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The Writing Life: Consuming Thrillers

by Sherri L. Burr

I love thrillers. I love reading them and watching them on big and small screens. Webster’s Dictionary defines a thriller as “a work of fiction or drama designed to hold the interest by the use of a high degree of intrigue, adventure or suspense.” The Amazon Prime series Reacher fits the description. I watched each episode with the same rapt attention I had previously given to reading the Lee Child books.

Season One was based on the first book in the series, Killing Floor. Season Two was based on the twelfth, Bad Luck and Trouble. I often finish a Jack Reacher novel in less than three days, sometimes in one. They compel me to keep turning pages until every word has been read. After watching the two Reacher movies with Tom Cruise, a slender approximately 5’8” brunette, cast in a role of a 6’5” herculean blonde, I was reluctant to review the streaming series. This was even after hearing Lee Child said in interview with George RR Martin in 2018 at Santa Fe’s Jean Couteau Cinema that he had inked a deal to bring Jack Reacher to life with a different actor. But then a classmate, who knew I liked the Reacher books, sent an email suggesting I watch.

Actor Alan Ritchson looks like he stepped off the pages of the novels. The handsomely muscular Ritchson does not disappoint as the nomadic former Army officer with a penchant for bringing vigilante justice to lawbreakers.

In Season Two, Jack Reacher reconnected with his old army buddies to track down who is killing off members of their former squad. The minute an episode was available, I watched. Each of the eight episodes was equally entertaining.

I did not feel the same way about another Amazon Prime show, Citadel, which popped up as recommended after I finished Reacher. Fittingly, Citadel opened with a train wreck because the storyline was a train wreck. The series jumped frequently between timelines and time zones with little to distinguish between them other than a date. The actors looked the same and the settings were often the same. By contrast, Reacher used a different setting and color palate to indicate flashback scenes. Also, Reacher only showed flashbacks to advance the present story whereas Citadel whiplashed all over the place with limited connection between the scenes. The ending to Citadel was equally messy when it revealed (spoiler alert) the hero was the villain that caused the disaster. Yikes!

Curious, I looked up whether there would be a Season Two of Citadel. Even though Season One was considered a bust with audiences (apparently, my opinion was universally shared), Amazon renewed Citadel because it had invested $250 million in the first season. Apparently, the decision-makers never heard of “sunk cost,” the economic theory that suggests cutting losses when the original investment has failed. By contrast, Reacher, which cost much less to produce, became Amazon Prime’s biggest streaming hit ever.

Another book thriller recently caught my eye. Author David Baldacci released The Edge as a follow-up to The 6:20 Man. The second book in the series based on ex-Army Ranger Travis Devine was as engaging as the first. I listened to the audio version before deciding to purchase the book. Within 36 hours, I had finished all 403 pages. Baldacci’s character Travis Devine shares a professional pedigree with Jack Reacher. They are both West Point graduates who became officers in the Army and seek justice.

Consuming thrillers can be helpful to the writing life. By transporting us into other worlds, thrillers give us a break from current projects. With thrillers, we vicariously adventure to places and with types of people who would never otherwise cross our paths. Thrillers remind us to make our work compelling. We want our readers to consume every word.

Thrillers also prompt us to determine what is commercial. One author friend told me she won’t start writing a book unless she knows her publisher plans to purchase it because she doesn’t want to psychologically invest in creating characters she may need to abandon. Lee Child, and now his brother Andrew Child, create the Reacher books knowing there’s an awaiting audience.

Avoid the Amazon Prime-type decisions to renew a global train wreck like Citadel just because of the initial investment of time and money. Strive, instead, to create work as compelling as a thriller with intrigue, adventure, and suspense that captivates your audience from beginning to end.

Sherri Burr’s 27th book, Complicated Lives: Free Blacks in Virginia: 1619-1865 (Carolina Academic Press, 2019), was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in History. West Academic published Burr’s Sum and Substance Audio on International Law, 4th Edition, her 32nd book, on October 30, 2023. A graduate of Mount Holyoke College, Princeton University, and the Yale Law School, Burr has been a member of SouthWest Writers for over 30 years.

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