In a traditional thriller, there’s a good guy and bad guy, and they both know about each other early on, even if they don’t yet know each other’s identity. In a paranoid thriller, the good guy doesn’t know if there’s a bad guy or not. In fact, the good guy doesn’t even realize he’s IN a thriller. Author Don Winston explains the differences in this week’s Killer Nashville guest blog.
Until next time, read like someone is burning the books…because — paranoid as I am — somewhere in the world, they are.
What Makes a Thriller Paranoid?
By Don Winston
As part of the promotional tour for my novels, I’m often asked, “What is a paranoid thriller?” It’s a logical question, as it’s the subtitle of my first book and a recurring theme in all my work. There’s a slight yet profound difference between a traditional thriller and its paranoid cousin, so I decided to think about it more and explain. Not only for others, but for myself, as well.
In a traditional thriller, there’s a good guy and bad guy, and they both know about each other early on, even if they don’t yet know each other’s identity. There’s a murder, or a tip from the CIA, or even a ghost knocking around, making the good guy’s life hell. So the good guy channels his energy and ingenuity to get rid of the villain, growing as a person in the process. That’s essentially the hero’s journey Joseph Campbell made such a wonderful contribution mining and explaining.
Almost every thriller or action story fits into that mold, from Stephen King to Tom Clancy to Agatha Christie. By the end, typically the good guy has captured or killed the bad guy, and order is restored to his world. Until the bad guy rebounds or a new one surfaces for the sequel, jumpstarting the nasty cycle all over. It’s what kept Harry Potter so busy in high school.
In a paranoid thriller, however, the good guy — usually an Average Joe — doesn’t know if there’s a bad guy or not. In fact, the good guy doesn’t even realize he’s IN a thriller. Childlike, he (or she) innocently pursues his life and dreams, with the increasing and unnerving and ultimately horrifying suspicion that someone means him great harm. Hence, the paranoia. As mystery expert Otto Penzler puts it in his foreword to Ira Levin’s A Kiss Before Dying: “They are essentially decent people caught up in a world not of their creation –– aliens in a terrifying environment without a map or compass…this terror is dramatically magnified when it involves people who did nothing deliberately to find themselves in positions of jeopardy.”
Alfred Hitchcock, Cornell Woolrich, and, more recently, Ira Levin were all masters of this genre. It’s a rare one, but pierces deep when done well. Think The Man Who Knew Too Much, Night Has a Thousand Eyes, and, most pointedly, Rosemary’s Baby.
Often in a paranoid thriller, the good guy is his own bad guy. The escape hatch is typically wide open for a big chunk of the story; if only he’d walk through it, he’d be free and safe. We the audience know this, and scream for him to run, but he doesn’t. This is also known as “dramatic irony” –– a situation understood by the reader or audience but not grasped by the characters. This can drive the reader mad, in a fun way. It’s what makes the story tick and terrify and, hopefully, keeps the pages turning.
At some point, usually late in the story and following a cascading series of very unfortunate events, the good guy snaps out of his denial and realizes his world is on fire. So insistent he’s been going on living a normal, happy life, he’s paid attention to all the wrong things, and now he’s surrounded by extremely malevolent forces, closing in fast. By this point, however, the escape hatch is closed, and he’s trapped, cornered, sucked down into the whirlpool without a paddle, whatever metaphor you like. He’s in big trouble.
Denial is the lynchpin of the paranoid thriller, and it usually costs the hero dearly.
As if that weren’t trouble enough, as the story unfolds and the noose tightens, the good guy’s final horror is that what he fears is happening is not nearly as ghastly as what is really happening. In his optimistic hope for the best, he grossly underestimates the evil that engulfs him. That gives the paranoid thriller its ultimate nightmarish charge.
In a paranoid thriller, the good guy doesn’t go looking for trouble. It finds him, sneaks up, and surrounds him. His last-gasp attempt to free himself is what hurls us toward the climax.
It’s a messy business, this paranoid thriller stuff. But when plotted right, when the clues drop correctly and the danger crests on cue, the horror overwhelms and gives us a visceral battle of good and evil.
This is what I’ve tried to accomplish with S’wanee, The Union Club, and my brand new thriller: The Gristmill Playhouse: A Nightmare in Three Acts. Whether or not I’ve succeeded is up to the reader. I hope you’ll check them out and let me know what you think.
Happy reading! And remember: Only the paranoid will survive…
Don Winston grew up in Nashville and graduated from Princeton University. After a stint at Ralph Lauren headquarters in New York, he moved to Los Angeles to work in entertainment as an actor, writer, and producer. S’wanee: A Paranoid Thriller was his debut novel and hit #3 in Kindle Suspense Fiction, followed by his second novel The Union Club: A Subversive Thriller. His new thriller The Gristmill Playhouse: A Nightmare in Three Acts will be released spring 2015. He lives in Hollywood. Visit his website at http://www.donwinston.com/
(To be a part of the Killer Nashville Guest Blog, send a query to email@example.com. We’d love to hear from you. Thanks to Tom Wood, Maria Giordano, Will Chessor, Meaghan Hill, and publisher Clay Stafford for their assistance in putting together this week’s blog. And for more writer resources, visit us at www.KillerNashville.com, www.KillerNashvilleMagazine.com, and www.KillerNashvilleBookCon.com.)
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