The Contemporary Whodunnit: How the Authors of Three New Thrillers Keep Us Hooked


You know how good books can make you feel like you’re someone else? You get so inside the mind of a character that when that character is amused, you laugh; when they witness something sad, you cry; when they’re scared, you look over your shoulder. And when a character goes on a hunt for answers to a horrible crime, you stay up late, turning page after page in the search for a culprit. (All the thrills of a manhunt, all the comfort of pajamas and a warm bed.)

That’s when it’s done right. When it’s not, you’re in no hurry to finish reading because either you don’t care what happens or you’ve already guessed the too-obvious ending. So how do the best authors compel us to keep up pace-for-pace with their characters? What’s the secret to suspense?

Paula Hawkins pulls it off beautifully with The Girl on the Train, at least according to the staff at Parnassus. We’ve had to divide ourselves into those who have finished it and those who haven’t, just so no one accidentally spoils it for someone else. (We’re not alone. The book debuts on the New York Times bestseller list this week at #1.) Hawkins said she didn’t realize at first that her London-based story about three women connected to a disappearance would catch on like it has: “I’m terrible at judging for myself whether a piece of my own writing is good or not.”

Another book that already has early readers hooked is My Sunshine Away, by M.O. Walsh, which made the “Editors’ Buzz” list last year at Book Expo America and hits shelves on February 10. Set in the late 1980s (Gen-X readers will dig the nostalgia factor), it’s both a coming of age tale about the narrator, a high school boy in suburban Louisiana, and the mystery of who raped his neighbor and crush, a 15-year-old girl named Lindy. If you can find a quiet place to be left alone, you can read it in a day.

Tim Johnston’s Descent likewise could keep you up past your bedtime, especially once you get to the second half. “For this book, I understood early on that the only way I could work on it was when I knew that I had the entire day to do so — to fully immerse myself in the moment, day, world of the characters.” That’s why it took six years, he says — because “there weren’t a lot of those days.” The story concerns a family whose future changes forever when they vacation in Colorado and the daughter, 18-year-old track star Caitlin, disappears during her morning run. As we follow the search for Caitlin, we also experience the fallout in her parents’ marriage and the changes in her brother, who was with her moments before she vanished.

We asked all three authors to discuss the same question: How do they create and sustain suspense that keeps hold of us until the end of the book?

“I rely heavily on my agent who is always my first reader. When I’d written about a third of the book, I showed it to her, and she loved it, and so I started to get a sense that I was on the right track. Even so, I’ve been amazed and delighted by the strength of reaction from readers.” (Photo: Kate Neil)

Paula Hawkins: I sketched out the basic plot at the beginning – initially I had planned to write the whole book from Rachel’s point of view, but I changed my mind early on, partly because I felt it was necessary for plotting, but also because Rachel’s narration is quite challenging for the reader.

So Megan’s narrative was added later, which prompted me to re-plot; and later still I added Anna’s point of view, and once again, that subtly shifted the direction of the book.

It was an interesting process for me, because it felt as though I built the book in layers, with plots overlaid on plots, and the points at which they intersected become key, suggesting new directions, different strands of thought, and changes in the ways I viewed the characters. This meant that one or two of the twists were surprises even to me, they came to me late in the process.

"My process is pretty simple: Revise. Revise. Revise. Unfortunately, this means I don’t advance the plot very far in a day. I was sixty pages into this novel, for example, before I had to train myself to stop starting on page one every time I sat down to work. I envy those authors who can write twenty pages in a sitting, secure in the fact that they can go back and fix it later. I usually feel like, “How can I write another sentence when that last one is still so bad?” And then this feeling leaks over to the paragraph, and then to the page and eventually the chapter. The only benefit of this process, I suppose, is that when a chapter is finished, more often than not, it is actually finished." (photo: Sam Gregory Photography)
“My process is pretty simple: Revise. Revise. Revise. Unfortunately, this means I don’t advance the plot very far in a day. I was sixty pages into this novel, for example, before I had to train myself to stop starting on page one every time I sat down to work.” (Photo: Sam Gregory Photography)

M.O. Walsh: I used a stack of index cards with the novel’s timeline and characters’ respective ages on the front card and then potential scenes, plot developments, or snippets of dialogue on the other cards. Whenever I needed to remind myself of what threads I’d started or planned to tie up, I’d shuffle through the cards. This was also something I could do to stay active in the novel while stuck in traffic or in some other place I couldn’t type, which was helpful.

In terms of suspense or surprise, my old writing teacher Barry Hannah used to tell us, “Writing is easy. All you have to do is have something really exciting happen on every page.” He was joking about this, of course, but only halfway. With every question that arises in a book, it seems to me the reader is expecting either a yes or no conclusion to it (aka, either he did it or he didn’t do it). I think trying to provide a 3rd option to this yes or no expectation is one of the keys to great fiction. It’s kind of like saying, “Well, no, he didn’t do it. But there’s another more important thing that he did do. Now, let me tell you about that.” This is a good sort of surprise.

There is a big difference, though, between completely pulling the rug out from beneath the reader’s feet (a.k.a., not only did he not do it but “he” is actually a fruitfly!) and providing them with this third option. The reveal of a fruitfly narrator makes a reader feel dumb for initially caring about the scenario at all. The third option, on the other hand, rewards them by saying, “Look, there is another layer of truth to this whole mess. And since I can tell you’re invested, I’ll let you in on it. But we have to whisper. And we have to be quick.”

(Photo: Dave Groeber)
Johnston wrote Descent over the course of six years. “I think the time I took to write the novel helped me understand the limbo its characters were living through themselves.” (Photo: Dave Boerger)

Tim Johnston: The novel’s structure is largely a product, I think, of the writing process. I didn’t write the story as it now appears in print, shifting from one family member to the next, point of view to point of view in alternating chapters and storylines; instead I followed each character for the majority of his or her story — in some cases for 100 or more consecutive pages — before moving on to the next. This not only helped me to understand each character better, but it also gave me time to figure out the Big Picture of the novel. It was only later, after I had the four separate storylines more or less down, that I began to chop them up and toss them together in the four-way character salad the reader finds today.

I don’t believe in the outline; I believe in having a few signposts in mind and figuring out the rest as I go, and I think this writing strategy also contributes to the what’s-gonna-happen-next?-ness of the story; since I often didn’t know myself, how could the reader know?

As for plotting, I began this book with a sense of the beginning and a sense of the ending (which ending, as I said, I eventually understood I didn’t want to reach), and very little sense of what would happen in between. The plot revealed itself to me slowly as I followed each character through his or her days. I know there are formulas out there for plotting out the “thriller,” but really if I tried to write by formula it would’ve been a disaster. I was just trying to write the best novel I could write, with the most complex and flawed and real characters I could create, and to make the story as compelling as I could make it. I’m very happy that the novel is being received so well among readers of “thrillers” — the more audience the more better! — but I’m extra happy when those same folks remark on how unlike other thrillers Descent is.

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Meet all three authors at Parnassus Books over the next few weeks.
Free, no reservations required — don’t be shy!

Tim Johnston, Descent • Wednesday, January 28, 2015 • 6:30 p.m. (Wine with the Author, presented with The Wine Shoppe at Green Hills)

Paula Hawkins, The Girl on the TrainSunday, February 8, 2015 • 4:30 p.m.

M.O. Walsh, My Sunshine Away • Friday, February 13, 2015 • 6:30 p.m.

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Read along: