So since the title of this is “What can thriller writers learn from the horror genre?” I am going to focus on a thing that is REQUIRED in horror, for it to actually BE horror, but which is glossed over (or missing entirely) from far too many thrillers.
Now before I get to the meat of it, I want to say clearly: I’m NOT saying that thrillers aren’t as good as horror, or vice-versa. I’m NOT saying that all thrillers miss some imaginary mark. I’m NOT denigrating any author or any book. Just gotta front that because people tend to read things like “here’s something horror HAS to nail and which thrillers have a bit more leeway with” as “here’s something horror does right and thrillers don’t and also thriller readers suck and thriller writers are morons” etc. etc.
I have nothing but respect for both the thriller and horror tropes, and I run back and forth between the two in my own writing with gusto and a real appreciation for both.
All right. Caveating and hemming-and-hawing over. On to the meat:
There are a number of things horror HAS to do in order to work, to function AS horror. Of them, the one that is most useful when writing thrillers is this simple fact: horror has to matter.
Horror, at its core, is something that frightens us (the readers). It does this by putting us in someone’s shoes, and giving us as much (or as little) information as they have. Then, firmly planted in the path of the book (or story or movie or whatever) protag, the reader screams when the terror reveals itself. The terror is real in that moment, not just for the characters in the story, but for the audience.
Whenever you go to a horror movie, you’re sure to see a scene where the hero is backing away. The shot is tight, showing her face, the expression of fear, the knowledge that IT is out there, that IT wants her blood. She backs up a step. Another step… turns…
AND IT IS RIGHT BEHIND HER!
I often hear people talking about this “cheap trick” – as in, “Like we don’t know that there’s gonna be something behind her. What do those Hollywood guys think we are, morons?”
The people saying that miss the point. That moment isn’t about a “trick” – no one at the production company hinges their career on the fact that “this time we’ll get ’em with the ol’ ‘Closeup and then she turns and BLAMMO!’ trick, fellas!” No, what they’re doing with that tight shot, that closeup of her face, is PUTTING YOU RIGHT THERE WITH HER. The audience has no choice but to walk in the hero’s path, taking the same steps she takes, and suffering the same terror she suffers.
In horror – or at least the BEST horror – the audience must fear. For that to work, the audience must stand in the shoes of a character who fears as well. The character’s terror becomes ours (the audience’s) and voila! Horror!
Now here’s the fun part: fear is intensely personal. You get a bit woozy at the sight of blood, don’t you? Not me. I laugh at your weak stomach. Laugh, I say!
But you probably don’t freak out when you get in the ocean past your kneecaps. And I do. (Cue your laughter now, because revenge is a dish best served cold… and as a part of the ITW roundtable discussion.)
In sum, what terrifies you does NOT terrify me (necessarily). That’s WHY people who write horror novels or direct horror movies take such pains to keep everything in dark places, in extreme closeups: to hobble the audience; to shackle their experiences to those of the story’s characters.
Then, thus shackled, when the character runs breathlessly through the airplane-hangar-sized tool shed full of rusty pitchforks and idling chainsaws and dismembered body parts, so do we. When the character trips and falls over an unlikely root, we tumble to the ground and hurt ourselves as well. When the character screams, our own shrieks follow close behind.
The horror is real, because it matters to us. It matters to us because it matters to THEM, the characters. Without the twin steps of a) association by the audience with the characters, and b) something that is terrible in a specific and unique way TO those characters, horror cannot be achieved. The movie or book is a bust.
And that’s something that thrillers are more likely to miss: a uniquely personal tie between what is happening and the characters in the story. Thinking about the typical thriller series illustrates this problem: in the first book, the detective has to find the Big Bad, because the detective lost his father in a tragic combine accident, and now the police have come to him, stumped, because they can’t figure out who the newest serial killer is. The killer has been dubbed The Combiner by the press, because he chops people up in a combine and leaves them on the lawn of the various towns where the killings occur.
The detective resists taking the case. But he will. Because there’s that question: is this how his dad REALLY died? WAS his father’s death an accident… or was it early practice by a blossoming serial killer?
