The Dark Side of Writing Thrillers

Thrillers by nature have a dark side. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be thrilling. When you write thrillers, your research can take you down some dark roads and can sometimes leave indelible marks.

Timely Topics are Often the Darkest

I recently finished Tom Callaghan’s A Spring Betrayal. This is the second in his series featuring a Murder Squad detective in Kyrgyzstan. The book is a feast of good writing and exposition of a culture little known in the west. The topic, however, is disturbing–child pornography, specifically snuff pornography. The book explores the financial, sociological, political, cultural, and criminal aspects of this “industry,” which has indeed popped up in the former Soviet republics. The book was enjoyable, but the topic will haunt me for a while. I wish I could sit down with Callaghan and ask him how he’s doing. The research must have been nightmarish.

This past November for National Novel Writing Month, I explored the recent rise in neo-Nazism in the U.S. My research into far-right groups here started more than twenty years ago when I began drafting what has become a four-book series that will publish starting in April. What these people believe is disheartening and beyond disgusting. And when I think people in the alt-right can be and are your doctors, your lawyers, your judges, your teachers, your police officers, it makes me fear for this country. However, I write about it because we must not ignore it.

Why Not Write a Cozy Thriller?

I suppose it could be done. When the cozy mystery genre began years ago, I had to wonder: How can you have a mystery without a little gore and mayhem? Then, I realized Agatha Christie had essentially written cozy mysteries and done so brilliantly with complex plots and decidedly all-too-human characters. I’ve become a fan of cozy mysteries.

The driving forces behind a good thriller–politics, war, espionage, and so on–aren’t cozy. Politics, in particular, in this day and age has moved beyond nicety, if it ever were nice. The same for war; there aren’t any cozy ways to defeat an enemy. True, a real spy spends most of his or her time analyzing, studying intel, planning how to recruit, etc., nothing very action-oriented at all. But it’s those “moments of sheer terror” that make an espionage thriller what it is–dark and sometimes terrifying.

I don’t think we’ll see cozy thrillers any time soon.

Coping with Writing Dark

I personally have to take a break after I’ve written something I know will disturb people, since it disturbed me. I put the work aside and read what I call a “fluff” book, something mindless and formulaic but which makes me laugh. Or I write some fluff. Yes, I’m capable of it; rather, it doesn’t satisfy me as much.

For example, after drafting a novella to introduce a new character I hope to write more about, I was troubled by a torture scene in it. The torture scene fit the story, but because I’m a human being with feelings, I had qualms. I put the story aside and decided no more writing until after the holidays. On Christmas Eve, however, I wrote a sweet holiday story about an orphan’s first Christmas with his adoptive family.

No, no one kidnapped me and put a ringer in my place. Rather, for me to be able to continue the dark story, I had to lighten up a bit. (If you want to see how light I can be, you can read the story here.) And sometimes you have to step away for awhile and let the darkness slip away. If you don’t, it rides your back all the time.

Thrillers Will Always Be With Us

I don’t see thrillers going away, what with world politics being what they are, the fact there continues to be war, and with countries still finding the need to spy on each other. I think, however, a reader is attracted to thrillers because there is story and pith in that darkness. The reader can experience it from afar, knowing it’s fiction, get their thrill, and sleep well at night.

Remember, though, those of us who write the things that thrill you, we have to sleep, too, and sometimes it’s not that easy for us.

So, why do it?

For me, it’s to send a message, to show a faint light at the end of a dark tunnel. Because the dark stories are worth telling, too.

How about you? What attracts you to reading thrillers?

For a free excerpt of my debut thriller, A War of Deception, sign up here.


One thought on “The Dark Side of Writing Thrillers

  1. Last year at Bouchercon, I attended a panel of psychological thriller authors. They all agreed they had to take a break after they finished their books, and some needed extra breaks after especially dark scenes. Although I love reading dark thrillers, I prefer to write cozy.

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