Rubber meets the road in thriller writing when a character’s development starts to force changes upon the plot.
Perhaps that process is true of all genres. If not, it should be. Yet the process does appear most consequential in a thriller, since the effect of changes there tends to be more charged. Dramatic. Or lurid…
In my last newsletter, “Our Mysterious Ways to Motivate,” I delved into a matrix of drives that produce memorable (and effective) characterization. In this issue, I’d like to enhance my theme, and move on to describe certain elements that let a character make his or her way past a plot bottleneck.
The simplest way to put it is: if a character can rise to the challenge, then he or she gets to live and continue onward in the story. If they cannot so rise, they must die, or need to at least get checked into an ER, or buy a ticket for a bus ride home to grandma. In which case, the story proceeds without them. Their main contribution becomes simply underscoring a price paid for mistakes.
To me as a writer, the most fascinating part of engineering this nexus is figuring out which qualities allow a character to continue, and which may prohibit passage.
To illustrate, I’ll now draw on some personal anecdotes. As in the previous issue, I’m not trying to shovel any weighty metaphors at the reader, here. These are simply slices of life.
FUN WITH ALL FUNDAMENTALS
So, I’m about age four and out on our screen porch. I stand there getting a tongue-lashing from my older brother for screwing up something. I no longer know the nub of his gripe. If we retain any memories at all from our single-digit years, that’s a blessing. Even the vague ones. However, I must report that I’m crystal clear on what my mom said as she came along to intervene: “Paul’s just four! He doesn’t understand right from wrong!”
At that very instant, I made a strong vow I’d fill this gap in my comprehension.
I’d like you to do a little job with your story control panel now. You can see it sitting over there, right next to your imagination. Kindly spin your time-dial (it’s on the lower left-hand corner) to give me four more years. Okay, now I’m eight.
I’m midway through my classes at Sacred Heart Elementary School. Right and wrong, well, I still wrestle with that topic. I’ve been deluged by lessons that claim to address it. But I’m not convinced any of my lecturers have a full grasp of the subject, although my grades depend on me acting as if I believe them.
You see, my ongoing hunt for a clear notion of right and wrong has transformed me into a pint-size philosopher—and something of a cynical, existential one at that. I find myself highly reluctant to jump to conclusions. Especially, conclusions that are thrust at me.
Since I’m being indoctrinated as a Catholic, I also think a fair amount about eschatology or the supposed last things: death and judgment, then heaven or hell.
SYNESTHESIA WITHOUT ANESTHESIA
The rightness and wrongness conundrum migrates in my head from pure theories I’ve been fed—which don’t always make sense—to far simpler visualizations. Such as: the proper way to do stuff. I mean, so that I can produce some clear, definitive, and desirable results. This seems easiest to accomplish in the realm of physical activity, so that’s where I focus my attention.
After school, two days a week, I ride my bike a couple of miles to take Red Cross swimming lessons at a county park. The first time I take the course, I flunk. Yet I keep at it, and when I repeat the course, I pass. Next, I move on to study diving. Here, I go entirely self-taught. I learn solely by observing and attempting. Of course, this means many painful belly flops and back smacks in swimming pools, and scratches and even patches of my skin lost to the leading edge of a diving board.
But eventually I build a repertoire of dives. These include the jackknife, bottle-opener, forward flip, backflip, and a rotating, head-first cannonball I fantasize I invent and which I dub The Watermelon. I practice them all, but the one I seek relentlessly to perfect is a simple forward dive. Take three steps on the board, bounce, launch, adjust my body English in midair, and strive to enter the water in a purely vertical posture, my hands joined, ankles bent and toes arched up.
The goal is to pierce the surface and slip into the depths, producing only the slightest of splashes. Oh, a few drops may be permitted to jet up in the spreading rings that mark my entry, but they ideally should gently bloop back into the pool as I glide smoothly down into sapphire shadow.
So, I’m sitting back at my school desk, utterly bored with classes, when my brain joins all these disparate concepts together: rightness, eschatology, and diving.
That’s how you ought to do it if you die, I think. Go into an afterlife with your best possible entry, zero disruption. Make that final dive smooth, sleek, perfect.
Encountering Jesus himself or the recording angel, Saint Peter, the pearly gates, being issued a halo and harp, all of that stuff matters not a whit to me. In fact, I feel considerable doubt that any of it might occur. A transition back out of life, though? Yeah, well, all available evidence suggests that dying is a rather firm prospect. Kind of inevitable, so it’s best to prepare. Can’t start too early, probably.
Be calm, steady, no fear. Just concentrate on your proper technique. And then, you should be fine.
PRACTICE MAKES LESS IMPERFECT
From then on, almost every forward dive I made was done with this quaint notion in mind: As I leave the board, I tell myself, envision that I am leaving life, and about to deal with whatever comes next. As I grew more capable of entering the water smoothly and producing merely the faintest of bloops, I grew conscious of a thrill that’s hard to describe, an oddly tranquil type of excitement. Following a good dive, an impression of a consummate and fitting rightness seemed to overwhelm me.
Okay, let’s spin that time-dial again. This time, add eight more years. I am sixteen.
