Thursday, March 3, 2011

When Cooking Up A Thriller, The Plot Thickens by Gary Kriss

It’s winter here in the Berkshires. It seems it’s always winter here in the Berkshires, but that’s not true. Spring creeps out of its hole sometime in May, sees its shadow, then flees, guaranteeing us 6 more feet of snow. It’s the time of year when, among other things such as “are you sure the manuscript is that overdue,” a writer’s thoughts turn to stew (which is considerably better than having them turn to mush).

Since some of you might be new to stew—creating, not eating—here’s an old secret for proper preparation: make it thick. That way even if it's not a gourmet's delight, it'll be satisfying. Later on, when you've had some practice in stewing, you can add things to give it that certain something and take it to a higher level.

I rediscovered that “secret” at last year’s Thrillerfest in Manhattan when, over beers with some new found friends, the discussion turned to: Thrillers—plot-driven versus character-driven. Actually the discussion may have turned to: New York Baseball—Met-driven or Yankee-driven. Things were, and still are a little hazy. (I did mention that we were discussing things over beers, right?) But I'm pretty sure it was whether, in thrillers, plot or character rules.

I vaguely remember coming down on the side of plot trumping character (almost) every time, basing my reasoning on stew. It seemed perfectly logical at the time—brilliant, really. Unfortunately, I only recall snippets of it. (I may have forgotten to note that we were having a few beers at the time).

Like stews, make thrillers thick (in a good sense) I believe I may have said, so that they satisfy readers. Seems to me one of my companions asked how you thicken them, to which I responded “why with plot, of course.” I then went on to explain that thriller readers want plot. They want excitement. They want tremendous risks. Character? Character be damned! Come on—grab some safety scissors and a sheet of construction paper and within 10 minutes you can create characters as good if not better than those found in many successful thrillers.

I may have also said—but don’t hold me to it—that characters in thrillers can be superficial. If fact, it's often essential that they be superficial, lest they interfere with the plot. Readers don't need to have an intimate relationship with characters in a thriller. Many don't want one. What readers do need is to be infatuated with characters in a thriller. Not knowing much about them only increases the intrigue.

Now I do definitely remember one of my table mates asking whether thriller writers who say their books are driven by character are they simply pulling a lot of legs. I remember that because his the delicious cliché offered so many opportunities for witty retorts of all sorts. Alas, mine was a pedestrian “maybe.” There are also thriller writers who believe their books are character-driven, while having no concept of what a well-rounded character really is.

And then there are those thriller writers who are motivated by LC—Literary Correctness—to value character above plot. A very few may even manifest symptoms of acute newyorkermagazeosis, which the DSM-IV describes as the tendency to explain all aspects of fiction in terms of character while denying the existence of any sort of plot beyond "he said, she said."

Does this mean there aren’t thrillers where the characters are well-developed and yet the plot doesn't suffer? Sure there are, but think about it. Usually these characters appear in a series and have become more developed over the course of several books. Eventually memories blur and readers tend to believe that these characters were completely fleshed out right from the start.

By contrast, take a look at new characters in a series, who are usually antagonists. They remain our old, friendly paper constructs in contrast to the recurring protagonist(s) now sculpted in marble. Should they become recurring antagonists, well that's another story (and another novel and another).

This idea of the primacy of plot is neither mine nor new. Aristotle was one of its first advocates and, like Plato, he has had his fair share of (literary) footnotes ever since. My friend and fellow writer Stanley Solomon donned his university professor hat (or is that mortar board?) and explained to me that “character-driven” fiction is a much more recent concept, which really got kick-started in the 19th century. It’s premised on the notion that while there are but a few dozen different plots (can you say Plot-o), the number of characters is unlimited. The flaw in the ointment is that the permutation of combined plots is also unlimited.

Since Thrillerfest I’ve revisited the plot/character question a few times and picked up some more stew tips. These are general: cooks/authors have their own individual recipes, but all revolve around the basics. For example, besides thickness, you need to know when to add and remove ingredients. With thrillers, as with stews, timing is everything.

Here’s another: simmer, simmer, simmer. Sure, occasionally your mixture may need to come to a brief boil, but after that—simmer, simmer, simmer. And, like stew, there’s a big difference between a thriller that’s a pot-simmerer and a thriller that’s a potboiler!

And now the snow’s falling and my stomach's growling.

Put on the pot . . .

It's time to plot!

* * *

Thanks, Gary!!

Readers, what do you think? Are thrillers driven more by plot or character? Both?

* * *

Gary Kriss’s THE ZODIAC DECEPTION, about a con artist who having learned the art of illusion from Houdini is recruited by the OSS to use his skills for the ultimate deception: infiltrate the Nazi Occult Bureau and persuade Himmler to plot the assassination of Hitler, and its prequel, THE HOUDINI KILLER, will be published by TOR/Forge in 2012 and 2013 respectively. He has been writer for longer than he cares to remember, including a respectable stint with THE NEW YORK TIMES. When not involuntarily locked in a Berkshire Mountain attic, Kriss spends an inordinate amount of time trying not to embarrass his lovely minister wife, Pat, and otherwise exists solely to make her, his publisher, his editor, his agents, his dog and his cats proud of him. He still holds out hope that he can win over the dog. For more information, please visit Gary at


Tracey Devlyn said...

