The Key to Thrilling Readers

In a scene from one of author Ted Dekker’s novels, a man gets a chicken out of the freezer—and then beats someone to death with it. It’s a wild image, and a strange, captivating scene.

But when it comes down to it, how do scenes like this actually thrill, and how do they keep readers hooked? Is it because it’s action? Is it because of the violence?

No. And this is something that kept coming up in various panels and sessions at ThrillerFest: When it boils down to it, it’s all about the character, and the emotion.

In the case of the chicken incident: Who is this guy? Why did he do it?

If characters aren’t brought to life through solid development and the other key ingredients that span all forms of writing, the action will mean nothing—even in thrillers, a genre that often features a surplus of action.

“Action bores me, so I search for the deeper meaning behind the action,” Dekker said in Jon Land’s panel “How Do You Amp Up the Action Without Losing All Credibility?” “I want to be moved.”

It’s key to consider the why. Why is someone running for their life? Why does this spy care so much about saving this one person? Dekker said the reader has to identify with a challenge they find in themselves.

Author Lisa Jackson said imbuing each character with a motivation for their actions is the most difficult part of her writing. After all, she said, anyone can write about someone doing something wild. It’s the emotional resonance that brings everything to life.

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