Simple. Just make it conform to this theoretical jacket copy.

He wants to play.

Twenty years ago, The Media-Friendly-Handle Serial Killer cruelly snuffed out the life of her mother/sister/best friend and left behind a poetic taunt to police. Sixteen-year-old Meg/Kate/Alex was there. Saw his face. And barely escaped into the night woods.


He is back.

Now Meg is a reporter/detective/police chief trying to put the shattered pieces of her life back together. But pretty young girls are dying once more. Snuffed out in the same shocking manner. And each piece of poetry points to his next intended victims — Meg and her own teen daughter.

He is waiting.

Now, Meg is reluctantly teaming with FBI profiler John Handsome, her ex-husband/ex-lover/love interest, to track the most horrifying monster in bureau history. But then her daughter disappears on a camping trip while Meg and John no longer let themselves ignore their long-simmering animal attraction to one another. The latest taunt arrives. And Meg is forced to venture back into the same night woods that terrified her twenty years before ... that painted her dreams with blood and screams and the glint of a knife in the moonlight. To venture back for a life-and-death showdown with the most terrifying evil imaginable ... for the highest stakes imaginable.

He wants to play.

This time, for keeps.


I recently helped my mom move from her home into an independent-living facility. In cleaning out her home, I found hundreds and hundreds of paperbacks by what I think of as "supermarket suspense" authors. You know the ones, face-out in the racks by the checkout aisles: Tami Hoag, Lisa Gardner, Lisa Scottoline, Sandra Brown, Alison Brennan, Catherine Coulter, Rick Mofina, Kevin O'Brien, Karin Slaughter, et cetera, ad nauseum.

And at least 40 of these books — no exaggeration, I swear — had this basic jacket copy. Always the woman with the tragic past. Always the handsome FBI profiler. Always the serial killer with a cinematic signature. I wish I'd thought to keep track of them before I hauled two trunkfuls of them to Goodwill.

Every single one of these authors is a NYT bestseller. Every single one, I'll wager, has a multi-book contract and makes a comfortable living. And there is, seemingly, a relentless appetite for this same plot among mystery/suspense/thriller readers.

Every time I go to a writers' conference, I hear agents and editors say, "Don't write for the market. Write what's in your heart." But would those same agents and editors tell me that each of these authors, and dozens of others like them, all wrote independently from their hearts ... and just happened, totally separate from one another, to write essentially the same story?

Who's most full of fecal matter here? Is it us, for insisting on being "better" than this?


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My sense is that those folks who are complaining about Cornwell and Evanovich books are longtime fans who are reacting to a growing sense that the Kay Scarpetta and Stephanie Plum series(es?) peaked some time ago and have gone downhill since with each new book, that the writers have lost interest in them and are simply churning them out for the royalty checks. (Can't say I disagree in either case.)
My thoughts on this have already more or less been opined by others here. So I'll just quote someone else, and move on from there:

"Whether we listen to aloof amusement to the dreamlike mumbo jumbo of some red-eyed witch doctor of the Congo, or read with cultivated rapture thin translations from the sonnets of the mystic Lao-tse; now and again crack the hard nutshell of an argument of Aquinas, or catch suddenly the shining meaning of a mizarre Eskimo fairy tale: it will always be the one, shape-shifting yet marvelously constant story that we find, together with a challengingly persistent suggestion of more remaining to be experienced than will ever be known or told." --Joseph Campbell, THE HERO WITH A THOUSAND FACES

I keep a copy of that book on my desk, and find it often quite useful for discussions like this--and to explain why I enjoy, and don't think one should feel guilty or stupid for enjoying, certain types of thrillers discussed here.

I was recently reading a book that argues the first thriller of all time is the second piece of all Western literature--The Odyssey. An archetype that continue to resonate down to thrillers of the present across different forms of media--for instance, Nolan's INCEPTION, which, whether or not you want or not you want to quantify it as a valuable work of art, is esentially the same hero-adrift-and-seperated-from-family archetype as that Classic.

I've heard it said that Lee Child's thrillers are formulaic and therefore lacking in artistic merit. Yet his series hearkens back to the knight-errant model popularized in Medieval literature--which can likely be traced back further as well. If there's a pattern to these stories, that doesn't necessarily mean they must also lack in impact or thematic weight as well--in fact, at times, it's evidence of something essential, a quest archetype that often shows up in our dreams as well as our most favorite and treasured stories.
Well said, Wes.
I really like Eliade better than Campbell, but quite right about the archetype of the hero and the journey. Still, that doesn't make every book that has a hero or a journey in it good.
I think you're absolutely right about Reacher, though. Not all of the novels are very good, and there is a certain amount of cheap thrills in them, but the Reacher character works marvellously well. In the latest, he appears out of nowhere and disappears at the end, leaving the reader wondering if he got blown up. That moves Reacher into the realm of the supernatural.
I reread the title of this discussion.

There is no way to write a "guaranteed" bestselling Thriller. But here's a quote I picked up in the New York Times within the last year that touches on the subject:

"A novel can, and should, do many things, but a thriller need do only one. If it thrills, it succeeds, and if it does not, no matter how well it does everything else, it fails."
--Quote from Richard Lourie, reviewing a thriller.

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