rt14: violence in thrillers

One of the cool things I got to do this summer was go to RT14 in New Orleans  in May. I took notes on the panels I went to in my mad fly tarot-themed notebook (because why not) and now I’m sharing what I learned in this series of posts on my blog. Feel free to share/tweet/whatever these, but please do be courteous and include a link back to the source.

In some cases, the panels I was on recommended books to read and I’ll include links to those Amazon pages where I can.

The panel opened by discussing chaos vs. order in thrillers– specifically, looking at Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents. Pretty much, when we discuss violence in thrillers, we’re also exploring our animal nature vs. civilized order.

Part of that means paying attention to what can hurt you, even if the threat seems remote. A lot of this is tapping back into the paranoia that the animal self feels but that the civilized self has been taught to ignore. The animal self still isn’t 100% comfortable and continues to express its distrust/wariness on a more subconscious scale (good/bad vibe, instinct, etc), which can make for some interesting juxtaposition when a character who appears to the civilized self logically good/okay elicits negative reactions from the animal self.

Recommended reading: Ann Rule’s THE STRANGER BESIDE ME.

One of the panelists shared an anecdote: she had an uncle who was super sweet, would play with her, and whom she loved. Later, she found out that that uncle had murdered a woman in a horrific way. She used this as an example to illustrate how easy it is for us to just not know all the sides of a person– how impossible it is for another human being to claim that they know everything about another human being.

Fear can keep you out of danger– while in many cases, defeating fear is the victory of the civilized self over the animal self, fear can also be seen as a way for the animal self to self-preserve. Fear is a vital instinct not always to be condemned– it’s a skill for survival.

Recommended reading: Gavin de Becker’s THE GIFT OF FEAR (thanks, Nicole!).

Violence as Release: sometimes the panel talked about violence as being cathartic, but most often we saw it as a release of the tension built up during the story. This is why it’s tricky to have a lot of violence at the start or middle of a story: after the violent scene is over, a lot of tension is gone– i.e., violence is cathartic for the reader in that they get to see the bad guys smashed (or someone smashed), and is a release of tension since an action happened, something definite occurred and we no longer have the conflict of not knowing what’s going to happen next.

This can be great, but it’s something you have to handle skillfully. The story’s action is always bringing us toward the inevitable confrontation, and for this to hit the reader hard, you need to always be upping the tension, not letting it all go halfway through the book. This is why a lot of suspense authors wait until their climactic scenes to introduce “on screen” violence.

On the other hand, the issue isn’t that violence can’t be shown: it’s that tension needs to be re-built in another arena as it is dissipated in one. Above all, you need to keep your reader buzzed enough to read on, not give them a convenient place to stop.

One of the best tricks for building tension in a story before the final showdown was off-screen violence. Leaving details to the reader’s imagination is almost always more haunting and forceful than describing everything. There’s only so much you can do with grit and visual clues– there’s a whole lot of terror in the unknown. Some panelists cited Alfred Hitchcock and the power of suggestion– allowing the viewer to fill in the blanks is sometimes more powerful than doing it yourself.

Recommended reading: Geoffery Household’s ROGUE MALE.

What I thought was neat was how the panel brought up the two selves competing for dominance again and said that there really can’t be a winner— that to have a winner would be a tragic fault. A person who gives in wholly to the animal self cannot live in society and often is the predator aspect made manifest. However, a person who annihilates their animal self kills their instincts. Basically, if there ever is a winner in this battle, something is wrong.

Loners as thriller heroes: part of what makes romancing them so fun is that you can never have them. Part of why a love interest is attracted to a loner hero is their loner quality– to have them be able to be with another person means changing their loner-ness, aka what the LI loves most about them/what the hero essentially is. (It is impossible.) So there’s this eternal chase, and a romance that can never be consummated (fully)– it’s what’s tragic about the relationship and also what keeps people coming back, because a loner character is a character you’ll never know everything about.

Why do we like violent heroes? All humans are a struggle between impulse and control. One of the panelists mentioned that there’s a “thin membrane between normalcy and pathology” and it’s not just something that our heroes and villains walk– it’s something that all human beings have to deal with. People have dangerous fantasies they never act on, and violence or violent tension can be the intoxication with over going the invisible line between okay and very not okay in your head.

Hope this helped! Next panel I’ll have up is Diversity in YA, which was one of my favorites, so check back tomorrow for more RT14 shenans.


3 thoughts on “rt14: violence in thrillers

  1. Nicola O. says:

    That was a great panel! I really enjoyed it. Quick note: The Gift of Fear is the title of a book by Gavin de Becker, about learning to trust your instincts.

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