On a visit to his family home in the Philadelphia area, Ohio University film student Robert Ellis watched his father look up from the novel in his hands and say, “Bobby, you’ve got to read this wheelchair scene. This book is over the top.” Years later, when he was working in the film business and going regularly to readings and signings by his favorite authors, “If you asked them what their favorite books were,” Ellis recalled recently in a wide-ranging conversation with the Fairfield Writer’s Blog near his Black Rock home, “every one of them included Thomas Harris’ Red Dragon. Every single one.”
After he turned an unsold screenplay into his first novel, Access to Power, in 2001, Ellis began planning his next book. “My dad had just passed away,” he said. “I wanted it to be a tribute to him, I wanted to set it in Philadelphia and the neighborhoods where I grew up, and I noticed that those writers, like Michael Connelly with The Poet, all had tributes to this remarkable Red Dragon. I was going to do mine.” The Dead Room, with neophyte lawyer Teddy Mack the protagonist, sold out 45,000 paperback-original copies in three months.
“I always thought Teddy would be my guy,” Ellis says. Instead, his next three thrillers—the newest of which, Murder Season (Minotaur—right), comes out on December 6—feature LAPD robbery/homicide detective Lena Gamble. Here, with specific thoughts about thrillers, is the second installment of Ellis’ writing advice for readers of the FWB.
Make it about more than a crime: While some might dismiss Red Dragon as a horror novel, Ellis says that is mistaken. He believes intelligent crime novels are the modern equivalent of the great Westerns by directors such as John Ford, metaphorical works of the American myth. In that sense, he argues, Red Dragon “is a mapping of the human spirit and is ingeniously told,” with villain Francis Dolarhyde so mesmerized by William Blake’s art that he actually eats a painting. “What we’re seeing,” Ellis argues, “is a character trying to shed his past just the way a caterpillar becomes a butterfly.” In the same way, he says, “I don’t think my books are about the crime. It’s a metaphor. It’s hidden social criticism. My books are about more than the crime.”
Tell a multi-tiered story: Ellis says his thrillers tell three stories in one book: “There is the apparent level. That’s what you think the story is. There’s the level that the [protagonist’s] opponent is trying to make it look like it is. And then there’s the level that’s real.” Such tiered storytelling requires planning, says Ellis: “You can’t do that without an outline. [See FWB, October 12, 2011] Any writer who’s doing to do a multi-layered story and says ‘I don’t outline’ is full of it.”
Ask yourself, what if? At some point in an Ellis thriller, and perhaps at more than once, there comes a twist that turns the story on its head. “Was it in the outline?” he says. “Not all the time. There’s always magic. You’ll be writing there and you’ll say, Oh my God, what if? In The Lost Witness, I wasn’t sure it was going to work. I had to write it to know if it was going to work.” But don’t be afraid to try, because “Those little hits are like gasoline. The story’s going along, but now we need a jolt. . . . As long as it works.”
Get past the three-act structure: Despite the conventional wisdom in storytelling manuals, Ellis says, “I think the concept of three acts, if that’s what you’re doing, may mean you’re not going to make it today.” In a contemporary thriller, two big plot points—dividing Act I from II and Act II from III—are not enough. “You need more of those hits than just something that separates an act,” Ellis says “The more the better. And if you can pack the end—boom, boom, boom, boom—well, that’s what I try to do.”
Change your template: “Usually the new book is a reaction to the last book,” Ellis says. In the first Lena Gamble novel, City of Fire, Gamble is an unsure newcomer to the LAPD Robbery/Homicide division. In The Lost Witness, she is assigned a seemingly dead-end case by unhappy higher-ups looking to get rid of her. Now, in Murder Season, “It’s the opposite,” Ellis says of his protagonist and her bosses. “Now they need her.” Gamble investigates a high-profile killing that could make her a scapegoat for police-department and district attorney’s-office bumbling. The story involves “a character shift,” says Ellis, who this time took his inspiration from an even more-detailed outliner than Ellis himself, James Ellroy, who has been known to compose a 300-page plan before turning it into a novel. “I’ve been wanting to do this since I read LA Confidential.”
Establish a theme with the thrills: While his thrillers have whodunit and police-procedural elements, Ellis says they are much different from mysteries: “In a detective story, there’s a murder on page one and we’re off. Mysteries are faster at the beginning. Thrillers are slow in the beginning. A thriller is a very personal story. You’ve got to get that personal stuff out and done so that when you get to the end the thrills resound.” He cites an Alfred Hitchcock movie to illustrate his point. “Look at ‘Rear Window.’ The first 30 minutes, nothing happens. Jimmy Stewart’s just sitting in his room talking to Grace Kelly (below) and talking to his nurse about marriage.
“That’s another thing about a thriller, the difference between it and a mystery. Usually you have a stronger theme in a thriller, and every character in that story shares a part of that theme. For instance, in ‘Rear Window,’ it’s about love and marriage. In every one of those windows [Stewart and Kelly are looking at], it’s a variation of a theme, such as the apartment with Miss Lonelyhearts.”
A reading recommendation: So what’s the best book our local thriller writer has read recently? The latest Michael Connelly offering? Or one of Thomas Harris’ evergreen titles, given that he hasn’t published anything in five years? Nope. “Nonfiction,” Ellis says. “Unbroken.” That’s right, Laura Hillenbrand’s story of Olympic runner, World War II hero and Japanese POW survivor Louis Zamperini.—Alex McNab