Villain Logic: The Key to Solving Your Thriller’s Climax Block | Jane Friedman

Villain Logic: The Key to Solving Your Thriller’s Climax Block | Jane Friedman

and man—she wearing an embroidered gold and red kimono, kabuki makeup and brandishing a sword, and he wearing a black samurai costume—face off for battle.” class=”wp-image-62751″ srcset=”https://janefriedman.com/wp-content/uploads/2023/07/skal_villain_logic-blogpost-1000×667.png 1000w, https://janefriedman.com/wp-content/uploads/2023/07/skal_villain_logic-blogpost-450×300.png 450w, https://janefriedman.com/wp-content/uploads/2023/07/skal_villain_logic-blogpost-768×512.png 768w, https://janefriedman.com/wp-content/uploads/2023/07/skal_villain_logic-blogpost.png 1200w” sizes=”(max-width: 1000px) 100vw, 1000px”/>Photo by cottonbro studio

Today’s post is by author and book coach Samantha Skal (@samanthaskal).

Writing a tightly plotted and twisty thriller, mystery or suspense novel can feel like assembling a puzzle where none of the pieces seem to fit. This pain point often makes itself known when we sit down to write the climactic scene, when everything must come together and be explained, and we realize that some aspect of our story setup is fundamentally broken. The protagonist can’t have the “A-ha!” moment we want them to, because the logic doesn’t work, which means we can’t write forward or through. and because we’re already so deep—months and years of writing, planning, and revising—this block takes on epic proportions and can feel like an insurmountable wall.

Obviously, by the way I talk about this, I’ve been there, and I’m here to tell you there’s a path through.

The solution is a deep dive into the villain’s logic: understanding the motivations, logical actions, and misinterpreted “on screen” clues of the villain.

Before we go further into this, let’s take some time to define what a villain is, and isn’t.

The villain is the antagonist, the foil to the protagonist.

In a mystery, thriller or suspense (MTS), the villain is a person who has their own character arc, their own wants, needs, and beliefs, and their own goals. They are the star of their own story, and while they might not be on the page as much as the protagonist, they are no less important.

While there may be many obstacles the protagonist is up against—internal misbeliefs, an illness, the weather, dragons—in 99% of modern MTS novels, these other obstacles are not the true antagonist of the story. These things may add to the complexity of the story and serve to make life more difficult for the protagonist, but they are not the ultimate foil for the protagonist. That ultimate foil is another person who, ideally, wants the opposite thing from what the protagonist ultimately wants. This conflict is what drives the MTS story forward to a smashing conclusion.

In a modern three-twist thriller, the villain is also the person the protagonist will ultimately face. The classic face-off happens in the climactic scene, where the protagonist thinks they’re not going to win, but because we’re writing to please MTS fans and the genre expectations are well established, the protagonist will win. Good triumphs over evil, and the world is restored to some kind of order, for now.

Sometimes, however, the protagonist will face someone they think is the ultimate villain in the climactic scene and conquer them, only to learn at the very end, in the final twist, that there was actually someone else behind the Bad Things happening throughout the story. This final twist may or may not result in the ultimate triumph of good versus evil, but things will always be okay again by the end of the story.

Perhaps you’re thinking here that you know all of this. You know what an antagonist is. You’ve created the perfect conflict, where your protagonist and antagonist are diametrically opposite in their goals.

But you’re still stuck at the climactic scene, where everything has to come together and be explained so your protagonist can have their big realization about what’s actually going on.

The key to moving through this climactic block is a deep dive into your villain’s logic, motivations, and actions, and how those actions show up for your protagonist “on screen,” “on screen” being defined as things the reader can “see” through what the point-of-view character notices.

In other words, the villain’s actions as they appear to the protagonist are the secret to unlocking a climactic “A-ha” moment.

Let’s assume your villain is doing Bad Things and doesn’t want to get caught or stopped. As such, there will logically be very little the villain would allow the protagonist to see or find. There aren’t going to be big neon signs pointing to clues about what’s really going on. But, because our protagonists are clever, tenacious, and motivated to stop the Bad Things, they’re going to be out looking for these clues.

and here’s where the fun comes in: Any “on screen” clues the protagonist sees can be misinterpreted.

Misinterpretation is one of the very best ways to lay the groundwork for satisfying twists.

Because twists are a key part of the modern thriller, the driver behind the climactic scene, and are ultimately tied deeply to villains, let’s talk about this.

Modern thrillers have three twists: One at the midpoint (50%), one at the climax (~85% to 90%), and one at the very end (~98%). There are of course exceptions, but aiming for this formula is a great place to start.

Twists are (as defined on a panel I once watched at Thrillerfest by two of my favorite thriller authors, Ruth Ware and Clare Mackintosh) the answer to a question the reader didn’t think to ask. Twists only work when the reader has been presented with just enough “on screen” evidence so that they don’t guess the twist before it’s revealed, but when the protagonist figures out the truth, everything makes sense and is logical from the standpoint of looking backwards at what we (as the reader) know.

