – March 4: “What can thriller writers learn from the film industry?”

thriller-roundtable-logo5What can thriller writers learn from the film industry? That’s the question on tap this week. Join thriller authors and ITW Members Eric Beetner, Brendan Duffy, DiAnn Mills, Dana King and Arthur Kerns as they discuss everything film and thriller related! Scroll down to the ‘comments’ section; you won’t want to miss this one!


Eric Beetner has been described as “the James Brown of crime fiction – the hardest working man in noir” (Crime Fiction Lover) and “The 21st Century’s answer to Jim Thompson” (LitReactor). He has written more than 20 novels, including Rumrunners, Leadfoot, The Devil Doesn’t Want Me, The Year I Died 7 Times and Criminal Economics. His award-winning short stories have appeared in over three dozen anthologies. He co-hosts the podcast Writer Types and the Noir at the Bar reading series in Los Angeles, where he lives and works as a television editor.


DiAnn Mills is a bestselling author who believes her readers should expect an adventure. She combines unforgettable characters with unpredictable plots to create action-packed, suspense-filled novels. Her titles have appeared on the CBA and ECPA bestseller lists; won two Christy Awards; and been finalists for the RITA, Daphne Du Maurier, Inspirational Readers’ Choice, and Carol award contests. Firewall, the first book in her Houston: FBI series, was listed by Library Journal as one of the best Christian Fiction books of 2014.


Brendan Duffy is an editor and the author of The Storm King and House of Echoes. In 2015, he was featured in Refinery29’s “21 New Authors You Need to Know.” He lives in New York, where he is at work on his next novel.


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.


In March 2013 Diversion Books Inc. released the acclaimed espionage thriller, The Riviera Contract followed by the sequel, The African Contract. The Yemen Contract was released in June 2016. Arthur Kerns joined the FBI with a career in counterintelligence and counterterrorism. On retirement, he became a consultant with a number of US agencies, including the Department of State. His lengthy assignments took him to over 65 countries.


Latest posts by ITW (see all)
  1. One of the sparks that inspired me to write my first novel, The Riviera Contract, was the Alfred Hitchcock thriller, To Catch A Thief. I thought what if I tried to write a thriller that matched the visuals of the French Riviera, the plot twists, and especially the interesting characters in that film? I still visualize Cary Grant and Grace Kelly performing their roles in the beautiful French seaside setting and tried through my descriptions to give the reader of my novel the same long-lasting impressions of the South of France. Another technique I borrowed from the film industry is to make every scene count. One can’t have dead scenes in your story that add nothing to the structure of the plot. Every scene is important and must count. Movie people know that a film script must be lean to keep the story going. No pauses, no stops.
    Also remember that the plot, no matter how riveting it is, can’t overpower your characters. They must be so three-dimensional that they create a lasting image and connection with the reader. Think Casablanca or Sunset Boulevard. Screenwriters know this if they are striving for a good film. They, as well as novel writers, know the storyline must be straight on, no meandering, keep on the road to the conclusion, otherwise, the readers will get lost and lose interest.

  2. The film industry has much to teach writers. As Arthur says above “to make every scene count. Successful films have no room for fluff. Every moment that ticks by has a purpose.

    Four writing lessons leap to the screen:
    1. Emotion is displayed in body language and symbolism. The actor shows the viewer what is being internalized (or not).
    2. Dialogue moves the scene forward. Every spoken word counts; it’s in character and unpredictable.
    3. The camera catches unique clips of character and setting that point to significant story information.
    4. Every aspect of the film allows the viewer to live vicariously the story adventure through the eyes of a magnificently displayed character.

  3. Though I write novels set in the real world, I put a lot of effort into what writers in other genres call world building. Atmosphere, tone, a mythologized sense of place—I love a book with a setting that’s as developed and potent as its human characters.

