It begins with the Fool—they are young, hopeful and openminded, no idea, as yet, of the dangers life will hold. The Fool strides forward with eyes focused on the horizon, on the future; they never think to look down, and this is how they fail to notice that they’re about to step off a cliff.
The first chapters of thrillers are filled with fools—unwitting victims and well-meaning protagonists, rookie cops and conspiring troublemakers. The reader is the fool at the start too, knowing little, unsure what they’ve let themselves in for. The biggest fool of all, though? The writer.
We authors might greet the blank page of a book-to-be-written with childish optimism, drunk on the sugary possibility of a new idea, swelled by the confidence of the beginner, but how often do we fall into great, gaping plot-holes of our own creation.
There are books designed to lift you out of these chasms, solid literary classics, like The Art of Fiction by David Lodge, or the companionable support of Stephen King’s On Writing. We can scoot over to the screenwriting aisle where the shelves simply groan under the weight of texts on the intricacies of structure. Returning to pen and paper, we might scribble down a plan, a map of sorts to find our way out, a spider diagram whose legs extend, trying to pin down this illusive, magical thing called story.
Of course, it’s already in us. We manufacture it every day, even when not at our keyboards, clattering towards a word count. X is acting strange, he must be upset with me, he must know what I said about him to Y and… We know nothing really, only how to tell stories, how they generally go. We always have.
More than six-hundred years ago, we distilled this story into the tarot. Regardless of whether you believe in the deck’s ability to divine the future, a plot is there. Separate the major arcana (the picture cards) from the minor arcana (the number cards), lay them down in order, and you will see in the progression from The Fool to The World a universal story of our lives, from youthful artlessness to mature wisdom.
In architecture, they say that form should follow function, and I believe the principle transfers well, fiction being a construction too. Should your thriller be set on a remote British isle, say, its pagan past still echoing into the present, intriguing the young girls who live there, tempting them to turn to runes and spells to regain their powers, why would you look to a modern prophet for your story structure?
My novel Impossible Causes follows the plot of the tarot in the most overt way; the book’s sections named for each card. I kept to the themes explored in the major arcana, riffing on their pertinence to my story, plucking small details from the images in various decks, transforming them into meaningful symbols – a dog, a flag, a snake.Any thriller, regardless of whether it deals with the occult, is a study of the human dark arts, with its guileless characters growing up by the end, learning the truth.
Any thriller, regardless of whether it deals with the occult, is a study of the human dark arts, with its guileless characters growing up by the end, learning the truth. Let form follow function, I say, and have the tarot shape your work in progress too…
Begin by collecting your assortment of fools. Set their scenes, making it clear what they lack, what they must shed and what they ultimately must try to gain. Then, engage The Magician. He is your showman. His tactics are to lay clues, to steer people, and not always in the right direction. He represents the overall trick you intend to pull off.
The High Priestess, queen of hidden treasures, coaches you to plant seeds of revelation next, ones that will later come to fruition—or not. Show the vast, unfathomable potential of the world you’ve created. Demonstrate that anything within the bounds of imagination is possible.
Then strengthen your characters, make them complex. The yin and yang of The Empress and The Emperor will embolden you in this task. Are your women as believable as your men, your men as believable as your women? We will not follow a half-formed someone to the end of a book.
And don’t forget big ideas; The Hierophant demands it. A clever plot is one thing, but what is the real meat of the story, the subject you wish to pick apart, and have readers discussing long after the book is put down? Bring it up now. Set out your stall.
It’s time for action—a decision, a big one. Characters are what they do, the choices they make. The Lovers suggest, in the spirit of the thriller, that this is be a question of life and death, where the head should ideally overrule the heart, but likely, it won’t.
The consequences of this choice must then be shown, represented by The Chariot, two horses pulling their rider in opposite directions. This is struggle. Make your metaphorical competing animals feisty ones, hard to refuse.
The Strength card follows, showing a gentlewoman forcing open the mouth of a lion. This is surely the feeling every writer has at the halfway mark. All has been set in play; all is terrifying chaos. Now for control. If you have not yet decided who-dunnit (or why-dunnit, or who-goddit) here’s where you pick, because softly, softly, we’re going to start prising apart some teeth.
None of your characters are ‘young’ anymore. Once fools who journeyed with light hearts and loose plans, they now have pressing questions and must do time as The Hermit, journeying into the dark, alone (actually or figuratively) on a definite mission for answers.
This second-half journey will be rough. The Wheel of Fortune reminds us we are neither lucky nor unlucky—life is an ever-turning cycle. Pull the rug from beneath your characters, let them reap what they have so far sown, flip their destinies. Show the reader nothing is certain yet.
And describe the reverberations. How does this change of fortune clarify each character’s vision of Justice and how it might be achieved? Some will ultimately be disappointed, of course. Some will have to become The Hanged Man, sacrificing themselves for the greater good. Or, at the very least, they must spend time swinging upside-down, a chance to see things from a different point of view.
This is when allegiances switch. The game is on. Just as Death arrives…
(Of course, it does not have to be death in the literal sense, but since we’re talking thrillers, why not?) Otherwise, bring about destruction of another kind, remove a huge, septic splinter. Engineer an end that is not the ending proper, but a battle that clears the path for the final showdown to come.
In this smaller battle’s wake, employ the influence of Temperance and The Devil. The former, an angelic figure pouring liquid from chalice to chalice, knows we must learn from the flow of what has gone before, mix our emotions into the right cocktail for progress. The latter, a figure with the body of a goat, shows us what the fight has unleashed, set free. What part of your characters’ animal selves will they draw on in the final moments?
Here it is—The Tower heralding catastrophe, the showdown of all showdowns. Something made by man (or woman) must be, at last, razed to the ground. Still, in this midst of all this, paint The Star, a guiding light in the sky, a piece of hope. Choose who will see it and who will grasp it, saving themselves.
But don’t make this easy. Light these scenes with The Moon, a serious card, but a shady one. In the dark of the night, it is so easy to lose your way, to decide to be bad rather than good. Only when The Sun arrives will these decisions be exposed, who stuck to the path and who strayed.
Then comes karma. Judgement, dear writer, is yours. Who wins? Who loses? Who will you satisfy? Which characters? And the reader..?
Maybe you will tie things up nicely, square the circle, have good prosper over evil and depict a version of The World that is moral and fair. This is the card of wisdom though, and in our maturity we have learnt that life doesn’t always work out like that. It is an ongoing dance, where one journey ending means another must begin, sending us back to the start, childish fools once more.