Florida by now has implemented a scheme to drain the tip of the peninsula, from Miami to Homestead, by carving deep channels through the limestone. This will allow fresh water from the east side of the Everglades to flow out to Biscayne Bay. The project keeps hurricane flood waters from sticking around, which seems reasonable. But it also opens more land to farming and development while it destroys swamps and forest groves, all of which I heartily detest.
The logo for this project bears a cartoon of a grinning alligator, which I view as a dumb and dishonest move by the flood control agency. They couldn’t have devised a program to inflict worse harm on Florida’s alligators if they’d tried.
However, a major and quite welcome side-effect of their vast project is that long swimming holes are created. These new canals become filled with cool, pure, lucid waters that are a near match for the fabled mermaid lagoons of Weeki Wachee Springs. Throughout the summer, teenagers of every description cluster at preferred swim spots to take advantage. Myself among them.
RUN A GANTLET, ON A FLUNG GAUNTLET
One such site was found near train tracks running parallel to the Old Dixie Highway. I rode my motorcycle there so I could cool off and hang out, and found that someone had nailed a new diving platform made of a few boards up in the crotch of a tree standing close to the canal bank. Naturally, I had to check that thing out.
A crew of a few guys already sat perched in this tree, none of them near the platform. After I clambered up to the boards, I seriously doubted that leaping from it would prove any sort of safe exercise. It stood about thirty feet off the ground. The distance to the rocky lip of the canal looked barely makeable, even if I gave it my strongest possible leap.
“Oh heck yeah, it’s do-able. I saw a guy make it only yesterday,” one louche youth informed me. “And he wasn’t a wuss, that’s for sure.”
We can let that line stand in for all the other inducements their chit-chat held.
I don’t know if sheer arrogance informed me that I had to be just as strong and talented as any other teenaged diver in my rural community. But a dose of over-confidence was certainly involved. If any other kid in town had done it, by gosh, I could!
I stood on the platform, flexed my legs, envisioned my trajectory, then gave it a jolly “go.” A “go” which soon became un-jolly in the extreme. A factor I’d not considered was the amount of give in the branch of the tree that bore the platform. So, as I pushed myself off into space, I also shoved that branch backwards; it absorbed some of my thrust.
Thus as I began to plunge earthward, I found myself looking, not at the cool waters of the canal, but at a hard rock shelf of solid limestone that lay three stories down.
Welp, a cop can’t call back a bullet, a deacon can’t unring a bell, and I couldn’t revoke my decision to try to make the jump. So, what did I do? I joined my hands, used body English to make my posture vertical, and pointed my toes. I didn’t have much time to visualize what would happen to me next, but I fully expected that I’d crack my skull on solid rock and/or break my neck. If I didn’t wind up dead, I’d likely come out this misbegotten adventure a total quad.
Instead, to my surprise and pleasure, I found myself sliding down the side of the canal into the water, as thick cool moss on that vertical stone wall tickled my belly. You see, there was one more factor I’d failed to take into account. Although I was looking straight down at rock when I started to fall, my body was still traveling through space horizontally. Not much, yet just enough to get me dunked in the drink with not a smidgen to spare.
Although I’d managed to hit water, I knew I still could spear into the canal’s hard bottom, so I angled my hands like a diving plane and shot out to its deeper center. Then I surfaced to gulp air. I saw all the guys who’d taunted me and urged me to try the leap dropping out of the tree and sprinting for their cars.
Either they thought I was dead or injured and didn’t wish to take even a scrap of blame for a bloody debacle… or, if I was still alive, they didn’t want to face my wrath. Seemed pretty clear they’d sold me a bill of goods. That new platform had either never been used, or someone who’d tried it out had already been hurt.
MY LIVE-ANOTHER-DAY TAKEAWAY
Had I been able to confront them, I would indeed have given them a piece of my mind.
However, interestingly, I soon found myself dealing with another sort of peace of mind.
My formulation for achieving a good exit had actually worked! Not that I had truly exited life—or if I had, I’d been reincarnated as myself so speedily that I barely noticed the shift.
But my ideal of achieving a proper exit posture had indeed produced the desired result. I’d passed from Before to After with nary a hitch nor a jolt.
If I’d flailed around in midair out of fear, or if I’d struggled to land on my feet and roll, indeed, if I’d done anything besides go perfectly vertical, all or part of me might have smacked into the rock, and/or I could have taken a vicious body chop from the rim of the canal.
This lesson has stuck with me through the years, and proven quite useful in all sorts of ways. It informed me about the proper manner to address high-risk moves in an array of other sports. And nowadays it helps me to install myself in the place of my characters as I present them with severe challenges to survival, solely due to the pernicious machinations of my storytelling.
What sort of attitude shall see my characters through a plot bottleneck, in the face of daunting odds?
Alternatively, what flaw in their choices or in their thinking might doom them?
Every life hangs by a thread. A core chore of thrillers is to make this abundantly clear.
After that notion gets through, next arrives this genre’s most useful theme. Exploration of the techniques of survival is a principal benefit that renders these tales so gripping and vivid. An enhanced understanding of what’s required to make it past a gantlet is the primary reward won by any reader of well-made thrillers. Of course, the universe always provides us with a plethora of ways to be right or wrong, and that on a teeming host of issues. But! If you happen to linger on and find yourself able to contemplate those matters for even a single additional day, you must be doing something right.