Thrilling Structures 1: Generic Hooks for the Thriller

I’ve been playing around with the structure of my own suspense thriller novel, considering the typical hooks or starting chapters and typical climaxes also (coming up in the second post later this week).

For Hooks, here is my list so far. Like any list, any good author will try to bend or break – or add a new trope to the list, so it’s reasonably generic, and comes from my own reading in the genres. Please add any comments or suggestions, if you’re a thriller reader.

The Hook or Start of the Novel

As Kristen Lamb points out in her Part 6 of her Structure series,

‘There are only so many plots, so don’t try to be cute and clever and unique because it is unlikely you will discover a “new element.”’

Below are how I personally have analysed as the already-done approaches to starting off a good thriller and hooking the reader from the first sentence, paragraph and few pages. Despite Kristen’s warnings, I’m still going to give it my best shot in trying to think of some different openings also.

Prologue or Chapter One?

For whatever reason, the use of prologues appears to be frowned upon in many circles at the moment. If anything, I believe the structure of the thriller can readily absorb a separate prologue from the central storyline, and there are still plenty of thrillers that do start with a prologue even if it’s not labelled as such. In fact, many thriller writers may have simply gotten away from this whole issue by labelling what in essence is a prologue as their ‘chapter one’, and starting off the real story in chapter two.

The Hook plotting archetypes for a thriller

1. Start with the inciting incident

A very common practice, often advised by the pundits, is to start as close as possible to the action – and inciting incident. This raises the stakes and sets the main character’s goals into action.

  1. Immediate action – jump right in with the inciting incident – for the main character. Someone once called this ‘the no-foreplay’ option. This is quite a common option, but the writer can leave the reader confused or unsatisfied if there is no character development or the writer forgets to offer some scene setting. (Can be useful in particular with a thriller series where the character has already been developed and is well-known to the reader).  Some examples – The hero is right close by when the bomb goes off, or he’s woken and called out to a crime scene, or he gets a call from someone claiming to have just kidnapped his son. The stakes and main character’s goals are set in the first few pages.
  2. Immediate action – inciting incident – no main characters – this device is more often used for action-adventures. It’s the prologue scene where we see the resurrection of some evil god, or the flaking off of a 10,000 km wide asteroid from an even larger one, sending it into the path of Planet Earth; or the explosion of a bomb in an underground train station, or the sudden wave of death that takes out all the animals across miles of African Plains; or a child is waiting at their school gates for their late parent, and then the next second the mother arrives in a fluster, and the child is no longer there. This inciting incident can be world-scale or small, but it must provide enough information to offer a threat for the reader to follow.
  3. Historical action – flashback or originator of inciting incident – similar to the above, but this scene provides a flashback to the past – that doesn’t (as yet) involve the main characters. Again, typically used for action-adventures, this prologue can involve something like the discovery of a mysterious tomb or artefact during conflict in WWII. Or the scientific discovery of a human element that reduces pain thresholds or the like. This flashback must be related closely to the present-day inciting incident for the hero, although it will not involve the hero at all, and may not involve the present-day antagonist either.  Requires a second inciting incident scene further on, bringing the hero into the story (although the two stories may appear entirely unrelated to the hero, and he may remain oblivious to the historical incident).
  4. Passive action – inciting incident – typically used in legal or detective thrillers, this is where the first chapter starts off with the client simply walking into the offices to secure the services of the detective / lawyer main character.  This provides the inciting incident – the reason why the hero goes on a journey, but can be quite boring as it generally doesn’t supply much or any action, or tension, and the main character and reader must sit back and listen to the story from the other character’s viewpoint. To remedy this, many authors use the structure to build the main character – the detective spends his time giving back some witty repertoire, interrogates the client for hidden truths, and generally being a smart-arse.   Any good thriller writer will weave in as much character conflict into the scene as possible also.