    Compared to writers, filmmakers far have more tools with which to realize their own visions, but I still find watching evocative and cinematically astute films deeply instructive. Perhaps an inventive camera movement suggests a way into a chapter opening or a certain palette inspires the atmosphere of a scene. A swelling score primes an emotion at just the right time, but so can an artfully crafted sentence. I’m a visual thinker, so I have a naturally strong response to the medium of film, and I like the challenge of reproducing a similar, multi-sensory depth in my own work.

  4. Let’s cut to the chase by saying I agree with what Arthur and Diann have said above. (See what I did there? “Cut to the chase?”) A novel has virtually unlimited time to tell its story. A movie has about two hours, give or take. Good directors and screenwriters make every frame count. Look to see what they do.

    My first Nick Forte novel, A Small Sacrifice, had an ending I liked but had to admit was anticlimactic. I was stuck for quite a while until I came across the film Three Days of the Condor on TV one night and adapted a bit from it to suit my unique situation. The final product got a Shamus Award nomination for best indie PI story that year. (I also read the novel on which the movie is based—Six Days of the Condor—but that was long ago and that wasn’t what stuck with me. There is a lesson to be learned about streamlining things: the movie only takes three days.)

    You can also learn by observing things that many thriller movies don’t do all that well: pacing. Too many now seem to think the key is continuous action with nary a chance for the audience to catch their collective breath. Action sequences are more effective if the suspense has been properly prepared. I’m not a huge Hitchcock fan—I think his plot devices are often hokey, even considering the movies are over fifty years old now—but no one built suspense through a film the way he did. Give the action a chance to breathe, let the reader know the character a little, allow time for the consequences of the situation to the main character to sink in. Your readers will appreciate it.

    Remember, it’s a book. No matter how exciting, if the baby cries or it’s time to go to work, they’ll have to set it down. No book can compel every reader to finish it in one sitting. Readers have time to think about what you’ve done. Movies can wrap them up and turn them loose before they have a chance to think, “Wait. He did what? Really?” You don’t have that luxury.

  5. As I assumed, everyone here is hitting on the most important lesson novelists can draw from film – the efficiency of storytelling. I would add also on of the most important things I learned during my years screenwriting (don’t bother with the IMDB search – nothing of mine ever got made) was the idea that character is action.
    Unless you write in a ton of voice over to get inside the head of a character, a film can’t dwell on someone’s inner thoughts. If you want to get at a thought you can put it in dialogue, but that often ends up as clunky exposition – in other words, bad writing. For that reason, screenwriters are taught that character is defined by action more than dialogue.
    I firmly agree with this. You learn as much, if not more, about a character by how they react to a situation and the things they do than by what they say or think in their heads. After all, we’ve all seen the unreliable narrator. People can tell you anything they want. But their true nature is in their actions and deeds. It’s true in life off the page as well. And aren’t we all trying to write truth?

    1. Eric raises a good point here. A good and wise friend once told me that what people tell you is important to them is what they’d like to think is important, or what they’d like you to think is important to them. What they DO shows you what’s really important to them. That’s a great point to keep in mind when creating characters, especially with the understanding that a character who appears to be duplicitous may only be lying to himself.

  6. I’d love to use this platform to stump for my idea that shorter books are better books, but I won’t get into that since I know it’s just personal preference and my reading habits that keep me from picking up a 600-700 page book the same way I balk at a movie with a 3 hr run time. If anything, many of the most successful (story-wise) and beloved films have a more reasonable run time just as many beloved novels are kept pretty tight. If they can do it, it proves it can be done and still create a fully fleshed narrative that resonates with an audience.
    But I’d never suggest imposing any limits on story. If the story you want to tell needs 1000 pages to tell it, then that’s what it needs. I might not read it, but I know there are also some readers who feel cheated if the book they buy is too slight.
    But really, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film I thought was too short, except maybe the first few Christopher Guest films: Waiting For Guffman and Best IN Show. I could have watched more of them. Doesn’t happen often though. And I tend to go by that other old showbiz maxim – leave ’em wanting more!

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