April 23 – 29: “At their very core, how do you view your thrillers?”

thriller-roundtable-logo5The late John Gardner suggested that all stories boil down to either, someone went on a journey, or a stranger comes to town. This week we’re joined by ITW Members Max Karpov, Elena Hartwell, Robert Black Whitehill, TG Wolff, Kelli Stanley and Humphrey Hawksley and we’re asking them: Do you agree? At their very core, how do you view your thrillers? Scroll down to the “comments” section – you won’t want to miss what they have to say!

Kelli Stanley is the Macavity Award-winning creator of the Miranda Corbie series (City of Dragons, City of Secrets, City of Ghosts), literary noir novels set in 1940 San Francisco and featuring “one of crime’s most arresting heroines” (Library Journal). She is also a Bruce Alexander Award and Golden Nugget Award winner, and a Shamus Award and Los Angeles Times Book Prize finalist. Kelli has also published numerous short stories and essays, holds a Master’s Degree in Classics, and prefers her bourbon neat.


After years in the theater, Elena Hartwell turned her dramatic skills to fiction. She writes the Eddie Shoes Mystery series. One Dead, Two to Go received four nominations for “best mystery of 2016.” Two Heads are Deader Than One launched April 15, 2017. InD’Tale’s five-star review: “…a delightful heroine in a story that promises pleasant romance and a hint of danger with a twist of an ending.” She can usually be found in the tiny town of North Bend, WA, with her hubby, their dog, two horses, and a trio of cats.


Max Karpov is the author of the new Russia thriller The Children’s Game. Karpov is the nom de plume of James Lilliefors, who also writes the Bowers and Hunter mystery series (The Psalmist, The Tempest), featuring Methodist pastor Luke Bowers and homicide detective (and agnostic) Amy Hunter. Karpov/Lilliefors is a native of the Washington, D.C. area. He currently lives with his wife in South Florida.


Robert Blake Whitehill is a screenwriter and author of the award-winning, critically acclaimed, bestselling Ben Blackshaw Thrillers set on Smith Island in the Chesapeake Bay. He has written highly rated true crime TV for Discovery, including The New Detectives, as well as UXO (Unexploded Ordnance), a feature script that won Whitehill a fellowship from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.


TG Wolff writes thrillers and mysteries that play within the gray area between good and bad, right and wrong. Cause and effect drive the stories, drawing from 20+ years’ experience in Civil Engineering, where “cause” is more often a symptom of a bigger, more challenging problem. Diverse characters mirror the complexities of real life and real people, balanced with a healthy dose of entertainment. TG Wolff holds a Master’s Degree in Civil Engineering and is a member of Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime.


Humphrey Hawksley is a journalist, author and commentator. His work as a BBC foreign correspondent has taken him to crises on every continent. He was expelled from Sri Lanka, opened the BBC’s television bureau in China, arrested in Serbia and initiated a global campaign against enslaved children in the chocolate industry. The campaign continues today. Hawksley is the author of the acclaimed ‘Future History’ series Dragon Strike, Dragon Fire and The Third World War that explores world conflict. MAN ON ICE is his fourth international political thriller. His work has appeared in the The New York Times, The Guardian, The Times, Financial Times, Yale Global and other publications. His university lectures include Columbia, Cambridge, University College London and the London Business School.


  1. This reminds me of Kurt Vonnegut’s theory that stories “have shapes which can be drawn on graph paper” and “there’s no reason the simple shapes of stories can’t be fed into computers.” In an often-cited (and often-amusing) lecture on the subject, Vonnegut called the Cinderella story the most popular in Western civilization (each time it’s retold “someone makes a million dollars”).

    Years later, the shapes of stories WERE fed into a computer, by researchers at the University of Vermont, who came up with six basic story types: rags to riches (rise); riches to rags (fall); man in a hole (fall then rise); Icarus (rise then fall); Cinderella (rise, fall, rise); Oedipus (fall, rise, fall).

    There are lots of other theories about the stories we tell, from the French writer George Polti’s claim that there were 36 core “dramatic situations” to Christopher Foster’s book THE SEVEN BASIC PLOTS. I’m not sure how many types of stories there really are. But what interests me most as a reader are the interior storylines of the characters. What I like best in writers such as le Carre and Graham Greene (or Mankell and Nesbo) are the inner lives of the characters – their doubts, misjudgments, little victories, physical vulnerabilities, etc. – which are often as idiosyncratic as those of a friend or a family member (and can’t be drawn very accurately on graph paper or measured in a computer).

