By Steven Rigolosi
At some point in our writing careers, most of us wrestle with the definitions of genres and subgenres. What exactly is a mystery? How does it differ (if at all) from a crime novel? Is it all right if characters use profanity in my cozy? What is suspense and how do I create it? Or, more importantly, how does the reader define and experience suspense? And of course for the debut author, are my perceptions and definitions in line with what agents and editors want?
We hope we can answer these questions by the time the book is published. In my internal dialogue, I think I have written a caper/cozy (Who Gets the Apartment?), a novel of psychological suspense (Circle of Assassins), and an urban satire (Androgynous Murder House Party).
Never in any of my outlining, plotting, or positioning self-discussions did I consider that I might be writing THRILLERS.
Why? Because to me a thriller is a Big Book with Big Players. Perhaps the protagonist is John or Jane Q. Public, but John or Jane inevitably comes up against Major Forces: the government, a renegade faction of the FBI, an international spy or terrorist network filled with moles and triple agents, or a global corporation with unlimited money, resources, and power. Or Bioengineers doing unsavory things with the human genome for profit. High-speed chases through Zurich, Abu Dhabi, Prague, Johannesburg, and Taiwan…Big Things. At stake is the fate of the Human Race, not to mention Morality, Country, Liberty, and Family.
But, after taking a second look at my work, I ask myself: Must a thriller be Big?
Most of us, whether readers or writers, have a fairly small sphere of influence. We work, we spend time with family and friends, we take a couple of weeks’ vacation each year. If our worlds are small in comparison to those of international jet-setters, perhaps we can have “smaller” thrillers where various microworlds interact, where life-changing events happen to everyday people who are not engaged in ferreting out Al Qaeda cells.
If I think in these terms, then maybe Circle of Assassins might be called a “small thriller.” It tells the intersecting stories of five unnamed people who make a pact to exchange murderous favors. Their tales (and identities) unfold as they tell their stories, describe why their victims deserve to meet their fate at the hands of an assassin, and live with the aftermath of the killings.
One character, who grew up impoverished, is willing to fight to the death to preserve the tiny Cape Cod home she purchased with her life savings. Another is a traditional Italian-American whose father has installed Old-World ways into him – traditions that clash with modern expectations regarding family and gender roles. A third is an academic who sees her department chair as the living embodiment of white privilege.
Each of these people sets events in motion that have ripple effects among smaller communities: an extended family, a college campus, a suburban neighborhood. The drama that unfolds is personal and intense - definitely not as world-changing as pharmaceutical companies manipulating national governments, but, I am hoping, more immediate and more at the level at which the average person lives his or her life, encountering smaller-scale villains who are just as greedy, manipulative, or power-hungry as those CEOs and Directors of Government Agencies.
Still, I don’t think we’ll be seeing any novels subtitled “A Small Thriller” any time soon.
Here are Three Things Your “Small Thriller” Needs:
1. Character development.
A lot of “big thrillers” are criticized for stereotypical or undeveloped characters. A small thriller offers an opportunity to combine a thrilling plot with intense character study.
2. A tight page count.
The big thrillers often come in at about 400 pages. A small thriller covers much less of the world (and has much less, perhaps even zero, jet-setting), so it might be able to tell its story in a tight, taut 300 pages.
3. Plot twists and a memorable ending.
Regardless of its size, a thriller has to thrill. This means a good story with plenty of surprises, turnabouts, betrayals, unexpected twists, and – my favorite – a surprise ending.
Question: Do you think you’ve written a small thriller? How has it worked for you?
Steven Rigolosi is the author of the Tales from the Back Page series. The most recent installment is Androgynous Murder House Party. He lives in Northern New Jersey and is at work on the next book.Visit him on Goodreads.
If you are a debut suspense or thriller [even small thriller like me] author whose book will release within the next year, we invite you to join International Thriller Writers (ITW) Debut Author Program. Click this link to learn how. thrillerwriters.org/join-itw/debut-authors
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photo credit: Miranda Parker