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Why do Some Thriller Books Read Like Movies?

By 30/03/2022March 31st, 2022Featured, guest post
Did you find this article on thriller writing useful? Do you use active voice in your writing? What novels have you read that you remember being cinematic? Have you read Rob Samborn's The Prisoner of Paradise?

Thrillers were never the top of my reading list as a child or even as a growing adult. I could not stand the relentlessness of the thriller narrative, or that one or the other bad thing happened every few pages. Too harrowing for me, because my life was stressful enough without heart-stopping thrillers.

Years passed and as I started writing You Beneath Your Skin, I realized I had a thing for crimes–I wanted to use it as a way of examining society. And with each passing edit, the book came closer and closer to a thriller. The final product turned out to be not-quite-a-thriller. It was a debut, and it had its flaws. Pacing being the biggest one.

Over the years, I have hopefully improved in this regard because I’ve written another ‘thriller’ in The Blue Bar. Language-wise and with pacing, I still have much to learn, which is why I’m very pleased to welcome author Rob Samborn to Daiily (W)rite today, who is here with a guide to using active voice in thrillers. To see his advice in action, pick up his book,The Prisoner of Paradise! I’m reading it now, and it is good.


Ever notice how some thrillers read cinematically?

You can visualize the descriptions and action. You feel like you’re there with the characters. And if you don’t turn the page to find out what happens next… it might just kill you.

As a screenwriter-turned-novelist, I’ve had extensive training, education, and experience in cinematic writing. I’ve written nine feature screenplays (soon to be ten), five of which were optioned, I’ve been a script doctor on over four dozen projects, and I’ve had numerous writing assignments. My debut novel, The Prisoner of Paradise, is the first of a three-book series published by TouchPoint Press. I originally wrote this book as a script, which was optioned by a production company founded by DreamWorks execs.

Over the years, I’ve studied the art of cinematic writing in depth. There are certain techniques that create visually compelling writing that can be used in novel writing as much as they can be used in screenwriting.

Of course, there are many facets that contribute to compelling writing. Above all is character. If a reader doesn’t find a character engaging or believable, then all else flies out the proverbial window.

But once a reader commits to taking a journey with the characters, how do authors, especially thriller authors, engross readers so that “the book feels like a movie?” Authors like Dan Brown, Stephen King, Gillian Flynn, and Lee Child are masters of this craft.

There are multiple elements to cinematic writing, but the three most important are:

  1. Use an active voice.
  2. Show, don’t tell.
  3. End chapters and section breaks with mini cliffhangers.

WRITING A CINEMATIC THRILLER: Use an active voice

What’s the difference between active and passive writing? In the most basic sense, in an active sentence construction, the subject performs the verb (aka SVO: subject-verb-object). In passive writing, the subject receives the verb (OVS).

For example:
Active: Mary punched John.

Passive: John was punched by Mary.

However, even in an SVO construction, using ‘was’ with a gerund verb form (+ing) will make it passive:

Mary was punching John.

There are many ways to make writing passive, but the most common uses ‘could + a sense verb,’ oftentimes combined with a gerund or OVS construction. To make it worse, an element of time is added (or worse than that, a past perfect tense).

For example:

I could see John was being punched by Mary when the doorbell rang.

Since we’re in first person, it’s implied that the narrator sees everything on the page. Therefore, using ‘could + a sense verb’ not only makes the writing passive, it’s redundant to the established perspective.

The use of ‘when’ further takes us out of the moment.

Unless you’re a witness in a trial, this type of writing will lull readers to sleep in a paragraph. Imagine a whole book stocked with them.

The active voice would be:

Mary punched John. The doorbell rang.

Now, before you jump down to the comments and say that’s simplistic writing, yes, it is. And you can’t have a full book of that, either. But it’s an active voice and there are ways of keeping an active voice with more interesting, varied writing.

Example:

Bricks shifted. A spray of ancient dust blitzed his lungs and coated his head.

Besides the active and varied sentence construction, notice how these sentences use choice, colorful words to help readers visualize the details of the situation.

WRITING A CINEMATIC THRILLER: Show, don’t tell

This adage is another very common refrain. How do you show with words? How do you avoid telling?

Quite simply, strive for descriptive emotion.

  • When telling, the author conveys information.
  • When showing, the author evokes emotion.

Examples:
Telling: It was a humid day.

Showing: Thick air blanketed his body. Sweat beaded on his back.

Oftentimes, writing that tells is combined with a passive voice, such as:

John could feel it was a humid day.

Or worse:

When John left the house, he could feel it was a humid day.

Since we’re in John’s perspective, we can eliminate the use of ‘could’ and the sense verb entirely. In the context of the story, it would be implied that John left the house. To convert this sentence to showing, we can try:

Thick air blanketed his body beneath an overcast sky. Sweat beaded on his back.