    In very broad terms, I think of my own books as having two levels. One is the outer plot, the puzzle that the characters (and, it’s hoped, readers) are trying to solve; the other is the interior stories, which are more nebulous – how the characters interact with one another, what they learn during the course of the book. In my novel THE CHILDREN’S GAME, an ex-CIA officer Christopher Niles and a U.S. Senator Anna Carpenter are trying to figure out exactly what kind of game Russia is playing to undermine the West. This is the central puzzle. But as they are doing so, they’re also wrestling with their own uncertainties, coming to terms with their values and temperaments, their personal and professional loyalties and their relationship with each other. Ideally, these outer and inner plots need to be intertwined throughout the book. For me, keeping them in sync in a compelling way is the most challenging part of writing a thriller ….

    If you haven’t seen Vonnegut’s short lecture on the shape of stories, by the way, it’s on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oP3c1h8v2ZQ There was also an interesting article on this topic in The Atlantic recently by Adrienne LaFrance: https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2016/07/the-six-main-arcs-in-storytelling-identified-by-a-computer/490733/

  2. I believe there is a lot of truth to this concept with respect to mystery/thrillers. First of all, a mystery/thriller novel is rarely filled solely with characters who all know each other. Either the killer or the victim is unknown to the protagonist. So in the simplest sense of the adage, the intrusion of a stranger often launches the plot. In my experience as a writer and a reader—there is more likely a stranger who comes to town in a mystery—a killer who enters the territory of the detective (private, amateur, or police). While with a thriller—the protagonist is often a stranger in a strange land—chasing after a criminal on a larger, more global stage.

    There are, of course, stories that don’t fit this pattern. For example, in my third novel, I send my Private Eye on vacation, so she investigates a homicide outside her usual stomping grounds. Part of this was so I didn’t kill off too many people in a short time in Bellingham, Washington, where my novels are set. It’s not a place with a high homicide rate, so I wanted to spread out the bodies my PI stumbles over. Having Eddie Shoes be a stranger on a journey also gave me the opportunity to increase tension because her usual support system wasn’t in place.

    I also think there is a psychological aspect to the statement. We can be on a “journey” without leaving home. So the journey might be in familiar surroundings, but the protagonist may be seeing things in a new way—or the journey may be coming home. In this last instance, the “stranger” is not a new person, but a new version of the person, which makes them a stranger even though they “know” everyone.

    I’m looking forward to reading other thoughts on the idea!

  3. I agree with the psychological aspect of a journey, Elena. My romantic suspense stories tend to revolve around family and home. The heroine and hero, or both, are forced to reveal secrets and face truths about themselves which they find confronting. The antagonists always upend a life they thought secure.

    1. Yes, I think psychological and romantic suspense lend themselves perfectly to internal journeys. A lot of great books combine the two, with the external representing the internal or vice versa.

  4. I contemplated the questions deeply, especially as today is the release of Exacting Justice. And I have to say…I don’t agree.

    The question maps well into stories because every story has a path, otherwise it just muddles to nowhere. When you have a path, you either come or go, you don’t stand still.

    At their cores, stories boil down to attaining / advancing or maintaining/protecting a position such as in family, society, life, the world. If a person is going on a journey, it is with a purpose of seeking a role or an experience current missing. If a person is coming to town, it is with the purpose of establishing their own role their, or taking the position from someone else.

    In thrillers, the core of the story boils down to the antagonists, the one driving the story. In Exacting Justice, the antagonist is a serial killer but one targeting drug dealers. This killer is attempting to advance the quality of life of a society by removing what is viewed (right or wrong) as an impediment. Both the killer and the protagonist, Det. Jesus De La Cruz, experience personal journeys along the way but the core of the story is about where the boundaries of society are and the tug-of-war that happens to keep the system in balance.

  5. A salient discussion on World Book Day (and Shakespeare’s birthday)!

    No, I don’t agree with Gardner, though it is dubious that he actually said this (see https://quoteinvestigator.com/2015/05/06/two-plots/). While some simplification–distilling the complex into recognizable patterns–is necessary for critical analysis, like all methodologies that privilege statistics over specifics, it can also minimize and reduce much of the essence of what makes something art.

    In other words, in seeking to quantify what is not quantifiable (the complexities of the human mind and spirit in the creation of narrative), such reduction risks minimizing the basic significance of narrative itself.

    Such quantification is a particularly American approach. American culture likes oversimplification; it’s profoundly anti-intellectual, even within intellectual circles. It’s also far easier to monetize a skill or an art if it can be sold and repackaged as a top ten list or a schematic that will fit in a 90 page self-help book.

