Story Starters


The Writing the Thriller Novel Workshop is about writing a strong, solid, entertaining novel. Before you start writing, you need to know where you’re going, and you need to know how to get there, chronicling your narrative in a manner that draws your readers with you.

The destination—where you’re going—will be different for each writer. In this course, each writer will reach his destination by applying Death Overhanging to his story. The concept of Death Overhanging strengthens every paragraph you write. Author James Scott Bell explains, The stakes in an emotionally satisfying novel have to be death.

That’s right, death. Somebody has to be in danger of dying, and almost always that someone is the Lead character…

Here’s why: There are three kinds of death: physical, professional, psychological. One or more of these must be present in your novel.

Bell explains each of these deaths in detail in chapter one of your textbook. Physical and professional death are self-explanatory. The third death, psychological death, can include the death of a character’s self-image. We all have a sense of who we are in this world, and when that image is forcibly changed, we may feel very threatened.

Psychological death (tying in closely with professional death) explains why a person who loses his job may take up arms and go hunting for his former boss and colleagues. This man knew who he was; he was forced to change his self-image: conflict of the highest degree.

With Death Overhanging in mind, getting started with your book is easy. Make sure your lead character is threatened with Death Overhanging—one or more of the three forms of death. If he’s not threatened, think now about ways you might change the character or the story.

Why is Death Overhanging such an important concept? Because it can give you an objective measure of your work. Few writers can be entirely objective about their own work. What if your book is not as strong as it should be? In my own early career, I received rejections of two different stories, from two different editors, and both rejections said, “Not strong enough.” It took me a long time to understand what “Not strong enough” meant. It meant that the stakes were not high enough for my characters. My characters didn’t have Death Overhanging.

According to Jeff Gerke in Writer’s Digest (Oct. 2012), suspense means different things for different novelists—and different genres. If you’re writing a thriller, you’d better have a roller coaster going pretty much from Page 1. If you’re writing a romance, the suspense is likely driven by whether or not the hero and heroine will finally get together—it’s of the will she or won’t she variety. In an action/adventure, suspense might be in finding out if the hero will save the world or achieve his dream…

But no matter what type of novel you’re writing, there had better be some kind of suspense in it. The reader must be asking, “How will this turn out?”—a question preferably followed by: “I have to find out, and I can’t go to bed until I do!”

This partial lecture came from the online workshop Writing the Thriller Novel. Learn more about the class!

Story Starters – Writing the Thriller Novel

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