Building jeopardy is a key element of any thriller. Having set the scene and triggered the action, the protagonist’s situation must get worse and worse. See how I do this in my Berlin thriller, “Blood Summit”.
Here is the text of Chapter 5 of my Berlin thriller Blood Summit. In Chapter 5 the protagonist, Helen Gale, gets into deeper and deeper trouble. So I’ve used this chapter to explore the principle of building jeopardy in a thriller.
Analysing the thriller: opening chapters
So far in analysing the opening chapters of Blood Summit we have looked at:
- Prologue: how to start a novel
- Chapter 1: chapter 1 of a thriller
- Chapter 2: point of view (POV) in novels
- Chapter 3: how to build characters
- Chapter 4: more on POV
The thriller: building jeopardy
A key part of any thriller is to create a character the reader cares about, and then place that character in jeopardy. Ideally, the level of threats will ratchet up during the first half of the book, building jeopardy at each stage. The threats may be varied in nature: physical, psychological – even legal.
In “Blood Summit”, we first meet the antagonist, Uli Wenger – a ruthless killer who kills a helpless woman in the prologue, and someone else in Chapter 2. In Chapter 1, we introduce the protagonist, Helen Gale, and pace her in danger with a bomb exploding outside the British Embassy, where she works. In Chapter 3 we build jeopardy by showing that Helen is surrounded by unsympathetic characters: her lover, Dieter Kremp, and her boss, Jason Short (a favourite of mine). Then in Chapter 4 , told from the POV of Dieter, we see just how nasty a character he is – placing Helen under further threat. At each stage we are building jeopardy for our sympathetic heroine.
Now, in Chapter 5, we will start building jeopardy even further. First, Helen takes the initiative by suggesting the Ambassador goes to the hospital to meet victims of the blast in Chapter 1. Will this help, or not? Then, at the hospital, Helen runs into the enigmatic Sabine Wolf. Sabine introduces a whole new level of threat to Helen.
By the time we reach the final third of the book, we will have built the jeopardy to a level where it seems impossible Helen can survive. Read on…
The Reichstag dome. Warning: bad things happen here in “Blood Summit”
BUILDING JEOPARDY: BLOOD SUMMIT: CHAPTER 5
Sir Leonard Lennox growing angry was a rare, but frightening sight. Even at the best of times, the ambassador’s rugged features tended to darken in response to obstacles or unreason. Now, the combination of brilliant white bandages and a choleric outburst turned his face black with rage.
‘They say what?’
Basil Nutter grimaced, glanced around the conference table and said nothing. Decades of experience in the back rooms of embassies from Abidjan to Yerevan had left the wizened but career-challenged diplomat equipped with two convictions. One was that the key to a contented life was to avoid drawing attention to yourself. The other was that efforts by governments to influence the media were at best pointless and in most cases counter-productive. Basil was, therefore, ill-fitted to the job of embassy press officer. He seemed to have shrunk as the Summit loomed. The morning’s blast had left his brow, and his suit, more deeply creased than ever.
‘Well?’ the ambassador said.
Basil’s mouth worked. Helen cleared her throat.
‘Ambassador,’ she said. ‘You need a cigarette. Possibly two.’
‘First sensible idea I’ve heard all day.’ The ambassador’s big hands fished out a lighter and a packet of Benson and Hedges in an instant. ‘And before you say anything, Jason, this is an emergency. Since the windows have been blown out by a terrorist bomb, we’re technically outside anyway.’
Jason Short looked at the intact windows and pursed his lips.
The ambassador lit a cigarette, blew a stream of smoke towards the ceiling, and turned to Basil.
‘Tell me about this story.’
‘It’s on Wild TV,’ Basil said. ‘The demonstrators are blaming us for the blast.’
‘Bollocks,’ the ambassador said. ‘Do they think we blew up our own embassy?’
‘Uktam Zholobov has issued a statement supporting them.’
‘We can ignore Zholobov,’ Leonard Lennox said. ‘If he wants to influence the Summit, he can come and join in. God knows, the Russian government have invited him enough times.’
‘He won’t sit at the same table.’ Helen shook her head. ‘He says they want to destroy his dodgy energy empire.’
‘He’s probably right.’ The ambassador turned to Basil Nutter. ‘What are the demonstrators saying?’
