Funny You Should Ask: How Fast-Paced Should a Thriller Novel Be?

Funny You Should Ask is a humorous and handy column by literary agent Barbara Poelle. In this edition, she answers a reader’s question about the appropriate pacing of a thriller novel.
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Funny You Should Ask is a humorous and handy column by literary agent Barbara Poelle. In this edition, she answers a reader’s question about the appropriate pacing of a thriller novel.

Dear FYSA,

I'm writing a thriller and my agent keeps telling me to "pull back." But it's a thriller! I'm concerned that she doesn't read enough in the genre to understand how fast-paced they are these days. But I also want her to love it enough to sell it. I know you sell a lot of thrillers—what do you think?

Less Than Thrilled

Dear Not Thrilled,

You know how freshly baked Subway sandwich bread always smells good? It wafts out into the street as you walk by, and no matter what you were thinking, the record in your head screeches and your brain interrupts to say, Oh man, that smells amaaaazing.

That’s sort of the feeling I have when I hear, “I’m concerned she doesn’t read enough in the genre to understand …”—except when the record screeches, it smells less like Subway bread and more like decomposing goat corpse. I assume that this is an agent you chose due to the fact that she has thrillers on her list, and that you have had many a discussion about the genre you write in and the market for said genre—right? So what I’m more interested in addressing is the “pull back” comment that you don’t agree with.

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There are plenty of thrillers that amp things up to a certain level of pacing, content and prose that will blow your hair back, or even off (here’s looking at you, Josh Bazell), and there are others that still make your breath catch in your throat without leaving actual fingerprints on your neck (waves excitedly at Gregg Hurwitz). There is, however, a very fine line to tread between a “cinematic” thriller and an action movie that’s poorly translated into print, and I can say I have seen a few manuscripts of late that have John McClane fist-fighting the jet plane way too often to keep the reader grounded.

Now, we can all point to great writers who top the bestsellers lists with plot and pacing like they snorted rocket fuel, and when you top the list, you can do that too. But to really cement your initial contract with your debut readership, you are going to want to work very, very hard to keep things insanely taut, yet accessible. People don’t want to read “action;” people don’t want to read “thrills.” People want to read characters committing to action and characters making decisions that lead to thrills in the face of impossible obstacles, both internal and external. Hell, a man could just sit on a bench for an entire thriller if in the opening scene a bomb was wired to explode beneath that bench. (Hold up. How badly do I want someone to write that book?)

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Anyway, this is what I would have you consider: Have you created characters or caricatures? Are their decisions informing the plot, or is stuffjust blowing up? (Editor’s Note:You know I can’t publish that, Poelle. I changed it to “stuff.”) Make sure you are grounding the action in authentic and supported catalysts from three-dimensional characters, both the protagonist and the antagonist. Otherwise it’s like that time I went to two Sharktopus showings in two different NYC bars, one at 9 p.m. and one at 1 a.m., and then woke up the next afternoon with mascara on my teeth and Cheetos in my hair: Sometimes too much of a good thing is just too much.

ASK FUNNY YOU SHOULD ASK! Submit your own questions on the writing life, publishing or anything in between to with “Funny You Should Ask” in the subject line. Select questions (which may be edited for space or clarity) will be answered in future columns, and may appear on and in Writer's Digest magazine.