Killers, Kids, and Human Heads“A human head weighs about the same as a large oven-ready chicken,” crime fiction author Peter James told a roomful of rapt listeners at ThrillerFest 2014 in New York City. If anyone felt queasy, they didn’t show it. After all, the panel was called Sick, Sick, Sick: Is it Possible to Write Great Thrillers and Not Be a Secret Sadist?
It’s always fascinating to spend a weekend with writers who think a
great deal about new and grisly methods to murder someone or how to
commit the perfect crime. With my debut suspense novel coming out in two
months, and having started a second one, I couldn’t think of a better
place to be than this yearly International Thriller Writers event.
The first panel to really capture my attention was, perversely, on how stories end. Moderated by historical author Nancy Bilyeau, the name almost said it all – Happily Ever After & Other Myths: Must Everyone Hold Hands or is a Dark Ending Possible?
She noted that endings in romance fiction have an iron-clad
happily-ever-after rule, whereas in literary fiction anything goes. What
about thrillers? The consensus of the panel was that the reader must
not feel manipulated or robbed.
“Steinbeck’s a pretty good writer but he needs to work on his endings.” Romantic suspense author Carla Neggers’ 12-year-old son had just finished reading Of Mice and Men,
and he was not happy. But sometimes making readers unhappy means the
writer is doing something right, countered thriller author Chelsea Cain.
Earning the emotion by going deep and challenging readers’ expectations
are important factors to keep in mind. Then there’s the question of how
much punishment a villain deserves? I remember at my previous visit to ThrillerFest
in 2012, one writer said, “The nastier a killer is, the more terrible
an end he or she should meet.” (Advice I took to heart in the next draft
of my book.)
Killers, Kids, and Human Heads | David Swatling