    Rather than seek to condense more than a millennia of story-telling into two themes–both of which relate to western culture and male-centric work–I think it’s ultimately more profitable to ask why we tell stories in the first place. While the time is too short to discuss what purposes narrative serve, I can at least talk about why I write what I write.

    Crime fiction is an examination of human behavior under stress–perhaps the second-most stressful kind of pressure next to actual war. Victimization is loss; loss is death. So even if we don’t write about murder, we are usually writing about something lost, something gone, some crime that our protagonist will either have to avenge or prevent from happening.

    In real life, of course, we have the illusion of control. But once we are made a victim of a crime, that illusion is dispelled–sometimes for good. And that’s where justice–the act of revenge, a loss for a loss, the rectification of wrong–comes in.

    I suspect most of us write crime fiction because, in our books, we can control that outcome. When we read about unsolved crimes, when we are made a victim of criminality, when we are faced with frustration and injustice, we, as writers, can construct a world in which justice and balance wins. We still write about loss, but we try to resolve it. We write about crimes, but we avenge them. We exert that control we factually lack and retell it fictionally, and that makes us–and our readers–feel better; it comforts us, assuages us.

    At the core, my stories are about human beings facing a quixotic, often profoundly unjust world … a world as close to reality as I can make it. But I write in order to champion the strength of good in the human spirit … how it overcomes the tragedy of loss and death, how it seeks to not just survive, but to amend, how it continually and sometimes fruitlessly battles, in the words of the Bard, the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.

    Sometimes, it doesn’t take a village. Sometimes, it can boil down to just one person who will fight to do the right thing.

    In other words, to paraphrase Chandler, “Down these mean streets a woman must go who is not herself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.” And while I personally think a little tarnish and fear in a protagonist is a good thing–Miranda Corbie certainly qualifies–the only really crucial point is that she keeps going.

  6. I am pleasantly struck by the wonderful erudition of the other contributors here. I signed on to answer all four weeks’ questions not so much to gas on and on about my own point of view, but to test my thoughts about writing against the minds of authors I admire and respect.

    In the main, Gardner’s quotation about a character going on a journey, or arriving at the end of a journey in a town, is true, but as has been alluded to, that is the merest fragment of what a story is.

    In my way of thinking, a story cannot be reduced to an algorithm because of the unique voice and experience of an author. The Writers’ Room at Skynet might have a chance to bang out a serviceable story, but only if all authors’ life experiences and education are homogenized throughout the world. Same begets same.

    Many years ago I was offered an opportunity to ghost-adapt the four stories of an individual into screenplays. The first two were easy. They were fleshed out well, with interesting characters. The second two stories were a grind. There was a sameness of setting, of character, and the ideas were thinly developed over all because the person creator of the stories had gotten bored with his own ideas and essentially abandoned them to me to develop. True writers must explore new plots and characters and relationships to stay invested in the labor of writing, even when crafting title after title of a series.

    My prospective adaptation patron had only one story, and it fell to me to tread that fine line between respecting the story or outline provided, and bringing some genuine invention to the works. I discovered that the mission-creep of the job went well beyond adaptation into fleshing out skeletal concepts with real meat.

    In my Ben Blackshaw thrillers, the ferocity of the plot pressures characters to reveal themselves, and in these revelations come the seismic shifts in the relationships. Yes, the plot and inner character workings must weave together.

    As writers, it’s terrifying that after a basic education in the craft, many of us continue to the process of improvement in public. It’s gratifying that Blackshaw readers note the evolutions in the stakes, growth in the characters, and deepening of their bonds as they march off to hell and then stagger back again.

  7. It’s good to be back after a week in the Balkans and see such well-honed and researched arguments from names familiar of a couple of weeks ago. Thanks ITW and Jose again. Gardner (if indeed it did originate from him) must be both right and wrong. Wrong because as Kelli Stanley prompts it is an over simplification and right because just about all stories are about a stranger or someone acting out character and the journey that follows — whether geographical or emotional. One non-fiction thriller story is the journey we are all on prompted by the coming to town of Donald Trump and or, earlier, of Osama Bin Laden. Subsequent travels took this bit part character to Iraq, Afghanistan and all over the world. The question made me think about my new thriller, Man on Ice, which is out May 1st. Two strangers come into to two different towns, a new president in Washington and the uninvited Russians to the Alaskan Island of Little Diomede. There follows the protagonist’s journey across the frozen sea ice of the US-Russian border to fix things. But could Man on Ice also match Max Karpov’s University of Vermont study on the six ‘rise-fall-rags-riches’ stories? Not sure. It’s getting late in London, so will try to decide on that one tomorrow.

