Five Writing Lessons from Thriller Master David Morrell

by Stacy B. Woodson
published in Writing

I can’t think of thriller novels without thinking of New York Times best selling author, David Morrell. Morrell has been an icon in the thriller community since the release of his novel, First Blood, in 1971. His stories are action-packed, gripping, and heart stopping. He often speaks at conferences, but rarely teaches workshops. However, in a brilliant move, the Santa Fe Photographic Workshop hired Morrell to teach an interactive workshop for their Writers Lab. There were only twelve slots, and I was one of the lucky few who attended.

My mind is still brimming with lessons I learned that day. Here are just a few takeaways:

1) Know your genre

Morrell said you should know the history of your genre so well you are able to give a class. He discussed the history of thrillers beginning with Edgar Allen Poe and Arthur Conan Doyle.

The part of the history lesson I found most fascinating was Victorian sensation novels. The dominant literary form through the 1800s, sensation novels are defined as a “novel-with-a-secret” that combines romance and realism. They were popular because the settings were familiar and the upper class was portrayed as “rotten” as everyone else. One of the first thrillers (as we know them today) was The Woman in White, a sensation novel by Wilkie Collins.

Morrell continued his lesson through modern day, citing Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code, Stieg Larsson’s Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl as the most influential thrillers since 2000. He touched on Flynn’s use of the unreliable narrator and more stories are using this technique.

2) Create a 3D effect

As we continued through the workshop, Morrell dove deep into lessons from his book, The Successful Novelist. Students, prior to the workshop, submitted the first ten pages of their novels. Morrell provided a critique of each submission and offered ways we could improve our pieces using lessons from his book. The first topic he discussed was the psychology of description.

Morrell explained that often we rely on the visual as writers and forget about the other senses. In the Successful Novelist he writes, “If your prose is sight-based, it will be flat, thin, and one-dimensional. A visual detail should be intersected with one from the other senses so that the reader will be engaged in the scene. The purpose isn’t to make the reader see the story. It’s to make the reader feel in the story.” He suggests using a sight detail with at least two other senses in a scene to create a three dimensional effect. Ultimately, a writer gets the best reaction from a reader when he incorporates smell.

Morrell likes to write scenes that take place in the dark because it forces him to describe action with sensory detail other than sight. His book, Creepers, is about urban explorers who investigate abandoned buildings. It has some wonderful examples of sensory description. On page four he writes: “As he approached the motel the crash of the waves on the beach two blocks away seemed abnormally loud. A breeze scraped sand along a decaying sidewalk. Dead leaves rattled across cracked pavement.”

3) Control pacing and rhythm

Writers can control the pacing and rhythm of a novel in order to control the reader experience. He estimates fifty pages take one hour of reading which equals someone’s natural attention span. He recommends writers divide their novels into fifty page sections; give each of these sections a title; and within these sections create smaller numbered units. The reader will naturally flip ahead and see how close they are to the next numbered unit. Because there will only be a few pages the reader will naturally continue to the next unit and so forth until the large arc ends and they’ve finished fifty pages. If a reader is fatigued or needs to stop, this is a natural break and will preserve each section’s unity of effort.

He tried this technique for the first time in The Brotherhood of the Rose and said it was very successful.

4) Eliminate flashbacks

New writers often use flashbacks at the beginning of their novels, and it is a sign the story didn’t start in the right place. In the Successful Novelist he writes, “Whenever you’re tempted to use one, try to find every reason in the world not to include it. More than any other part of a book’s structure, a flashback needs absolute justification.” Morrell takes this idea a step further. When he’s revising his manuscript, he does a word search for ‘had’. By definition, he says, this is a flashback, and he does his best to remove them.

5) Be the first rate version of yourself

Morrell is not only a gifted writer, but he is a gifted teacher. He uses his own stories of tragedy and success to show how to bring authenticity to our writing. He challenged us to consider our traumas and the incidents that motivate us so we could discover subject matter that’s our own. “Be the first rate version of yourself,” he advises. “Authors with longevity achieve this.”

Morrell’s latest book is, Ruler of the Night, the third in his series featuring Thomas de Quincy, philosopher and opium-addict, as a detective. If you want to learn more, check out Alison McMahan’s recent exposé at The Big Thrill.

Stacy Woodson is a U.S. Army Special Operations veteran and a self-declared fitness junkie. She loves a good conspiracy story and has penned one of her own. She believes in the power of a good writing community and how it can elevate your writing. She is a contributor to DIY MFA’s 5onFri and a Claymore finalist. She’s represented by John Talbot at the Talbot Fortune Agency.

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