‘They claim the embassy had an intelligence warning that a terrorist attack was imminent. But that we didn’t warn the organisers of the march.’
‘How the hell did they know about the intelligence?’ Short glared at Helen. ‘I suppose you told your pal Dieter Kremp.’
Helen sighed, and typed on her laptop the words KILL JASON.
‘Yes. It’s my job to exchange intelligence with the Germans and other partners in the Threat Assessment Committee,’ she said. ‘We’ve seen dozens of reports about attacks on the Summit. But no references to British targets.’
‘Did anyone tell the protesters about these warnings?’ Short said.
‘Well,’ Helen blinked. ‘It would look a bit odd if this embassy started putting out terror warnings to the German public. I’m not sure the German government would thank us.’
‘British embassy says, “Not our problem”,’ Short said. ‘That will calm things down.’
‘Hold it.’ The ambassador held up his hand. ‘Wild TV are always desperate for scoops. But are they talking out of their arses here? Or could someone really make a case against this embassy for not giving intelligence to the general public?’ He looked round the table. ‘Helen. You were in the Cabinet Office assessments staff, weren’t you? You must have seen a bit of secret intelligence.’
‘More than I ever want to see again.’ On Helen’s laptop, a fractal pattern was engulfing the screen. ‘That’s the trouble. Every day, intelligence services sift through millions of pieces of data. For every incident, there are a thousand false alarms. It’s hard to know when to publicise a threat.’
Short shook his head. ‘I don’t see how it’s our fault if someone blows themselves up outside our embassy.’
Helen ignored him. ‘In 1988, someone called the American embassy in Helsinki to say a Pan Am flight from Frankfurt to the US would be blown up in the next two weeks by the Abu Nidhal terrorist organisation. It was a specific threat, so the US aviation authorities issued a warning. But not everyone heard about it. Two weeks later, Pan Am Flight 103 blew up over Lockerbie.’
‘I thought the Libyans blew up Pan Am 103,’ the ambassador said.
‘That was what the courts decided. They said the phone call was probably a hoax. There are always cranks posting bogus warnings that London or New York is about to be attacked with anthrax or bubonic plague. The families of Pan Am 103 couldn’t sue the bombers, because they didn’t know who they were. Instead, they sued Pan Am. Some people argued the US government was responsible, for not publishing the Helsinki warning, or that the CIA had been negligent for letting terrorists put a bomb on the plane.’
‘But you said there hadn’t been any warnings about attacks on the embassy,’ the ambassador said.
‘No. But there have been threats to the Summit, and we’re a member of the G8.’ Helen shrugged. ‘If someone wanted to play the blame game, they could point at us.’
‘Um, there is another problem,’ Basil said.
‘Let’s hear it.’ The ambassador lit a second cigarette.
‘Wild TV say the embassy’s security bollards prevented ambulance crews reaching the injured, and may have caused the death of the demonstrator.’ The press officer’s anxiety had transformed his expression into a fixed grin. ‘What with this and the intelligence story, the press will bury us in ordure.’
‘What are the casualty figures?’ the ambassador said.
‘Twelve injured and one dead,’ Helen said. ‘But no way the delay caused the death. The victim was literally blown to pieces.’
‘Don’t we know who she is?’ Short said.
‘It’s a mystery. None of the demonstrators has identified the body. The police think it may have been a suicide bomber.’
‘A suicide bomber with a very tiny bomb,’ Short said. All the men laughed.
Helen took a deep breath. In her two years in the Cabinet Office assessments staff in London, her job had been to spot connections where others saw confusion. What had the policeman in the street said? She pressed her lips together.
‘How do we know the bomb was aimed at us?’ she said.
Short shook his head. ‘London agree that this was an attack on the embassy.’
‘You told London we’d been attacked,’ Helen said. ‘That’s how assumptions become facts. But how did you know we were the target?’
The ambassador put one hand up to the bandages on his head. Jason Short laughed again.
Helen forged on. ‘In Paris, the bomb targeted the Foreign Secretary. He died, with six other people, four of them ours. Today, not one of the dead or seriously injured – without wanting to belittle your wounds, ambassador – was in the embassy. Doesn’t that strike you as odd?’
