Any good story—whether it’s a thriller or a romance or a historical novel—is about communication. It’s about communicating myself as an author to an audience, a reader. If I’m going to communicate something to you, I first have to know what it is I want to say. What is my message to you? A lot of the time thrillers especially can come across as hollow to the reader, because there’s a lot of action and tension, and it’s easy to get distracted by all of this narrative candy, but the ending is unsatisfying because the reader isn’t left with a message. The author hasn’t been trying to tell you anything; he’s just been trying to dazzle you with special effects. So I always start with what my message is. What is it that I want to communicate to the reader? It may take a while to really pin that down, but ultimately I want to know that I’ve got a message to convey before I really commit to a project.
Once I have a message, the next step is to realize that any good story is about an antagonist and a protagonist, each of whom has some specific desire. And if the story is well told, they can’t both achieve their desires at the same time, and that’s what creates conflict. If one of them succeeds, that has to cause the other to fail. Usually it’s the white hat that wins, but you need that conflict, because it’s within that conflict that the message begins to resonate with the reader. The conflict consummates the message. Once you’ve got that figured out, you just take the two forces and set them apart at the beginning of the story and let them come together. That’s where you fill in the blanks. But if you don’t have the message and the conflict that triggers the message, the story will be hollow no matter how many thrills or great scenes you create. So that’s how I start.
I do not believe in a zero-sum-gained world. It is through negation and diplomacy that the answer to conflict is found. And all can walk away satisfied.
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