  8. Looks like a stranger’s come to town and we’ve all headed off. I checked out Christopher’s Booker’s The Seven Basic Plots published in 2005 which he boiled down to — 1.Overcoming the Monster, 2.Rags to Riches, 3.The Quest, 4.Voyage and Return, 5.Rebirth, 6.Comedy and 7.Tragedy. Man on Ice, my latest thriller, firmly slots into Overcoming the Monster who in this case is a Russian Admiral sending forces across the Bering Strait into US territory. Gardner thesis can mesh into it but it is conquest over something bad that prevails.

    1. I’m still ploughing through The Years by Virginia Woolf in which nothing happens beyond the passage of time and the mundane changes in people’s lives as they age and their circumstances change. We’re given snapshots of a family over the years. WW1 is bypassed in a time skip from 1917 to 1918 to Present Day (published in 1937). Where does this fit in the 7 plots, I wonder? The Quest? Rebirth? Hmmm. It’s amazing how engrossing it is and she does it with perfectly chosen words and characterisation.

      My all time favourite Anthony Powell’s 12 volume A Dance to the Music of Time is a much more extended but similar idea. I reread the lot every few years and love them all over again.

      1. Anthony Powell and Virginia Woolf are excellent examples that nullify Gardner’s thesis for the novel as a whole. But, is it not the case that these might not even be classed as full-blown stories, more a tapestry that happens to contain tales about people. Also, they are literary novels and certainly not thrillers. Perhaps, the closer a novel comes to being a thriller or mystery, the closer it gets to proving Gardner ‘stranger’ argument. Yet, even then I am not convinced. I shall ponder more. Thank you Elisabeth.

        1. Were Gardner and Booker specifically referring to genre fiction or novels in general? I thought they meant in general. I know we’re supposed to be talking crime but as everyone is pointing out they fall neatly into one or another slot and we can probably all place our own work. In my rom suspenses the journey is usually psychological with a side of overcoming the monster.

          Humphrey, I’m finding this an interesting side discussion. 🙂 Aren’t all our stories, to varying degrees, tapestries that happen to contain tales about people?

          The emphasis changes depending on where the author’s focus is aimed as does the timeframe. You’re interested in the US/Russia confrontation but your books will still be the tale of a person’s struggle–probably short term in a time sense?
          Powell was interested in a society and how it evolves over a person’s lifetime, so we have Nick Jenkins’ tale–the interweaving of characters in the dance of time.
          Thriller characters just have a more excitement packed life!

          I regard all books as stories and all authors as equals on the bookshelf. Some I enjoy, some not so much but I’m willing to give anyone a shot. Genre divides are a convenience really, for easy reference.

  9. Yes, everyone is away on a Gardner journey … Overcoming the Monster seems a prominent theme in thrillers. Of course, many of the most enduring stories (going back to the Bible, fairy tales, etc.) can be boiled down to good vs. evil. Or the illusion of good versus evil. What makes stories rich and memorable are the shaded areas, as was discussed in the protagonist/antagonist conversation.

    1. With everyone else away, Max, I’m not sure how the Skripal story fits into Gardner’s thesis, except that, for sure, it was not a direct order from Putin which poses the question as to why Britain may be building him up to be a bigger monster than he really is. We saw similar in the 1920s and 30s with Stalin while we ended up embracing a far more chilling home grown character at the heart of Europe on the grounds that he was better than Stalin and that led to the monumental journey of crushing evil.

      1. The Skripal tale seems too involved to fit as a stranger-comes-to-town or someone-goes-on-a-journey. There are many great books, as Elisabeth Rose notes, in which there is no “plot” other than the living of life and the passing of time (but most of these wouldn’t be called thrillers) … The “better than” idea is compelling – and something we see too often in our politics, unfortunately … “Direct order” is an interesting distinction.

  10. Now Elizabeth has set me thinking again. And yes, we have the tapestry (or backdrop as I usually call it) and within that the challenge or the mystery and the characters involved. Da Vinci Code backdrop was the Catholic Church; Gone Girl was troubled domestic life; Hunt for Red October was the Cold War. As we drill down on this the only way that Gardner’s thesis does hold is to make the ‘stranger’ an unexpected change to the backdrop. Jesus has an heir; Love is unreliable (although no secret there); a Soviet submarine captain defects. Therefore, Gardner doesn’t really hold because we are molding his argument to fit. Right now I am stripping through a non-fiction book I have coming out in June (Asian Waters: The Struggle Over the Asia-Pacific and Strategy for Chinese Expansion) to find three stories to turn into film or radio documentaries. I can make the ‘stranger comes to town’ work at a stretch in a couple of them, but I am not convinced it would stand scrutiny.

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