The tyranny of the outline almost stopped Shari Lapena from writing her first thriller, 2016’s The Couple Next Door.
“I couldn’t come up with a plot outline that would work,” says Lapena. “I thought, ‘I don’t think like a thriller writer,’ and that stopped me for years. And then I finally thought of trying a thriller the way I do my literary books, and it went fine. I always thought thrillers had to be plotted first, but they don’t.”
Lapena – who was employed as a lawyer and an English teacher before becoming a full-time author – arrived at thriller writing after producing two comic novels. One, Happiness Economics (Brindle & Glass), was shortlisted for the Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for Humour. After producing work in various genres – she wrote another literary novel, tried her hand at young-adult fiction – Lapena eventually circled back to the genre that she’d always wanted to try. “When I wrote [The Couple Next Door] I was trying something new. I didn’t have an agent anymore at that point. I wasn’t sure if I could pull it off. I’d never written a thriller before.”
The Couple Next Door, published by Doubleday Canada, became the country’s bestselling book for 2016. Aligning what she’d learned from literary writing with the demands of suspense fiction proved easier than Lapena thought, once she freed herself from the idea that she had to plot her story out in advance. “It doesn’t really matter what you write: if you write and finish novels, you learn a lot about telling a story, revealing character, dialogue. What I had to learn for the thrillers was the idea of a tight kind of plot, and a certain kind of pacing. You have to keep the reader on the edge of their seat. It’s all about how and when you reveal certain information, to keep the suspense maximized.”
Lapena’s willingness to share a sense of unknowing with her eventual reader is part of what makes Couple and her upcoming sophomore thriller, A Stranger in the House (Doubleday Canada), so effective in delivering suspense. “I find things out as I go along. … I know where I want to end up but I don’t know how I’m going to get there. I start with a lot of possibilities and develop different ones, and then decide later on which one is the real thing and which ones are red herrings. That way none of us know what’s going to happen when.”
As in many of the best thrillers and mysteries, the greatest threat to the peace of the characters in A Stranger in the House is the truth: the revelation of who the characters truly are, and what they’ve done. In the book, told in Lapena’s breathless present-tense prose, husband and wife Tom and Karen Krupp confront how little they know each other – and especially how little they know of each others’ pasts – in the wake of a car accident and the appearance of a murder victim across town. As the police tease out connections between Karen’s driving mishap and this dead John Doe, unsettling things begin happening in the couple’s home, starting with objects seeming to move when no one is in the room.
Knowing how the novel would end didn’t affect Lapena’s ability to be surprised by the story as she was writing. Her method of building suspense arises out of the act of writing itself: “The characters do something, and that affects the plot, and then the plot affects the characters, and they react, and it’s very organic.”
Still, following The Couple Next Door held its challenges. “You do hear about that difficult second book … and [A Stranger in The House] was harder for me to write, for sure,” Lapena says. “The first book was a breeze! It just kind of – people hate to hear this – it kind of wrote itself. It was a very fluid book for me to write, and there were minimal changes in the editing. This one, there were more changes going on. I didn’t find my feet on the book for quite a while. I was questioning myself too much, I had some false starts. Once I really got going, it went well.”