I’ve read several thrillers during the Christmas break–well, not really reading, but rather skimming and skipping, as most people do with books like that. Wait, wait. I should not say that. When I was learning English as a non-native speaker, I read two Agatha Christi books carefully, step by step, word for word, and even occasionally looked up a word in my dictionary.
And now I am ready to plot my own thriller and here is the not-so-thrilling detail.
The plot starts like this: I am a successful and beautiful and tall and thin psychiatrist, with a thriving practice. I have a really handsome husband, and two super cute kids. And each of these information is important since who would want to read a psychological thriller with an ugly heroine, living with her ugly family. A plain heroine living with her plain husband will not do either, since it will surely cut the book’s sale figure in half. This means that common people like you and I will never make it to a thriller story.
The husband has to have an overpaid job and he is also very well mannered even if in the end he is going to be revealed as a killer or a psychopath. He can be emotionally distant, or frequently absent, or naively childish. That’s OK. He can exhibit all the traits of a less than ideal husband, but he cannot possibly have one word or one gesture not conforming to the best standards of social etiquette. Manners are everything–even for a killer…no…especially for a killer in a thriller. Also in those best selling books, he often possesses contradictory traits which readers (especially female readers) are willing to swallow up since every female reader wants an ideal husband with an impossible mix of character traits. For example, he’s both analytical and emotional, both tall and acrobatic, both gregarious and independent, both caring and clueless, both fierce and tender.
The children are usually sulky enough to add some spice to the family conversations, but not bad tempered enough to lose their cute-kid charm. Ideally, the children are either babies or teenagers–they should not be of any other age. The reason is that babies are adorable and readers love babies, who are great props for any plot. Teenagers can be immature, bold, sad, angry, erratic which make them perfect suspects. You can write them into aspiring heroes who can save the world, hopeless narcissists who bully others, or even a bloody murderer. You can mold them into anything. For example, you can have conversations like this between two siblings, “I want to cut your head off and stuff it into my lunch box.” Since it is a teenage conversation, it can be a perfectly innocent banter in an intimate relationship. Or it can be a preview into a killer’s mind. You can mold it anyway you want.
Now it comes to the body. A body is found and a murder is committed. And everybody is a suspect. In most thrillers, “I” am a good girl, but in some thrillers, “I” end up to be the murderer. And a little manipulation is needed in the middle to make “I” the murderer (I will call it the first “I”, to distinguish it from the second “I”). Usually it is done by switching the narrator. In the later part of the book, the narrator is switched to the kid, the patient, or any other character, who takes up the responsibility of telling the story and describing what the first “I” did.
An investigation is launched by the police, but usually the police is deliberately described as inept and indifferent. If the police does all the work, there will be no room left for other characters. Here, a subplot would be thrown in. For example, a romantic entanglement that was not revealed previously; or a grandfather, who was considered dead, would resurface. He’s not dead, but rather locked up in jail for a murder committed twenty years ago. It gives reader an eerie feeling that the murderer’s genes run in the family or something like that.
Everybody is a suspect and everybody would do or say something that implicates himself or herself to be a killer. This part would generates a lot of confusion in readers. This is the middle part of the book, during which readers are most likely to give up on the book. So the confusion and the suspense pique readers’ interest and keep them going.
And finally the ending comes. And the killer can be anyone, really. It can be “I”, the psychiatrist and the first narrator, or the husband, or the psychiatrist’s business partner, or one of the teenage children, or a long lost twin sister, or one of the patients of the psychiatrist.
I guess in the era of Agatha Christi, murderers have to be captured in the end to make the readers feel that the world is finally in “good order”. It is a little ironical, isn’t it? The author lived through two world wars, which made the era the least likely candidate for “good order”. I mean any other historical period is in better order than the first half of the 20th century, isn’t it? Well, nowadays, murderers can go free in thrillers and readers are OK with that even though in real life people would freak out when a murderer is on the loose.