It’s fair to say that we all enjoy being swept away by a thrilling story. Considering the demands of life, work, and family, when we invest the time to read a book, we want it to be more than good. We want it to be great, which begs the question: What makes a book unforgettable? Let’s talk about that.
CONFLICT is paramount. It’s the key that fuels a great story. How could this surprising element be so important? Don’t we get enough conflict in our world? Yes, we do, but this level of conflict is different. A solid story begins with an issue we can relate to. It must be a problem that we would feel compelled to fix. Then the story ramps up to such a level that this character’s life and everything he or she cares about is in danger. Conflicts with such high stakes make our daily problems seem minor.
Great characters make a book memorable. Therefore, the other factor of a great story is an extraordinary character who steps in to do what we can’t. We all know what it feels like when life throws problems at us that we simply can’t fix. That common frustration makes living vicariously through a character, who can put an end to an injustice, so compelling. It makes us feel like busting a door open and pumping a fist in the air. It’s incredibly satisfying.
Every story starts with a battle between the hero and the villain. The bad guy wants revenge, money, or power and will do anything to get it. The hero seeks justice and to stop the treat, not only for himself but to protect others. This is the engine that drives the story, but readers want more. Therefore, we ratchet up the tension and the stakes by having the villain intrude into the life of the hero by interfere with his or her career or threatening those whom the hero holds most dear—a brother who is a wounded warrior, a beloved dog, or a best friend that means everything.
In my book Kill Notice, this plays out with Bowers, the main character. Imagine being in her shoes where you are a detective in Washington DC and are tasked with taking down a serial killer who is so elusive, it’s like a hunting an apparition. That is scary enough, but then the stakes go up and he starts leaving buttons from his latest victim taped to your front door. He’s getting way too close and making you wonder who is hunting whom? Next, the unthinkable happens and it gets worse. You find he’s left buttons inside your home and place of work. Adrenaline spikes and nowhere is safe.
To make the story even more intriguing, we dive much deeper than the main conflict, where subtleties have a huge impact. Whether it’s being uncomfortable speaking on camera or fear of flying like the Jack Ryan character in the Tom Clancy series who was the only survivor of a helicopter crash, we’ve all had bad experiences and fears. Internal conflicts make the main character believable, especially when the hero must overcome a long-standing fear or an aversion to succeed. But we don’t stop there. If the hero and villain have experienced similar traumas, readers witness how the hero takes that experience and turns it into empathy and takes action to prevent such suffering for other. Meanwhile, the villain seeks revenge for a perceived injustice by attacking a person or the society that he sees as rejecting him. Now you have the fuel that ramps up the emotional energy and makes the book hard to put down. Readers are rooting for this hero to triumph.
Characters need to feel like people you’ve known or would like to know. Like us, great characters will have fears, skills, and a sense of humor. They will want the same things we want, and they’ll have quirks. In a story, we can explore all these. For example: Bowers, who is tough and resilient, has some novel quirks. With her background in the military and law enforcement, she is well equipped to face off with a terrorist or hunt down a killer, but don’t ask her to open one of those tubes of pre-made biscuit dough that pops when you open them. This quirk makes her human and provides a bit of humor that keeps it real.
Putting readers behind the eyes of a character who is an ordinary person in extraordinary circumstances makes for a compelling story. For example: in my series, men and women find Kate Bowers very relatable. She can swear like a soldier and handle most weapons with ease, and yet she cares about those around her. Compassion is her biggest asset and her biggest weakness, which creates even more conflict for her. For example: In Island of Bones, Bowers’ life is on the line. Her captures intend to kill her and dump her body at sea. An opportunity abruptly arises where she has the skill set to escape and save herself, and yet she doesn’t. Instead, she chooses to stay in the fight to protect the vulnerable victims onboard. This brings us to an important point. We need characters that do something that matters. In the new Reacher TV series based on Lee Child’s Reacher Series, Jack Reacher isn’t just a mountain of muscle rambling through the small town of Margrave to beat up the bad guys. We find ourselves touched by a twist that makes this very personal to him and by the way he takes the time to care for a mistreated dog. The Reacher character is compelled to protect the vulnerable by doing what they can’t.
As much as we love the action and adventure, the amazing thing about thrillers is the opportunity to live through a character who does what we wish we could do to make things right. These dynamic stories allow us to explore what we would do in the shoes of a hero and perhaps they also help us recognize the hero within each of us.