He gets deeper and deeper, the hunt moves faster and faster. NO! The killer didn’t murder his father. The killer IS HIS FATHER! (cue trumpets)
Fast-forward to book seventeen. The cops are stumped. A killer the press has dubbed The Retainer – so named because he wires his victims’ jaws shut and makes them watch old reruns of Everwood until their souls just give out – is on the loose. The detective resists the case… but he’ll come around. Because as was revealed in a fascinating flashback during the prologue, the detective’s favorite niece once had a best friend whose dog peed on a hydrant outside the local dentist’s office, and the dentist threw a retainer at the dog to get rid of it. Trauma for all.
So yeah… this time it’s personal.
Obviously, I’m saying a lot of the above tongue-in-cheek. But there’s some truth to it. I mean, you’ve cycled through all the protagonist’s most deep-seated fears in the first book. You caught the man who killed his father… and who WAS HIS FATHER! Book two: the rapist who came after his sister. Book three: the trilogy moment where you find out The Combiner WASN’T HIS FATHER AFTER ALL, and his REAL father is being held captive in a grain silo slowly being flooded as a result of the tornado that just hit, so our hero only has two hours to solve the mystery of where he is and who put him there! Book four: I dunno, something about his sister again? Book five: we’re definitely moving from family to friends at this point. Book eight: I think that one’s got something to do with the local grocer.
My hat is off to those thriller writers who manage to keep wringing painful memories out of their heroes, book after book after book, and so craft a story that MATTERS to the character. But it doesn’t always happen. Far too often, in fact, thrillers are thrilling only as a mental exercise of sorts: there’s nothing that matters to the detective, or the doctor, or the Everyman at the heart of the story. The thriller becomes more of a crossword puzzle: something to be solved, and the victory to be savored. But the suspense comes more in the form of “Can he/she (the hero) figure this out?” rather than in the nail-biting-knowledge that the stakes are simply victory on the one hand, and destruction on the other.
Horror MUST have those kinds of stakes. No one comes out of a horror movie raving about “the movie of the year where if the hero didn’t get away he was faced with the very real possibility of BEING SET BACK A DECADE IN HIS CAREER!” No. That is a FAILED horror movie, and it has failed from the start.
I’m not saying that a thriller has to have blood and guts, or even a life on the line to work. But the best thrillers DO remember the lesson that horror imparts: the story has to matter. It has to matter – deeply, profoundly, irrevocably matter – to the characters. It can’t be an interesting mental exercise, or even a question that will bring shame or unhappiness if not answered. It must be MORE.
A good, competent, fun thriller will take us on a roller coaster ride. A heart-pumping, blood-pounding, arms-in-the-air-and-screams-on-our-lips adventure that has us smiling as we get off because of the sheer exuberant madness of the experience.
A GREAT thriller takes us on that same roller coaster. And reminds us – subtly sometimes, overtly others – that somewhere, the roller coaster is on fire. That somewhere, the rivets are loosening. That if we ride the roller coaster just right, then we will pump our fists and shout for joy that WE WERE THERE… but that if we fail to do it, destruction will follow.
Thrillers must thrill. Of course. But there are different kinds of thrills. One is the the thrills-by-proxy we experience when someone tells us of an extreme event, an unusual occurrence. It could be anything from winning the lottery to the time they almost fell down the stairs right in front of the Girl/Boy Of Their Dreams.
Another kind of thrill comes when we witness someone escape a situation that could have ended in death or madness or damnation (the extremes of body, soul, and mind).
And the third kind of thrill – the best kind, and the ONLY kind acceptable in a good horror story – is the one where we witness that same situation… and forget we are merely the audience. We fall into the story, and become the characters, and the doom that looms is our own. Then, at the end, we feel our wet palms and totter unsteadily to the shelf, where we return our book. We pause. We breathe. We smile.
And we pull the next title in the series from the shelf. What has happened in the story happened to us. We survived. And a thrill like that is addictive. A thrill like THAT – one that, like all good horror, is based in things that MATTER to us – is one we will pay dearly and eagerly to enjoy.