However you feel about the literary term “Grip-Lit,” there’s no doubt that readers have embraced this type of psychological thriller and publishers are clamoring for its next big hit.
Novels such as Gone Girl, Before I Go to Sleep and The Girl on the Train put female characters in danger but also, crucially, in the driver’s seat. Instead of passive victims, these heroines are calculating, complex and compelling.
They also have flaws, which threaten them as much as any foe. And their problems could be our problems: marital breakdown, domestic violence, treacherous friends. The moral of the Grip-Lit story is: there, but for the grace of God, go I.
Writers of “Grip-Lit” must simultaneously satisfy and twist the reader’s expectations. Nail these five elements of the genre, and you’ll get a grip on Grip-Lit.
This guest post is by Jo Furniss. Furniss is the author of the psychological thriller ALL THE LITTLE CHILDREN (Lake Union, September 2017). Originally from the UK, Jo is a former BBC journalist who has lived in Cameroon and Switzerland, and now resides with her family in Singapore.
1. Make it Compulsive
Take a look at the reviews for the most successful Grip-Lit titles. Notice how many times readers say they “couldn’t stop thinking about this book.” Or found a novel “unputdownable.” It’s a badge of honor if it keeps them “awake into the small hours.”
No one wants dull-lit or snooze-lit or we’ll-get-to-the-good-part-soon-lit. People like to be absorbed and feel every synapse firing. So put them close to the action; many Grip-Lit novels are written in first person. Imagine being the one friend that the troubled main character confides in—that’s the position the reader should occupy.
Consider switching between narrators, whose accounts complement or contradict each other. This has the benefit of upping the pace while the plot divulges clues, layers information and even misleads.
The reader must be left asking questions and predicting answers: What do we believe? Who do we believe? If the reader thinks she has pre-empted a twist, turn her in another direction in a way that feels inevitable but surprising.
2. Create Trust Issues
A particularly compulsive element of Grip-Lit is the ubiquitous unreliable narrator. There’s nothing more compelling than the sense that someone is withholding information—or downright lying. Add to the mix dubious husbands, mysterious neighbors, crazed relatives, fickle friends and spooky children, and the typical Grip-Lit has a cast list made up of suspects.
For me, Grip-Lit is essentially a modern kind of gothic. In her recent Reith Lectures for the BBC, the author Hilary Mantel defined gothic as an isolated woman who can’t trust anyone and starts questioning the evidence of her own senses until she wonders if she’s mad. Mantel’s description could just as well apply to Grip-Lit.
The reader may even question whether there’s been a crime at all—another common element in the genre. Gone Girl asks whether Amy Dunne has gone missing. The eponymous Woman in Cabin 10 witnesses an impossible disappearance. Christine, in SJ Watson’s Before I Go to Sleep, can’t recall yesterday, never mind a crime. These slipperiest of plots leave a reader clinging on for dear life to every page.
3. Keep It Real
Grip-Lit is defined from other psychological thrillers by the way it performs a post-mortem on domesticity. Gone Girl dissects a marriage. Ruth Ware’s In a Dark, Dark Wood picks apart love rivalry. The heroine of Belinda Bauer’s The Beautiful Dead cares for an ailing parent.
By grounding the main character in reality, the reader sympathizes and thinks, “This could happen to me.” The closer the reader sides with the protagonist, the more the novel will fulfill its aim: to grip.
4. Killer instinct
In The Beautiful Dead, Bauer also carefully humanizes an adversary who is on the Hannibal Lecter scale of psychos. In a taut chapter of only a few pages, she spins a backstory of childhood trauma, creating a degree of sympathy for a cold-blooded killer. His reality makes him all the more frightening.
It’s not enough to say someone kills “because s/he’s crazy”: that’s like saying sharks kill because they’re sharks. Yes, it’s scary to a degree, but I don’t lie in bed at night gripped by a fear of sharks. Readers want to get inside the scarred mind of the characters, and let them get inside theirs.
5. Go into Dark Territory
Some of the finest examples of contemporary Grip-Lit are set in locations that work hard to create the necessary mood of dread. In Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects, the decaying hometown of the main character isolates her; SK Tremayne uses a barren island to similar effect in The Ice Twins.
The Good Widow forces a bereaved woman to re-tread her dead husband’s final steps in the honeymoon capital of Maui, while TheGirl on the Train foregrounds Rachel’s untethered emotional state by keeping her constantly on the move.
Finally, don’t underestimate Grip-Lit because it’s been given a fancy name by the marketing department. As author Sophie Hannah points out in her piece for The Guardian, the genre is rooted in deep literary tradition; Agatha Christie ventured into Grip-Lit, as well as PD James, Ruth Rendell, and Daphne du Maurier. It takes craft to produce a suspense thriller and a character calculating enough to grip our hearts and minds.
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