Author Steven Dunne Guest Posts - with some great advice on writing thrillers
As a thriller writer I know how vital plot construction is in the work I do. Literary writers can, and often do, pay less heed to the structure of a novel, believing that the quality of writing and ideas is the standard by which their work should be judged. In other words, it’s all about the journey rather than the destination.
With thrillers, readers want the same quality of writing but they want something more - a puzzle to intrigue, stimulate and challenge them. Plot twists are an essential part of this formula and these days a thriller can often be judged on the quality of how completely a writer has hoodwinked a reader at the end.
I’m not sure how much planning other writers put into the twist because it’s not easy to fool crime readers who are very discerning and always on the look-out for a surprise, that last jolt to the system to get their juices flowing, that last thrill when you think the novel is over and things are winding down.
I tend not to plan twists and let them emerge organically but the nature of my writing has always supported several shocks in the story. That’s because my plots are pleasingly complex and peopled by sufficient alternate suspects to make the reveal hard to guess. As a writer with a deadline, it can be worrying if the twist refuses to reveal itself but it’s a delicious moment when it eventually drifts into my head and I can relax. So far it always has, though in my latest novel, The Unquiet Grave, the last gasp twist didn’t occur until two weeks from deadline.
And having grown up on Agatha Christie and Sherlock Holmes, it’s a matter of pride to me that all four of my thrillers have killer twists and that the vast majority of readers, reviewing or giving verbal feedback, tell me they’ve been deceived.
There are 3 essential elements to the perfect twist in my opinion. Firstly, your twist must be believable. It is pointless revealing an unexpected killer if the act of murder does not fit your chosen killer’s psyche, character and general motivation. Your reader must accept the identity of the killer(s) as logical, even if they are doing so in retrospect.
Secondly, the clues must be in the manuscript. The reader must have had the information given to them before the reveal. It’s a cheat to spring a solution on readers if they have not had a chance to reach the same conclusion. Then it is down to the skill of the writer to salt the clues into the novel and hide them in plain sight so the reader has been given the relevant information but has chosen to disregard it.
Thirdly, it seems an obvious thing to say but, as well as fulfilling the first two criteria, the twist should be a complete shock.
One of my favourite twists is the body swap which I’ve used in one of my own novels. In Red Dragon by Thomas Harris the hero, Will Graham, an FBI profiler, confronts the Tooth Fairy a serial killer in his home. A deadly fire engulfs the house in which they grapple. Graham escapes but the Tooth Fairy is nowhere to be seen. A body is found in the ashes. Case closed. But of course the body is not that of the killer, leaving the way for a final climactic battle in which Graham fights to save himself and his family.
Agatha Christie was the queen of the impossible solution, another favourite variation. Many times she revealed the killer to be the one person who couldn’t possibly have done the deed. Spoiler alert! In Death on the Nile, the killer is unmasked to gasps of shock because he cannot even walk after a bullet wound in his leg has rendered him immobile and in agony. But gradually Hercule Poirot peels back the layers of a well-planned conspiracy and convinces the traditional gathering of suspects of the truth of his solution. An elegant and, of course, obvious twist. In retrospect.
About the Author
Steven left Rhodesway School in Bradford, Yorkshire in 1976 after taking A-levels. He graduated from Kent University in 1979 and, after taking a year’s Post Graduate Certificate in Education at St Mary’s College in Twickenham, he undertook a variety of jobs in London, including Public Relations Consultant, freelance Journalist and supply teacher.
He wrote occasional articles for The Guardian, The Times and The Independent while working on various writing projects including his own brief career in stand-up comedy. During this time he co-wrote a comedy pilot for Channel 4 entitled Not Enough Poodles but, unfortunately it fell at the final commissioning hurdle. He wrote the Book for the award-winning Latchmere Theatre Christmas pantomime of Hansel and Gretel in 1989.
In 1988, he began teaching English in Croydon before moving to Derby in 1996, where he began to think about writing a novel. After being turned onto thrillers after picking up and devouring a copy of Silence of the Lambs, he began to realize that most thrillers he read were failing to provide the promised excitement so he decided to write his own.
In 2007, after spending two fruitless years marketing the novel to the publishing industry, Steven self-published Reaper, a thriller about a serial killer who strikes in Derby. It sold over 1500 copies in the East Midlands and in 2008, Harper Collins bought the rights and The Reaper was released internationally in 2009. A sequel, The Disciple, was released in August 2010. Both books were critically acclaimed. He signed a publishing deal at Headline and released the next DI Brook thriller Deity, in June 2012. The Unquiet Grave was released in October 2013.