Hazel McHaffie

Damaged

Thriller writing

It was probably a throwaway suggestion: ‘I think you should make your next book a thriller‘, but it’s stuck in my mind – especially as it came from someone in the book world whose opinion I respect.

Well, OK, I’m prepared to consider it at least. But first I need to understand what’s involved. Would my ideas thus far fit into this genre? Do I have what it takes to master this kind of writing? So I’ve been delving into the theory; what I’d need to do to create a good thriller. To date I’ve identified seven essentials.

1. Use dread and frightening possibilities to drive the story.

2. Make it action-packed from the outset. Maintain urgency and tension (short paragraphs, cliff hangers, surprises, active verbs, each chapter revealing something new, etc etc) throughout. Include confrontation.

3. Make the stakes high. Give the bad guys seemingly justifiable aims too.

4. Keep the reader guessing till the end.

5. Give the protagonists lots of baggage and emotional complexity, something to fight against and triumph over. Make sure they endure plenty of grief and anxiety along the way. Some characters at least shouldn’t be what they seem to be. Avoid stereotypes.

6. Build dramatic tension by means of multiple points of view.

7. Have an unforgettable take-home message/meaning.

ThrillersOK, some at least of the basics.

I’ve read plenty of thrillers over the years; indeed I’m a big fan of both Harlan Coben and Robert Goddard, but I fancied testing the theory using something new to me … Hmmm, how come I have so many unread thrillers on my shelves? … Right, let’s choose something with rave reviews … an acknowledged masterpiece … and maybe something medical?

Brilliant. Flashback by Michael Palmer, a qualified doctor cum very successful writer? Fits my bill perfectly.

Young neurosurgeon Zackery Iverson has left an understaffed, under-resourced hospital and dedicated team of colleagues to return to the place where he grew up, leaving behind a broken relationship and almost all his belongings. His new workplace, the ultramodern rejuvenated regional hospital in Sterling, New Hampshire, is thriving under the leadership of his older brother Frank. State of the art equipment, a growing team of specialists, ultra modern facilities, a veritable ‘juggernaut of technology’. Sounds impressive, but where is the heart?

Zack becomes increasingly concerned about the policies and politics behind the veneer of success. How can the hospital board own so much property? Why are poor patients shipped elsewhere? Why is a very senior doctor claiming harassment and a campaign to get rid of him? Why can a young patient recall events when he should have been anaesthetised during a routine operation? Why is Zach’s new friend and colleague, Suzanne Cole, so alert and bright immediately after her surgery; and why is she behaving erratically now? And why is Zach’s own brother resurrecting childhood rivalries?

Old doubts and insecurities raise their heads. Is Zach being naive and idealistic? Is the cut and thrust of a modern medical ‘business’ simply not for him? Should he have stayed as a champion of the underprivileged and poor?

Child's disturbed bedA growing sense of dread starts to unravel in his head when he’s called in to work with 8 year old Toby Nelms, a boy who’s so disturbed he’s stopped speaking, is having nightmarish flashbacks, and is wasting away.  Why is this lad so terrified of hospitals? How does he know about Metzenbaums? – only staff working in an operating theatre would use the word. There can be only one answer: somehow Toby was awake during his surgery for an incarcerated inguinal hernia. But how could he be? And how much of his suspicions dare Zach share with Toby’s desperate mother?

Could some of his colleagues be monsters masquerading as caring physicians and nurses? Is his own brother somehow implicated? Just where do the ethical boundaries begin and end?

Yep, I’d say this fits all of the above criteria. Thrilling! Unputdownable. I’m hooked, reading long after I should be tucked up asleep.

FlashbackBut I note something else important. There are lots of characters and subplots in this story – hard to keep a handle on initially, but gradually they become rounded out and emerge as … the shrewd controlling judge … the anaesthetist with a secret unsavoury history … the cardiologist with an abusive ex-husband and a young daughter … the nanny who has served her family faithfully but is now threatened with a nursing home … the nurse who can be bought … the shallow secretary chosen for her loose morals and voluptuous body. This steady drip of detail from various sources adds greatly to the suspense. You’re left wondering just who is the real baddie in all of this? who else is implicated in some way? Everybody seems to have mixed motives, vulnerabilities and dubious characteristics. And the links between them grow ever more tortuous. A tall order to achieve that level of complex interweaving. Could I manage it? Right at this moment I’m not at all sure I could.

Having a take-home message is less of a problem to me. In this case: how far would any of us go to uphold our personal moral standards? What if it became a question of love and loyalty over rules and systems? Familiar? Yep. My kind of territory.