‘So, to summarise,’ Short said, ‘the ambassador has been injured by a terrorist bomb. The demonstrators blame us for not warning them, and for stopping help from reaching them afterwards. And Helen has a theory that the explosion outside the building had no connection to the embassy.’ He paused for effect. ‘What we need to decide is what to do next.’
Helen closed her laptop. No-one was listening. Time for Plan B.
‘We should go on the offensive,’ she said. ‘Show we care about the people who have been injured, rather than skulk indoors looking furtive. We do care about the protesters, don’t we?’
‘We do,’ Leonard Lennox said.
‘Let’s show it.’
‘That could be today’s second sensible idea.’ The ambassador lit another cigarette. ‘Tell me more.’
The flag car was a Mercedes. Helen was used to seeing the British diplomatic pennant fluttering alongside the three-pointed star. But Sir Leonard Lennox came from a different generation.
‘I know the Indians have Jaguar, and BMW’s making Rolls Royces,’ he muttered as the fat tyres bulged under the weight of the armour-plating. ‘But a black Merc. Where’s the fun in that?’
‘The Rolls was black, the Merc is black. What’s the difference?’ Helen said.
Leonard Lennox shook his head. ‘Sometimes, Helen, I don’t know whether you’re joking or not.’
Helen gazed out of the window. The guard outside the embassy had been augmented by armed officers of the Bundespolizei, the Federal Police, in their dark-blue uniforms. A crowd of protesters had gathered by the bollards. A news crew from Wild TV recorded it all. She shivered. The air-conditioning in the car chilled her bare legs after the damp heat outside.
She hoped there would be cameras at the hospital, for Basil’s sake. The press officer had torn around shouting into his phone as Ram Kuresh wrapped fresh bandages around the head of Leonard Lennox.
‘You’ve got to make people feel sorry for him without making him look pathetic,’ the wrinkled press man had urged between calls. ‘Think ambassadorial.’
‘Do not worry,’ Ram had said. ‘I am thinking maharajah.’
Basil was still calling press contacts when they reached the hospital. The main entrance was a futuristic modern portico tacked onto the front of a 1960s East German prefabricated block. Posters protesting against health-care reform, American military adventurism, and the costs of the Children’s Summit plastered the walls on either side. The rain had stopped and the pavements steamed in the sunshine.
‘I can’t see any news crews.’ The ambassador’s face darkened again.
‘Perhaps they’re inside,’ Basil said.
‘Let us hope so.’
But when they entered the building, they found only a clutter of hospital trolleys, outpatients and listless visitors – and not a single TV camera.
The ambassador seemed inclined to make the best of things. ‘Sod it,’ he said. ‘We can still talk to some poor injured buggers.’ And like an auto-homing missile he strode off, eyes bright with empathy, looking for a bed to stand by. Basil tailed him, tape recorder at the ready.
They walked for several minutes. Helen glanced through a doorway. Half a dozen camera crews clustered round a bed. Yes! Every channel had sent a team: RBB, ARD, Wild TV again. At last. The audience the ambassador needed. She turned off to check it out.
A hush lay over the ward, lending the place a chill air. Sedated bomb victims occupied several beds. Helen saw the injured boy. Clad in a grey surgical gown on a bed surrounded by TV crews, the child looked more pitiful than ever. A tent of raised sheets covered the lower part of his body. A woman in a green pullover with a bandage on her forehead held his hand.
Helen blinked. Her own concerns seemed irrelevant next to the grief of a mother for her child. She stepped closer.
Someone was talking. Several journalists with microphones surrounded a woman with straight, dark hair. It took Helen a second to tune in to her words.
‘…because his young life is a tragedy. Because it could have been prevented. And because responsibility is clear. Thank you.’
The knot of people loosened. Now to recruit some media interest for the ambassador. Helen tapped one of the cameramen on the shoulder.
‘Hi, I’m from the British embassy. Do you think your people would – ’
The man’s eyes widened. Ignoring Helen, he turned towards the clump of journalists. ‘Guess what? She’s from the embassy.’
The knot stirred. ‘The British embassy?’ A man’s voice. ‘Unbelievable.’
‘Believe it.’ Helen smiled. A TV camera turned towards her, the recording light on. A second lens turned her way, a third, the cameras closed in. She took a step back.
