Copyright 2012 by Gary L. Pullman
In Thriller 2, Clive Cussler introduces readers to the thriller, not as a novel but in its short story form. In fact the anthology contains twenty-three thrillers. By authors as diverse as Jeffrey Deaver, R. L. Stine, Lisa Jackson, and Ridley Pearson. One of the editor's intentions, he tells readers, is to introduce those who are “new to the world of thrillers” to the genre or to allow “the rabid fan” the “chance to discover another side” of his or her “favorite author.”
Another of the editor's purposes is to define the genre. However, Cussler doesn't so so in so many words. Instead, he offers clues. The stories in this genre are not easily pigeonholed, Cussler declares. They include “novels of suspense, adventure tales, paranormal investigations, or even police procedurals.” Thrillers “push their readers just a little closer to the edge of their seats,” he says; “they cost their readers sleep, get carried to the grocery store to be read while standing in line [presumably, the readers and not the thriller are “standing in line”] and are held tightly until the last page.” Thrillers stay with readers after the last page has been read. These stories, Cussler contends, may “shock” or “cause” the “heart to skip a beat” or “make” one “laugh and flinch at the same time,”and, many times, they will be “read again in disbelief,” as readers seek “the clues” they “missed the first time around.”
Cussler also provides additional clues in the headnotes that he provides for each of the stories. They have “high stakes”; the time that is allowed the protagonist to sort things out and set things right is apt to be “short.” Situations, invariably, are intense. The storylines may be suggested or influenced by the stories' settings. A thriller might be based upon the “short step from respectable citizen to flat-out criminal,” wherein “the lead characters bear a shocking resemblance to people we might know—even to ourselves—pillars of society crumbling in an avalanche of bad decisions that seemed perfectly rational at the time.” Other thrillers are tales of revenge. Often, the action of such stories is based upon “current events.” A thriller may include “an intricate puzzle.” Some such stories spring from seedy, real-life counterparts of the characters they depict. Natural catastrophes are sometimes the culprits: “Mother Nature is as much of a threat as the killers” some characters encounter; they “must confront not only the harsh realities of their situation, but also the brutal conditions of their environment.” Occasionally, thrillers spring from the actual experiences of the writers who write them. The protagonists of thrillers may be amoral by society's standards, but they, nevertheless, usually live by “their own code of honor.” Other thrillers investigate their characters' “personal histories,” focusing upon what makes their characters tick or what motivates them to perform the dangerous feats they do. Humor is the wellspring of some thrillers. Sometimes, thrillers mix “history and science.” The action is often global in scope, and even in a world wherein science reigns, mysticism can coexist with empirical methods. Philosophical issues are not off limits to thrillers; some discuss such questions as to whether we are the masters of our fates or the fates' playthings. Politics, betrayal, dystopian futures, and patriotism can become the elements of a thriller that involves government intrigues and conspiracies. Thrillers also take their readers into the criminal underworld, showing them how hired killers view the world. Spies come in from the cold in many a thriller, and good guys protect the innocent. Romance—especially unrequited love—can set a thriller's plot in motion, and a woman scorned—well. . . . Villains include hit men, sociopaths, enemy agents, serial killers, rapists, and sadists.
Any story should start with a hook, and thrillers are no exception. These are a few from Thriller 2:
“A new weapon.”
The slim man in a conservative suit eased forward and lowered his voice. “Something terrible. And our sources are certain it will be used this coming Saturday morning. They're certain of that.”
“Four days,” said retired Colonel James J. Peterson, his voice grave. It was now 5:00 p. m. on Monday. (Deaver, Jeffrey. “The Weapon,” 16).
Bijoux Watson's body slipped underneath the muddy waters of the Brazos River without a sound, a mangled pile of flesh that had once been the biggest purveyor of black tar heroin in all east Texas (Hunsicker, Harry. “Iced,” 55).
Every time I think back on that night, I can see myself poised at that exact moment in time. I watch the story unfold—it's like watching a movie, you know?--and I wish to God I could relive that instant when I did the unthinkable (Stewart,. Mariah. “Justice Served,” 73).
What happened to Leon is a dirty shame (Stine, R. L., “Roomful of Witnesses,” 111).
“This is where they died?” (Neggers, Carla, “On the Run,” 169).
When the man he'd killed a year ago walked into the bar, Joe Dogan was surprised, So surprised that he fell off his stool (Light, Lawrence. “The Lamented,” 217).
“Give us the manuscript or we'll kill your wife” (Maleeny, Tim. “Suspension of Disbelief,” 271).
It's time to kill my husband. Izaan Bekkar. The forty-eighth president of the United States (Antrim, Kathleen. “Through a Veil Darkly,” 351).
Cussler identifies the key ingredients of the thriller. He provides twenty-three examples. There is no single formula for this type of story, but there are suggestions. Place a protagonist in an intense situation, perhaps in an isolated setting, with what little time remains before a catastrophic event fast running out, and see whether he or she can escape, avert the catastrophe, or otherwise save him- or herself and the day (and maybe the whole planet!) In the process, suggest something about human nature or, at least, a specific specimen of humanity and why life is important, especially when it is lived on the edge.