2. Get to Know the Hero

  1. The Foreshadowing Tension Setter – a small piece of  bridging tension (Donald Maass) – a chapter that shows the main character in their everyday world, however foreshadows the genre by including some bridging tension – conflict or tension from another person or event which isn’t necessarily involved in the main incident to come. Characters and settings are developed. This needs to be quite skilful to hold the reader’s attention in readiness for the big event. (In reference to the above, this would be deemed the fore-play option).
  2. The Hero Showcase -a sub-type of the Foreshadowing Tension Setter, this chapter will both provide some type of action or tension to foreshadow later conflict, but also show the hero off with his expert skills in something – which will later help him get out of a predicament.  Technically, this particular chapter is not really related to the main plot, but shows his everyday but heroic world. We will see the hero winning a major court case, or saving the life of a cancer patient, hanging off a mountain and saving his co-climber, lecturing a hushed audience on Einstein’s Theory of Relativity – and getting them to understand it; that kind of thing.
  3. The Mini-Story (as hero)– another type of the hero showcase and foreshadower, this chapter is a story started and completed in one. It shows the everyday and often unglamorous life and reason behind the everyman becoming the hero in very recent times. He may be a two-bit crook who saves some innocent child from being killed under a bus in a “save the cat” episode, and is noticed by an overseeing secret agency who decide he possesses the skills and character to make a good spy. Or we may watch as a high-school student arrives home from school, hacks into Facebook and later that day suddenly finds himself getting a phonecall from the Secret Service asking him to help out.  The mini-story showcases something of the skills and character of the hero (or villain – see below), but technically isn’t part of the main story at all.
  4. The Flash-Back Story (as hero) – a little similar to the above, but this story (and it does not have to be fully fledged out) goes back into the past of the hero, and hints at some incident that shapes the character’s and the story’s future. For instance, the flash back may show the hero as a young frightened soldier sitting in the desert of Afghanistan, unable to move or flinch as a scorpion walks over him and enemy soldiers walk only a metre away from him – and may explain his fear of crawling insects for his future. Or it may show the unexplained disappearance of his own baby sister when he was only five years old, and explain why he is so dedicated to finding lost children now.  The Flash-Back doesn’t necessarily need to show the main character as a hero, but should offer nuggets of character-traits which make his current actions more understandable.
  5. The Flash-Ahead excerpt (as hero) – I haven’t seen this used for the villain, as that would take some of the suspense away if the reader knew that all the attempts by the hero to subvert the villain’s goals through the story were a mute point anyway. In this structure the reader is introduced to a passage in the future where the hero is in dire trouble – he is dangling with one finger off a fifty foot cliff-edge, or in the driving seat of a small-craft aeroplane where he has no flight knowledge.  This hook starter forces the accompanying structure where the rest of the novel must start back in telling the story in hindsight, of how he got into such a bind. It must work as a linear series of flash-backs taking us up to the point of the climax, but is difficult to provide a full sense of tension when you know where he’s going to end up. Sometimes we also see the exact same passage from the hook used in this climax, pointing out to the reader that we’ve finally got to this promised point. Repeating the passage doesn’t really appear wholly effective to me, though.

3. Get to hate the Baddies

  1. The Parallel Plot – Typically used to introduce the antagonist or threat right off, and typically involves a gratuitous or high-stress scene of a crime – a torturous murder, the plotting or planning for a murder, the stalking and taking of a victim, strange deaths, terrorist planning, scientific experiments going wrong… we may be introduced to the victim (briefly) but they can often remain quite nameless or faceless. The bad guys may be introduced or remain swathed in shadows, unseen as yet. This plot is typically not linked immediately with the main story, the relationship is not explained until much later in the novel. The parallel plot leads onto Chapter Two, where the protagonist in their everyday world is introduced.
  2. Inside the Bad Guy’s Head – a sub-type of the parallel plot. We are introduced to the antagonist and his goals right up front. Sometimes the author keeps his identity masked from the reader – after all, we don’t often think our own names in real life, either. We may see a gory murder or similar, via the antagonist’s viewpoint. Very often used for crazy-yet incredibly-intelligent serial killer novels.
  3. The Quick-Cut Bad to Good Mini Run-In – in one chapter we are introduced quickly to the bad-guys and their dastardly plans, then we cut to the good-guy who breaks into their plans – he can stumble in on them, thinking he’s onto something else, been sent on a mission to find them (ala James Bond) or have used his skills to find them. He should be proactive, however. Given this is the start of the novel, the hero should be unsuccessful in his full mission or heroics – ie. the bad guys or some of them get away, in readiness for trying to put their full evil plans into action. Or if the bad guys are caught, you pretty much know there is going to be a bungling of the court trial, or a gory wickedly complicated escape from jail coming up in the future.
  4. The Mini-Story (as villain) – similar to the hero’s mini-story  (see above),  this first chapter tells of the recent incident that made the villain into the evil warlord or crazed serial killer mastermind that he is now. Often it’s an incident that leads to an enlarged need for revenge, or something like the death of their mother sending them into a psychotic bloodlust to try to replace her body.
  5. The Flash-Back Story (as villain) – similar to the mini-story, but the flash-back tells the story of what – historically, made the villain become what he is today. We may see him being bullied by his school mates, only to turn around at the age of ten, set a deathly trap for revenge, and get away with it. As a psychopath, we may see an eight year old boy murdering his own cat (not a great thing to write – authors get hate mail for hurting innocent little animals). We may be taken to an exotic desert scene and witness the killing of an entire family from (supposedly, because it always turns out not be the case) American missiles, and cut to the one survivor – a little boy who will grow up to be a revolutionary terrorist leader seeking revenge and/or world domination.

Any others? Please feel free to add your own in the comments section.

4 thoughts on “Thrilling Structures 1: Generic Hooks for the Thriller

  1. This is fantastic! Wonderful analysis here. Workin’ on a thriller screenplay and quite instinctively started with the “Parallel Plot” that leads into the hero and his everyday life bit. For some reason, this post really helped to confirm that it was the choice. Perhaps it was simply reading through all of the other standard thriller openings. I dunno. But thanks again!

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