The woman who had been interviewed stepped nearer. She stood shorter than Helen, with big breasts and hips, all swathed in black: dense trousers, a long-sleeved army-surplus shirt tucked into a black webbing belt, and glasses with thick rectangular frames. At first sight, she projected an impression of immense severity. But behind the lenses her eyes flickered.
‘You bastards have a nerve.’ The woman in black spat the words out.
Helen stood up straight. ‘What did you say?’
‘You are from the British embassy, is that right? You work for the British government?’
‘Yes, we – ’
‘How does it feel?’ The woman’s voice rose a tone. ‘To have caused so much suffering?’
Helen licked her lips and nodded, to show she was listening. Were they transmitting this live? ‘Sorry. I don’t quite understand.’
‘Look at this child. Does that make you feel good?’
‘I feel pity for him.’
‘Do not play games. You are not sorry. Do you even know who he is? Have you taken the trouble to find out?’
‘I just arrived at the hospital.’ Helen looked at the bed. Perhaps the boy would wake up and explain how Helen had tried to help him. But his eyes stayed closed.
‘Of course. An exercise in public relations.’ The woman used the English words. ‘Well, his mother says he just learned to ride a bicycle. He won’t be riding it anytime soon.’
‘I hope he recovers quickly.’
‘I bet you do. Because we are suing the British embassy for damages of fifty million euro, on behalf of the victims of today’s crime. Perhaps paying that will make you sorry.’
The red lights on the TV cameras glowed. The woman in the rectangular glasses shifted from foot to foot. Was she nervous? She held her arms close to her sides.
‘I hope you’re not suggesting that the embassy is responsible for the bomb that exploded today,’ Helen said. ‘That would be crazy.’
‘Let us talk about what is and is not crazy. Do you deny that security barriers to protect British diplomats delayed ambulances from reaching victims of the bomb? Do you deny that the officer responsible for security in the embassy, Helen Gale, received intelligence warnings of a terrorist attack on a G8 target in Berlin? Do you deny that the embassy did nothing to warn the peaceful protesters outside?’
How did she know so much? ‘We don’t comment on intelligence matters.’
‘Perhaps you will have more to say when this comes to court.’ The woman paused, as if about to continue, then stopped. She took off her glasses and wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. ‘OK, that is enough.’
The lights on the cameras went out. Helen reached for the woman’s arm.
‘What’s this about suing the embassy?’
The woman shrank from Helen’s touch. ‘Hands off.’ Without her glasses, she looked vulnerable and exposed.
Helen stepped back. ‘I’m sorry, I – ’
‘What do you want?’
‘Who are you?’
‘None of your business.’ The woman turned to go.
Helen lowered her voice. ‘I’m not your enemy, you know. I hate all this as much as you do.’
The woman turned back. She peered at Helen as if seeing her for the first time. ‘My name is Sabine Wolf. I work as a trauma counsellor for the Victims’ Legal Support Group. I try to repair the harm that the powerful do to the powerless. And you are wrong. You are my enemy.’
‘We should be fighting whoever did this, not each other.’
‘Your government did this. You did this.’
‘No.’ Helen glanced at the sleeping boy, and held out her card. ‘We’re on the same side.’
The woman studied the card. ‘You are Helen Gale. Strange. Well, I don’t need this.’ She took the crisp white rectangle and tore it in two. ‘And I don’t need any fake sympathy. All I want is your money.’ Sabine Wolf replaced her glasses and with them a brisker, business persona. ‘You understand you are the respondent in the case. The person we say is responsible for these injuries. The Victims’ Legal Support Group is suing you, Helen Gale, personally for fifty million euro. You had better start saving.’
I hope you have enjoyed Chapter 5 of Blood Summit, and the way I have used it to illustrate the principle of building jeopardy. Do feel free to buy a copy of the novel.
If you enjoy these excerpts, or the book itself, feel free to leave a review an Amazon, repost my facebook posts, or do anything else to spread the word. So far the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive – see reviews on Amazon.
I will be happy to sign paperback copies – these first editions will obviously be priceless collector’s items in years to come.
You can read the complete introduction to the novel, and see how I illustrate building jeopardy and other techniques, at my Blood Summit page.