Karen Dionne is the co-founder of the online writers community Backspace, the organizer of the Salt Cay Writers Retreat, and a member of the International Thriller Writers, where she served on the board of directors. Her latest thriller, The Marsh King’s Daughter, will be released June 13th. She joins Signature to discuss techniques for crafting a compelling storyline.
Someone steals a microchip containing cutting-edge research. An asteroid threatens a city. A young child is kidnapped. A serial killer is on the loose.
Thriller plotlines typically begin with a problem that needs solving, or a disaster that needs to be averted—and conclude as soon as the problem is resolved. The surviving characters then pick up the pieces and go on living as happily as their changed circumstances allow.
But what if the story isn’t finished when the crisis is over? What if the real story begins after the traditional thriller would normally end?
Given that thrillers are all about action and tension, it might seem counter-intuitive to tell a story that takes place following a major event. After all, by that point, the excitement and danger are over. Or are they?
Just because a character lives through one dramatic event doesn’t mean there won’t be more drama to come. In fact, one could argue that such characters are more likely to run up against additional problems as they struggle to cope with what they’ve been through. Does anyone really think the kids in Jurassic Park weren’t forever scarred by their experience?
For thriller authors looking to find fresh ways to make their stories stand out, exploring the consequences of surviving a life-changing event—the “what comes after”—can turn the traditional thriller storyline on its head and offer readers something new.
In my dark psychological suspense novel, The Marsh King’s Daughter, a teenager is kidnapped and taken to a remote wilderness cabin where she bears her captor’s child and lives as his wife long before the book opens.
If I had told this teenager’s story and ended with her escape, my novel would have been about the experience of living through an abduction, similar to Emma Donoghue’s Room.
Instead, the teenager’s abduction is backstory. The Marsh King’s Daughter opens fifteen years after she and her daughter Helena flee the marsh, when Helena’s father, the notorious “Marsh King,” escapes prison not thirty miles from her home. Helena realizes immediately that he’s coming for her and her two young daughters. As they play a cat-and-mouse game in the present, Helena flashes back to her early years in the marsh, recalling the deep love she had for her survivalist father, as well as the dramatic events that finally showed her the kind of man he truly was.
So, The Marsh King’s Daughter is essentially two stories, before, and after, with the kidnap victim’s daughter rather than her mother at the center of both. Helena’s story in the present is told in real time as the action of the hunt unfolds, while the story of her growing up in the marsh and the dramatic events that led to her recovery is told in flashbacks.
Normally, this alternating-chapters construction laced with flashbacks would slow down the pace—potentially a big problem in a thriller. But because both halves of my novel are thrillers in their own right, weaving the stories together actually makes the book stronger and allows the two climaxes to coincide at the end, doubling the tension and impact.
Writing a thriller as two interwoven stories also risks one overshadowing the other. Both must be equally compelling. An author doesn’t want her readers to be reading one part wishing they could get back to the other—beyond the normal urgency common to thrillers.
Unusual choices in structure or plot always carry an element of risk. But creative choices can work as long as they enhance, rather than distract from, the story. In The Marsh King’s Daughter, the story of what happens after Helena left the marsh can only be understood by what came before, and both are vital parts of the book.
From a craft perspective, choosing to tell Helena’s story instead of her mother’s in two intertwining narratives turned out to be the right decision for this book, as it elevated the quality of my writing as I worked on a novel that was very different than any I’d written before. As a result, of all my novels, The Marsh King’s Daughter was by far the most enjoyable and satisfying to write—truly the book of my heart.
So, while most thrillers end with some version of “happily ever after,” some only begin there.