I’ve been studying thrillers because I’m about to write a thriller series. Even though I’ve written a couple of novels with thriller elements, I want to nail this genre. I want my novels in this series to fit right up there with best-selling authors.
And that has involved a lot of work. I spent a bunch of money flying to NY to attend Thrillerfest (and I’m so glad I did!). I took a masters class, and all-day ATF workshop (the highlight of the week!), I met with and shmoozed with best-selling authors. I listened to panel discussions. And so much more.
In addition, I’ve been doing hours of research online. I’ve made phone appointments to talk with experts (FBI, ATF, park rangers, lightning experts, etc.). I am heading up to Seattle to scout locations and meet with local ATF special agents and park rangers in Mt. Rainier.
Yes, I take my writing seriously, and that means I do my homework. Before I wrote my latest novel in my Western series, I went to Wyoming to get a feel for Laramie, the state penitentiary, and the environs. I also went to many museums, dug into newspaper archives, and read passages from books that I couldn’t check out and had been written decades ago that shed light on the 1870s (the decade in which my series is set).
One of the most important things a writer can do, and which I’m in the process of doing now, is deconstruct best sellers in her genre.
I can’t emphasize this enough. Few writers that I work with ever take the time to do this. Sure, they read mysteries because they want to write mysteries. But they aren’t tearing them apart.
That’s so important to do! Why? Because best sellers in a niche genre have a specific structure.
For example: I took four thrillers that I love, which are very different from one another, and I made a chart and briefly wrote a summary of the first four scene in each novel. I put the novel titles at the top of a sheet of paper and I put scene #1, scene #2, etc. down the left side. Guess what I learned just from this simple exercise?
That those first four scenes accomplish very specific things. That those scenes have specific action and purpose. What did I do then? I plotted out my first four scenes based on their structure. I feel very confident that those scenes I write will be exactly what I need to kick off my thriller.
Do Your Homework!
I’ve written on how to write a sample chapter in your targeted genre. That’s a very helpful thing to do, and that’s my next step.
Think about grabbing a half-dozen novels in your genre and try making a chart, like I do. Here’s what I do when I want to tear apart a genre.
I take pieces of paper and runa vertical line down the middle. On one side I put the scene # and plot summary—just a few sentences to tell what happened in the scene. On the other side facing it I write what the scene did structurally for the story.
If a scene shows the hero working in his job and thinking about how his best friend just got married and he wishes he could find the right woman, I might write “see hero in his ordinary life. Establish his core need for love.” There is no exact way to word this. Just keep in mind you aren’t trying to copy the plot in any way. You just want a feel for the pacing of the story and how complicated it is, when certain plot elements come into play, how many subplots and what kinds there are.
When you study the mechanics of tone, pacing, description, and all your basic elements, the style and voice will fit the genre. With deconstructing plot, you can get a feel for the actual kind of storytelling you need to do.
Many authors use charts to lay out their scenes, and I find them extremely helpful. This is very similar. You may just want to create a brief paragraph summary of each scene in the novel you’re deconstructing, or you may want to go deeper into the details, showing the time covered in the scene, the overall amount of time the entire novel covers, or following subplots. Play around with ideas to find one that works for you.
Because I didn’t want to copy the structure exactly when I deconstructed a novel, I didn’t try to match each scene exactly. I wanted more of a general overview so that the plot I came up with could have room to breathe and grow.
But you might find you want a much closer match. You might, for example, choose a popular thriller and decide to have the exact number of scenes with each scene basically accomplishing the same objectives, aiming for the same length.
There are other ways to deconstruct a novel than the one I use. Example:
Characters present in the scene
Gist of what’s happening
POV’s goal for the scene
Author’s goal for the scene
The reader reads on because…
The scene advances the story because…
Feeling it leaves me with
Deconstructing can be done with any type of book genre. And it leaves plenty of room for your originality, voice, style, plot ideas. You don’t want to be a copycat. Sure, go ahead and write a mail-order bride historical romance. Yes, there are dozens out there. But they are huge sellers. Thousands of readers want more. There is nothing wrong with adding another one.
How original do your plot and characters have to be? Maybe not all that much. But if you can come up with an interesting scenario no one else has done, some characters with problems and personalities that are fresh and engaging, there is no reason your novels won’t sell up there with all the others.
So spend time on this and really nail your genre. It may take weeks. Don’t rush. Plot out your story, flesh out great characters, and practice writing a scene or two. Be sure to refer to your research chart that looked at the mechanics for your scenes. Show the chapters to critique partners, or find some readers of that genre willing to give you feedback to see if you nailed your genre.
Once you feel you have, you’re ready to get writing that book.
Another thing that helps as you read through these books is to keep a notebook and jot down phrases and expressions, word choice. I found this helpful when doing my historical, as I picked up adjectives and verbs that fit the era. I later did more thorough research online for slang, expressions, and vocabulary for the 1870s West. But even with contemporary novels, jotting down interesting phrasing or words that catch your eye can help spark ideas for your book (without copying them exactly).
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