Hi Gary,

Thanks so much for being with us today. I'll go out on a limb and say that thrillers are driven by plot, but are "made" by their characters. The writer can have a fantastic, action-packed plot, however, it'll be the characters folks talk about the next morning.


Gary Kriss said...

Hi Tracey:

Welcome to the limb! When I'm not in the attic, that's my home away from home.

Character definitely topes the list of "certain somethings" that take a stew/thriller to a higher level, but I wonder how long pure character can sustain a reader.

"Thick" stew may not not be a gourmet's delight, however it usually can keep someone (aka, a reader) going.

Part of the problem might be that, because of the "newer" emphasis on character, we've encountered so many subsitutes for the real thing that we're have trouble distinguishing between hamburger and hamburger helper.

Truly great characters, it seems to me, never just pop up "ex nihilo." Instead they evolve out of the thick (there's that word again) primordial ooze and are forever wedded to it, if only at some point, in genetic memory.

I think your comment about what readers talk about the next morning is a valid and fascinating one--perhaps for a blog or general discussion. Usually when people who don't know I'm a novelist (and these days that may include my editor and my agents unless I submit something) tell me about a book they read and describe it in terms of plot. The next time that happens, I'm going to prod them about the characters and see what happens. (For example, if it's not a series character, I'd be interested in whether they premember the protagonist's name.)

The attic door's rattling. With any luck there'll be a rapid unlock followed by a shoved in cup of coffee. I'd love to have it on the limb but the temperature's below zero and I hate explaining to people why thiongs aren't always they way they seem!



Tracy March said...

Hi, Gary.

Your post is very thought-provoking. We've been discussing some similar questions over at the ITW Thriller Roundtables.

Alas, it is likely that opinions will always be divided on the 'plot or character' issue when it comes to thrillers. A lot of us would like to think our stories mix both, creating that unique kind of 'thickness.'

Fortunately, there are readers who enjoy all kinds of thrillers, plot or character driven. While we debate, may they keep reading!

Tracy March

Carla Buckley said...

Hi Gary,

Thanks for tackling the plot v character debate. May I throw down the gauntlet and say that I'm going to land on the side of characters being more important?

To me, if I don't care about the characters (or if I'm not at least somewhat curious about them), I won't much care what happens to them in a story, no matter how thick the plot. Character is what drives me to the finish line.

But maybe we don't have to choose one or the other. Can't we have both--engaging characters combating terrifying circumstances?

Gary Kriss said...

Hi Tracy:

Divided opinions are wonderful, not the least because of the tremendous discussions/debates/fist-fights/ hatchet-murders--oh I could go on and on--they produce! And yes, Character/Plot is one of the great themes of writing/literature (or is that premise and which is more essential, theme or prem ise, or is it . . . .

But the key is your last graph: while we're busy playing inside baseball let's indeed hope that the readers are watching--and enjoying--the real game.



Gary Kriss said...

Hey Carla:

Thanks for weighing in.

The thing about gaunlets is that there's one for each hand. That slows up the process. But now that I've tossed one and you so kindly have tossed the other, people need not worry about formalities and can start their 2 cents here, there or anywhere in between.

You make some excellent points, deserving of being fleshed out more. For example, the difference between caring and curiosity in relation to a character. That's an intriguing distinction, one which I know I intend to think about. My first take is to distinguish on the basis of involvement level--deep or superficial. But even as I write this I wonder if perhaps you were framing the reader-character-plot triad more in terms of what is necessary to turn the page and what is sufficient. As I said, you've opened up up another area that cries out for its own share of contemplation and comment.

As to your other point, yes, of course we can have both--at least in the best of all possible worlds. Certainly it's something to strive for.But even as we do, the chicken/egg conundrum follows us: which sparks you when you're in the conception/incubation process, a character or a plot? That's why I mentioned series characters: as they mature (in the sense of becoming more multi-dimensional) it becomes easier to envision them in various situations. But otherwise do you start with a situation and then allow the characters that befit it to arise from that context?

You know, on second thought, I'm retracting my thanks, Carla. Bad enough I'm locked in an attic: now I'm locked in an attic and caught in a quandary. (I also think I may have stepped in something).

And just when I thought I had all the answers . . .



Carla Buckley said...


I can't WAIT to read your novels! Will there be an attic scene, replete with locked doors and vengeful cats?

Gary Kriss said...



I opted for a extreme change of vicarious venue so in THE ZODIAC DECEPTION there are Catacombs (the Paris variety) and rats, vengeful and otherwise.

I really have to learn to find the middle ground! (Or get a life, whichever comes first.)



Tracey Devlyn said...

Gary (and everyone)--

Thanks for the wonderful conversation on the plot vs. character debate!