As such, we need to, as authors, think about what we’re allowing the reader to see “on screen” and when they see it.

Which means we need to deeply understand what the villain is doing when, why they’re doing it at that time, and how the protagonist might see “on screen” some evidence of that action (and misinterpret it). Readers go along with what the point-of-view characters are thinking and feeling, making this misinterpretation the best way to lead the reader into thinking they should be asking question A, when really they should be asking question B. Question B is the twist we’re setting up.

In order to make all this work and make the climactic puzzle work, the first step is to make a detailed outline of what your villain is doing “off screen.”

Figure out, if you haven’t already, what the villain ultimately wants.

Ask yourself: Why do they want this thing? What drives them to want to do these Bad Things? To what end are they doing all of this? Why aren’t they giving up?

Then, because this is MTS and we have a protagonist who is trying to stop the villain from accomplishing their goal, we need to figure out how the two of them clash, from the villain’s perspective. This thought exercise may not end up in the finished manuscript, but is imperative for us, as authors, to know.

To figure this out, I suggest creating an as-is outline (a chapter-by-chapter summary) of your current manuscript. Keep it high level and brief, about 5–6 lines for each chapter, and detail what happens. Even if you’re a champion plotter and have a 70-page outline, deviation from the outline is common. If you’re a discovery writer (also known as pantsing), this is a necessary exercise so you know what’s “on screen” for the reader.

As you go, make bullet points underneath each chapter summary of the “on screen” actions from the villain, so it’s crystal clear what the reader has seen before the climax.

Then, ask yourself and add to your as-is outline document as needed, the answer to this “off screen” question:

Where is the villain in every single chapter, and what are they doing to further their goals? What is the villain doing while the protagonist is off on a wild goose chase over there?

Then we get into the fun part, the unblocking part. Now that we know what the villain wants and to what end they’re going to such extremes, we have the logic nailed down.

The next step is to make sure there’s enough on the page and “on screen” for the protagonist to misinterpret. This will allow us to write forward through our climactic scene and the final twist, where the protagonist will have their “A-ha!” moments and understand what was actually going on.

To that end, ask yourself:

  • Are the villain’s actions toward their goals logical? If not, what can be adjusted so that their actions align with their end goal?
  • Are things getting worse for the villain over time, so that it’s logical that they’re being pushed into the rock/hard place climax, or is there an easy out they can take? If there’s an easy out, can it be eliminated by some action of the protagonist’s?
  • When/if the protagonist accidentally gets close to uncovering the villain’s dastardly deeds, how does the villain change course? What could they do to lead the protagonist astray? How does that action show up “on screen” and how does the protagonist misinterpret that action? Could the protagonist attribute that action to someone else?
  • How does what the villain thinks the protagonist knows affect the villain’s actions? Could the villain also misinterpret the protagonist’s actions, and take a new action (that the protagonist sees) based on that assumption, which in turn confuses the protagonist?
  • Are the villain’s “on screen” actions enough for the reader to make sense of the villain’s logic, when everything is revealed in the end?

The climactic block in thrillers is, in my experience, mostly driven by the fact that we, as authors, don’t understand our villain’s motivations, their end goals, and what their progressive, logical actions are toward that goal. The protagonist can’t have the climactic and final twist “A-ha!” puzzle-pieces-in-place realization if the “on screen” actions from the villain aren’t present, hence the climactic block we started with. The work above forces us to look at our actual on-the-page story as it’s currently written, and see the gaps in what’s “on screen” and what’s not.

Once we understand the villain thoroughly, approaching this climactic block from a zoomed-out view where we’re looking at the entire story and what the reader knows via the brief “on screen” moments, can create a workable path through to The End. Villains are the stars of their own stories, and picturing your story from their viewpoint can often illuminate the solution.

Samantha Skal

A fan of the scary, mysterious, and suspenseful, Samantha Skal (she/her) is an Author Accelerator certified book coach who specializes in coaching mystery, thriller and suspense authors from novel planning through the delightful hell that is revision, all the way to agent pitching. She especially loves brainstorming twists and reveals, and recently released her first standalone mini-course for blocked thriller writers: Find Your Final Twist. She is also an agented thriller author currently working on her debut novel, a serial killer thriller.

She is the Co-Director of PitchFest at Thrillerfest, International Thriller Writers (ITW)’s annual writing conference, a frequent presenter for ProWritingAid, and a volunteer mentor for the Women’s Fiction Writers Association (WFWA).

An enthusiast of homemade sourdough and cheese of all kinds, Samantha lives in the beautiful Pacific Northwest, adores (scary) stories that keep her up at night, kayaking on calm water, and good red wine. She is a huge fan of #bookstagram and talks about her favorite books on @authorsamanthaskal. To download a free copy of her thriller brainstorming resource, 17 Thriller Twist Ideas, and learn more about Sam’s 1:1 and group coaching options, visit her at https://www.samanthaskal.com/17-thriller-twist-ideas.

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