Writing Literary Thrillers and Creating Compulsive Plots with Louise Doughty

Last Monday’s salon with best-selling author, Louise Doughty, fell on a bitterly cold evening. I’d been lucky enough to do a masterclass with Louise last year and was looking forward to meeting her again, especially in light of our topic: How To Write Literary Thrillers and Create Compulsive Plots. I bustled through Vauxhall Gardens toward the Tea House Theatre, eager to escape the February chill. It was a relief to step through the cafe doors into a haven of calm, cake and tea-lights. 

Everyone settling in

Everyone settling in

The audience arrived, rosy-cheeked and shivering, but soon warmed up. Gladstone, one of the Tea House cats, as usual, needed extracting from the guest’s chair. Everyone found their seats with pens and notebooks at the ready. Introductions were made and we began. 

With Louise Doughty  (centre) and Emma Darwin (right)

With Louise Doughty  (centre) and Emma Darwin (right)

Louise is the author of eight novels, five radio plays and a work of non-fiction. Her seventh novel, Apple Tree Yard, achieved international success and was widely translated as well as adapted for television by BBC1. So it was surprising to hear Louise say that writing suspense was never a deliberate choice. The definition of suspense, according to Louise, comes from character as opposed to plot. The reader only cares what happens to the person if they feel the character is alive on the page. The central question she asks when embarking on the opening of a novel is, what world am I entering? She wants to feel from the first paragraph that she’s being beamed into a world that really exists. If the writer can evoke a real person in a real situation, the reader will not only want but need to know what happens to that character. 

You have to write your way into the character. Ask big questions: what have they got to lose (or gain)? What’s at stake for these characters? Choose characters with a public reputation. Make them vulnerable to loss and their happiness fragile. Give them a family or partner. Note that these basic questions are central whatever type or genre of fiction you’re writing.

Both of Louise’s last two novels, Black Water and Apple Tree Yard, seem different on the surface and yet evolved in a similar way. While both have different openings, scenarios, settings and point of view, the type of writing is the same in that they both share a character in a situation of peril. Apple Tree Yard had its origins in a scene that came to Louise late one night and was written down in a rush: a woman on the stand in a courtroom,  on the cusp of making a terrible admission. Louise knew nothing more than she wanted to find out what happened to the character. Black Water came to life while Louise was travelling in Bali, attending a literary conference and feeling jetlagged. Louise was seized by an image of a man, alone in a hut in the Indonesian jungle, feeling like he’s about to be killed. She had to write both stories, scene by scene, to find out what was going on. 

Character Tips: 

Start with a character in a situation of peril. 

Do a biography for your character: age, time, place, historical events etc.

Keep answering these questions to flesh out your character and help drive the narrative.

If you’re having trouble visualising your character - keep going and layer up details later. 

Don't be tempted to use the old cliche of, ‘she went to the mirror and saw…’

Emma Darwin, Louise Doughty and me, Kellie

Emma Darwin, Louise Doughty and me, Kellie

We moved on to talk about point of view and structure. I wondered if Louise found a particular point of view more conducive to the development of suspense? Having written novels in both points of view, Louise prefers the first person because it’s easier to withhold information. It’s also good for foreshadowing. Saying that, use flashbacks with caution: if the narrator has known this information all along why are they withholding it? The answer to this, in Apple Tree Yard, for example, is in the love story and revealed in the twist near the end.

The third person is harder to execute as the implicit authorial hand can risk alienating the reader. For Louise, point of view is closely linked to voice. With Apple Tree Yard, it just seemed right to write Yvonne’s story using the first and second person as it evoked a particular tone of voice. By contrast, Louise’s approach to Black Water, written in the close 3rd, was more tentative. It was a more complicated book to write. The main character’s ethnicity and background demanded more research and work. She encountered problems with language, not being a speaker of street Javanese! 


Quoting Zadie Smith, Louise said, you write each novel to correct the failings of the previous one. On a technical level, with each new novel you are attempting something that you haven’t done before. Louise revises relentlessly as she goes forward and even then, the first draft is still rubbish! She rereads and revises on the screen. If there’s something that needs researching or she doesn’t know, she leaves it to fill in later and moves on. She describes her first version, rather than first draft, as a dishcloth with lots of holes in it. There are still scenes that haven’t been written yet. She defines her first draft as the first readable version that she’d show to someone. 

Advice to writers: 

- Writing a novel is daunting.

- You have no choice but to launch in.

- To reiterate, write a scene with a character in peril. Note, peril doesn’t have to be hugely dramatic. At its most basic level launch into something happening to your character.

- Louise writes in the full and painful knowledge that there are no shortcuts! An early draft of Apple Tree Yard was over 130.000 words long. Anything over 120,000 words has implications for publishing costs. She needed to cut words. Here’s the rub: you need to write it in order to cut it. 

- The muddled middle: Louise’s friend, the novelist Jill Dawson, keeps a diary of her progress for each novel. This a useful way to look back at previous progress and recognise key sticking points. Jill touched on this in her Words Away salon, Writing Fiction Using Real Characters, last year. 

Creative Writing Courses, MA’s and Mentoring:

- If money is no object try a mentoring scheme and an MA! Louise works as a mentor with Goldust.

- Look at other formal schemes like the Faber Academy, Curtis Brown or The Guardian masterclasses. 

- There comes a point when you’re deep in a book where one to one attention, like that offered on a mentoring scheme, is helpful. 

- If you can’t afford any of this then find a co-listening arrangement. 

Louise completed an MA at UEA, studying under Malcolm Bradbury and Angela Carter. Doing a post grad following her first degree at Leeds was huge deal, especially as her parents didn’t go to university.  ‘People like me,’ didn’t study at that level. Louise has set up a scholarship for people from under-represented groups of BAME origin to fund three scholarships on the UEA creative writing MA. If you are interested or know someone who might be, applications are now open - see the links below.

During questions, one audience member talked about the excitement of starting a new novel, then at 20,000 worlds hitting a wall. Louise suggested doing a timeline. Root through the novel and write timings in the margins. Ask basic questions, scene by scene, and be specific; you may discover outside events that you can feed into the narrative. Do a spread sheet, or tape A4 pieces of paper together, try scrivener or whatever works for you.

It takes Louise two or three years to write a book. She’s currently working on her ninth novel which I’m looking forward to reading in a year or two! With thanks to Louise for her generosity and insight into her writing process. 

Next month, on the 15th March at the Tea House Theatre Cafe, Emma and I will be discussing Process and Practice: Exploring Poetry and Prose with the writer, Blake Morrison. Please join us then but do book online as places are limited.

Save the date! Andrew Wille and I will be running The Four Elements of Creativity Workshop again, at The Hive, London Bridge on Saturday, 21st April. Bookings will be open soon - keep an eye on the website. We’re also planning a Revising and Editing workshop on Saturday 23rd June, more details to follow.

Hope to see you soon.


Links & References: A Word Factory Masterclass with Louise Doughty,  Gold DustFaber Academy, Curtis Brown CreativeThe Guardian masterclasses, UEA: Creative Writing, Louise Doughty's UEA BAME Scholarship Fund.

Emma Darwin's, Itch of Writing Blog: The Thirty Thousand DoldrumsPrologues and Other Stories, Yes, but I think I really DO want a prologue.

Gladstone, one of the cafe cats, in the guest's chair earlier in the evening.

Gladstone, one of the cafe cats, in the guest's chair earlier in the evening.

A Tea Cosy mountain

A Tea Cosy mountain