OK. Let’s try again with another novel, another author … a medical mystery-cum-thriller, Damaged by Pamela Callow. Again stories within stories, lots of intertwined characters with mixed agendas, false trails. A blond dog-walker, a lawyer with a haunting past, an inscrutable judge with a murdered daughter, a rejected policeman … By now I’m hugely impressed by authors who can hold all this together so successfully.

One thing is definitely in my favour. Medicine’s a hotbed of ethical quandaries – that’s why I became a novelist in the first place, of course. All those folders containing ideas and research material amassed over the years? Ideal material for intrigue and mystery and dark deeds.

So, what do I think now? Well, I’m not ruling out a thriller this time around. Indeed I’m already trying to work out some kind of grid that would make my story-line work. But, boy, what an undertaking. I might be gone some time!!

 

 

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The plot thickens

Did you see the news a couple of weeks ago (11 April) about a three-year-old boy who has successfully survived a heart transplant after being kept alive artificially on a Berlin heart machine for 251 days – longer than any other child in Britain? Shortly after he was born, Joe Skerratt was diagnosed with cardiac myopathy – an enlarged and weakened heart. Initially he was treated with medication but when he deteriorated he needed the machine to take over the work of his failing heart. Amazing stuff.

These days my ears prick up as soon as I hear the words ‘transplant’ or ‘organ donation’. And as you know I’m ploughing through a stack of novels that include the subject in some guise or other. Time perhaps to bring you up to date with where I’m at with them, lest you start to suspect this blog is a smokescreen and I’m actually idling on some Caribbean beach. But first a caveat: some of the titles I’m going to mention I really really don’t recommend. I ploughed through them because I need to suss out the potential competition, but you can be more discriminating. (For a sense of my personal assessment shoot across to my Goodreads ratings and reviews.)

I’ve read all except four now and they seem to fall into three categories.

1. There are those that focus on families grappling with tragic circumstances and the impact of organ donation. (eg. Somewhere between Life and Death; One Perfect Day; In a Heartbeat; Stealing Kevin’s Heart; While my Sister Sleeps; Breath; The Household Guide to Dying.) Additional angles are used to provide a narrative thread – the recipients taking on the characteristics of the donor (cellular memory), or families searching for the donor’s identity for various reasons, or unexpected links between the two families. A number of these are geared towards young adults and tend to rather labour the importance of organ donation. And there’s a heavy religious agenda in some of the American ones.

2. Then there are the sci-fi novels, the futuristic and satirical takes on the issue. (eg. Never Let me Go; Heart Seizure; Little Boy Pig; The Samaritan; My Body, My Ashes.) The creation of ‘monsters’ comes into this group. The way-out and highly improbable. Unscrupulous scientists and doctors pushing the boundaries beyond what is ethical. Or mad chases against time and the odds.

3. And thirdly there are the mysteries and thrillers. (eg. Damaged; Blood Work; Coma; Dead Tomorrow; The Midwife’s Confession; Change of Heart.) Individuals and teams conspiring to obtain tissue or organs or indeed whole bodies for personal gain. Apparently this is a live issue in the USA.

I confess I got rather bored with so many books about a single subject. There isn’t much new to excite me in the facts and issues themselves. So the yawn-factor could well be distorting my perspective and judgement. However, analysing the stories is helping me to hone my own novel on this subject.

The first draft of (working title) Over my Dead Body consists of a plausible story centred around a relatively commonplace road traffic accident. But my reading has confirmed a hunch that it needs a second more compelling thread to keep the pages turning. So where do I go from here?

Introduce an element of sci-fi? Nope. Not my bag. Sci-fi can be technically fascinating, and I can admire the brains that project themselves into futuristic possibilities and challenge their readers to ask: Is this a world I would want to see or be part of? I too want to provoke thought and debate, but my personal preference is for the scenarios to be based more on today’s reality.

OK. A thriller then? Well, of all the books I’m most enjoying the medical thrillers with believable insights into the emotions and driving forces of those people caught up in the business of saving lives using transplanted organs. But I’m not sure I have what it takes to sustain this kind of pace, nor whether it would fit with my objectives.

Conclusion? I’m experimenting with an element of mystery and intrigue; weaving in a second more taut storyline of a dark secret that unravels gradually. I’m cautiously optimistic right at this moment but it could all change. It might not work. Or perhaps those last four books will revolutionise my thinking! Watch this space.

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