Choreographing Thrillers for The Kill and Tell No Lies
By Allison BrennanApril 1, 2021
I am a very visual person. I learn by reading, not by listening. When I write (and read!) I see the scene unfold. But it wasn’t until my third published book, The Kill, back in 2006 (!) I learned how to choreograph the action in my books.
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During revisions, my editor gave me notes on an important chapter near the end of the book. It was a pivotal scene, where my main character was held captive by the bad guy after she rescued his victim. He forces her to drive him down a winding road in the Cascade mountains. My editor basically said, “This could be a great scene, but it’s over too fast. She should go for his gun.”
I learned two things here. One, editors almost always know when something isn’t working. Two, editors don’t always know how to fix the problem.
My character wasn’t comfortable around guns. It was the reason she became a lab technician for the FBI and not an agent—she couldn’t qualify on her weapon. So I didn’t think she would go after his gun. But I still ran through the scenario in my head, then finally sat my husband down on the couch with a water pistol. I pretended to drive a car—scared, worried, but determined to survive. Every time I went for the pistol, I got wet. Meaning, dead. My character is smart—she’s not going to go for the gun knowing she would die.
But my editor was right: I needed to add suspense and tension to the scene. So instead, I had her slam on the brakes and try to jump from the car. This gave me a great moment, and the bad guy dropped the gun and hit his head, but he was able to grab her and drag her back into the car, pulling out his knife. Now she had another deadly threat…and the tension was increased.
After this, I started paying a lot more attention to how television and movies choreograph their action scenes. These scenes need to do more than be just action—they need to convey character, skill, and advance the story. One of the reasons I loved the television show Arrow was because there was always an action scene, and it was always well-choreographed. Sometimes, I would watch certain scenes over and over and put myself in the head of the characters—why did they do this? Why did they run in this fight but not in that fight? How much dialogue and commentary is needed — and can I do it realistically? Die Hard, one of my favorite movies, is pitch-perfect in the choreography as well—here, we have a multitude of bad guys, and THEY have to be literally put in their places, but realistically. Even though this story is about good guy John McClane versus bad guy Hans Gruber, we need to know where everyone is and how they are going to impact each pivotal scene.
But choreography is not just about action scenes. Because I often write ensemble casts—such as my current Quinn & Costa thriller series that follows a group of FBI agents as they solve complex crimes in rural communities—I need to make sure that the scenes that have multiple people make sense, whether they are interview a witness, executing a warrant, having a debriefing, or rescuing hostages. For this, I look to my favorite crime shows on television—Law & Order: SVU is great for this because they have several detectives who are working together. There’s a lot of hustle and bustle, so I’ll watch their group scenes and take note of what the cameraman does—who he focuses on, who is speaking, how I can differentiate in a novel which isn’t a visual medium, while still giving the sense of a larger scene.
Another show that works very well is The Walking Dead. In the first season, you have your core character (Rick Grimes) who is alone (mostly) after waking up from a coma in the hospital and finding the world completely different. Then you have an ensemble group living in the woods, two dozen characters, but only half of them are important. How the storytellers show them together, who gets screen time, who gets dialogue, how they work together (or not!) is as much storytelling as choreography.
While movies and television are my number one go-to to help me figure out complex visual scenes, nothing beats role-playing—just like my husband and I did for The Kill. For years, I participated in FBI SWAT training as a role-player. I’ve played the role of victim, of an innocent bystander, of the bad girl. These training sessions are intense and very, very real. (Simunition HURTS when you get hit.) But I learned more through these drills than I ever learned through reading or talking to people or even watching television. We go through the situation in real-time—the SWAT teams will clear a room, or execute a warrant, or go into an active shooter situation. What they do and how they do it is critical. After, they debrief and explain why they did what they did, and the instructor will critique their decisions, helping them fine-tune their approach or identify problems. Sitting in on these debriefings—after participating in the actual training—helped me understand the mindset of these men and women. It helped me get into their heads so that when I write from their point of view, I will get it right.
In books, this can all be difficult to convey realistically. My goal is to write in such a way that my reader can visualize each scene using my descriptions and character point-of-view, plus their own experiences and knowledge, to have a satisfying reading experience. I don’t want anyone to be lost because there are a lot of characters or intense action—or both!
To this day when I’m stuck, I revert back to what I did in 2006. I role play. I’ll ask one of my kids to help me figure out how my character can untie their binds, or if a certain situation works if I do A, B or C. I’ll talk it out or act it out. My kids all probably think I’m a bit looney. But at least they’re still willing to humor me and be my guinea pigs.
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