Of course, this is not limited to the weather. In another example, rather than writing, “The noise got louder,” we can show and convey the feeling of sound with a simile:

The pounding intensified in volume and tempo, like a drummer on an ancient galley gearing up for ramming speed.

Thrillers need to drive the narrative forward. Using an active voice that conveys emotion will do that.

WRITING A CINEMATIC THRILLER: End chapters and section breaks with mini cliffhangers

Of the three techniques, using mini cliffhangers is the easiest to incorporate. In screenwriting, you want to start a scene late and get out early.

Watch any movie or TV show and you’ll notice how clipped scenes are. This drives the narrative forward, regardless of genre, but especially with thrillers.

It’s no different with books. Here are some tips on how to end chapters and section breaks with mini cliffhangers:

  • Break at a literal question, especially dialogue. If one character asks a question, withhold the answer until the next section or chapter.
  • Break in the middle of action. If your character is in the middle of a chase and reaches a turning point or crucial decision, break there.
  • Don’t follow your characters too closely. We don’t need to know every step. Our brains fill in the gaps, especially of typical human behavior or cause-and-effect actions. Cut the mundane and pick up with the compelling narrative.
  • Wait to tell us what happens! In the literal definition of a cliffhanger, a character is dangling from a cliff and we have to wait until we find out what happens.

Any time you can end a chapter or section early, you’ll tease the reader, making them crave information, and thus… create a page-turner.

Combine all three of these techniques and readers will say it’s a book that reads like a movie—one they won’t want to put down.

Readers: What thrillers do you love that read like movies?

Writers: What techniques do you use to incorporate cinematic writing?

Rob Samborn is the author of The Prisoner of Paradise, a dual-timeline thriller set in Venice, Italy, published by TouchPoint Press and the first of a series. His second book, The Painter of Paradise, is set for release on October 25, 2022. For more information about Rob and his work, please visit www.robsamborn.com.


Did you find this article on thriller writing useful? Do you use active voice in your writing? What novels have you read that you remember being cinematic? Have you read Rob Samborn’s The Prisoner of Paradise?


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Damyanti Biswas

Damyanti Biswas is the author of You Beneath Your Skin and numerous short stories that have been published in magazines and anthologies in the US, the UK, and Asia. She has been shortlisted for Best Small Fictions and Bath Novel Awards and is co-editor of the Forge Literary Magazine. Her forthcoming literary crime thriller, The Blue Bar is represented by Lucienne Diver from The Knight Agency, and will be published by Thomas & Mercer on January 1, 2023.

I appreciate comments, and I always visit back. If you're having trouble commenting, let me know via the contact form, or tweet me up @damyantig !

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19 Comments

  • This is a great read! I think it’s fascinating how much we learn about storytelling from cinema. I once had a professor tell me that films had a language of their own. Over time, that language kind of bleeds into other areas of life, like writing. I always carry that thought around with me and your post reminded me of that.

    Also, from a sci-fi angle, I think Andy Weir writes this way as well, which I guess The Martian is a bit of a sci-fi/thriller piece.

  • Tamara says:

    Hi Damyanti, thank you for visiting my blog and leaving a comment. I have unsuccessfully been looking for your A-Z posts?

  • Tia says:

    I wrote about this a few months ago – but I didn’t consider that spacing out the action between chapters might be a good lead to take out of the movies’ book too! Great article 🙂

  • jlennidorner says:

    Love the tips! Mini-cliffhangers at the end of scenes and chapters are always good.

    I’m doing the #AtoZChallenge – writing a speculative fiction short story.
    On the main A to Z site today for “B” I shared a list of books. Check it out!
    At Operation Awesome we’re doing the A to Z Challenge and running a survey to pick the next Pass or Pages query contest genre.

    • rsamborn says:

      Glad you like the tips! The A to Z Challenge is very cool. I know some people who participate.

  • cleemckenzie says:

    Give me a page-turner, no matter what the genre!

    • rsamborn says:

      I couldn’t agree more! I wrote this post with thrillers in mind, but any genre could be a page-turner.

  • Most of that applies to any novel. We all need to use more active phrasing.

  • Rosie Amber says:

    What a useful post Rob and Damyanti. I like a good action thriller for the very points that Rob has mentioned.

  • Shilpa Gupte says:

    This is such an informative post, Damyanti. For a beginner like me, it is like a mini-guide to fiction writing! Thanks much! <3

    • rsamborn says:

      I’m glad you found it useful, Shilpa! Please feel free to reach out with any questions.

  • Great post. Active voice in thrillers–nothing slows the action down faster than a passive voice. It sounds so obvious but I’ve read quite a few where it didn’t happen.

    • rsamborn says:

      Absolutely! It’s amazing how word choice and sentence construction can dramatically alter writing.

  • vishnupria says:

    Nice active voice tips by the author and being a thriller fan I could relate them better. Now it makes sense why I am intrigued to such plots at the first place may be it has to do with narrative skills and details. Amazing insights.

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