by | Jun 20, 2018 | KJ Howe, On writing | 5 comments

The bottom line for our thriller protagonists is getting results:  stopping the crime, discovering the truth, thwarting the threat, defusing the bomb.  Usually, thrillers end with a grand finale that satisfies the reader’s moral and social worldview. Justice is done.  The bad guys pay for their sins, the protagonist triumphs.  But if that outcome is expected—even demanded—what keeps the suspense in suspense novels?  The real question underlying most thriller novels is not “if” the protagonist will succeed, but rather “how” the protagonist will succeed, and which secondary characters will still be standing on the last page.
The tools of the trade for the action hero are both legion and well understood.   There’s always the standard arsenal of firearms, knives, grenades, fast cars, and a well-executed roundhouse to the face.  But to stand out in a crowd of Glocks and Uzis, the author must expand the hero’s toolbox, adding in new ways of conquering obstacles to surprise and entertain readers.
In my Freedom Brokerseries, Thea Paris is a crisis response consultant who travels to the globe’s hot spots bringing hostages back to their families.  Faced with a kidnapping scenario, the first tool she reaches for is negotiation.  Orchestrating a deal that guarantees the safety of the captive is paramount.  Hey, why fire a shot when you can talk your way out of trouble?

It’s the ideal time to be writing a character who uses negotiation as their “go to” tool.  Many top universities have entire departments dedicated to studying negotiation science.  Harvard, Stanford, UCLA, and other elite institutions are publishing a steady stream of studies and articles that explore how the human mind works, both as an individual and as part of a group.  And experts are exploring how this knowledge can be used to shape effective negotiating techniques.  This burgeoning field of negotiation science is a gold mind of ideas for a character who saves lives with her wits (and, hey, those tactical skills don’t hurt as back up).
Even the real field of hostage recovery is being reshaped by this research.  Top security companies are now recruiting more women freedom brokers because the data indicates that they are empathic—which is a key skill when dealing with a hostage’s family—and are often better able to discern the precise emotional state of the captors.  They also instinctively know how to de-escalate.  Further, evidence indicates that male kidnappers from a hyper-masculine culture are less likely to become angry, take affront, or become competitive when they are negotiating with a woman than with another man.  Thus negotiation science tells us that women can often enhance the hostage’s safety in many circumstances.
Negotiation science offers other interesting ideas that can drive the plot and shape character.  The power of language is emphasized.  Certain words are so hardwired into us as human beings that when they are used properly, we can’t help but have certain emotional reactions to them.  These words and phrases vary slightly between languages and cultures, but their power is undeniable.  Weaving them into dialogue makes the story more realistic and exciting. 
Some of this powerful language includes the word “because.”   Simply using this word in negotiation greatly increases the chance of an offer being accepted.  Why? Humans are evolutionarily programmed to want to work together, and the use of “because” says “I’m not invading your territory or demanding your obedience—I just need your assistance for good reason.”  The word “fair” also has powerful subconscious impact.  Phrases like “I’m willing to consider” offer tactical advantage because they show an openness to certain approaches without committing to a fixed position.  The examples and sophistication level of these techniques are virtually limitless.
The field of neuro-linguistic programming also influences writers.  For example, the art and science of reading “micro-expressions” like eye movement or facial muscle movement to understand what a person is actually feeling.  While the technique has not yet reached the stage where someone’s intentions can be read like a book, the micro-expressions can give vital clues to motives and honesty at key moments.  Plenty of story potential here.
The literature provides many fruitful areas to explore:  how to structure offers, when to concede for maximum reciprocity, how to create value, how to motivate people to act or not act based on the way an offer is designed or delivered, how to handle the pacing of offers, how to seize control of the process.  The list is endless.  Simply reading an article or book covering the latest developments in the field can provide countless new plot ideas.

In the same way that new medical breakthroughs can drive change in medical thrillers and quantum computing advances can create seismic shifts in the field of techo-thrillers, developments in the field of negotiation science have the potential to enliven and enrich our storytelling, from a police interrogation to a hostage negotiation.  While the debate on whether to deploy a direct or indirect closing technique may never reach quite the same level as the 5.56 mm vs. 7.62 mm discussion, conquering obstacles in this fresh way can leave antagonists befuddled—and this can be just as rewarding as leaving them battered and bloodied.
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  1. Robin Burcell

    Coming from a law enforcement perspective, this is spot on. Interestingly, I ran into one of my first field training officers (FTO the other day. We were talking about back when we first met–I was the first female officer for my police dept.–and the topic of hostage negotiation came up in a round about way. (We were both on the hostage negotiating team years later.) I was often able to talk myself out of violent situations and had mentioned a time when a couple of officers had tried to get me involved in a physical fight to see how I handled myself. (It didn't work. The suspect complied with my more genteel approach at being arrested.) My friend laughed at that and mentioned that there were plenty of times he also was trying to see how I was able to handle myself physically when he was my FTO, and every single time, I was able to talk the situation down, so he was never able to evaluate my (physical) hand-to-hand combat, if you will. (Trust me, I would've gotten my butt kicked.) This was something I hadn't realized about our time together. I guess I was too much of a rookie to notice his subtler attempts to put me in that sort of a situation.

  2. Chris Goff

    Great post, Kim, and interesting response, Robin. It makes sense you were being tested, but I would have thought for your negotiating skills, not your physical prowess. The one thing that struck me was Kim's comment about men from a "hyper-masculine culture" being more willing to negotiate with a woman. I imagine it's in part–not just a woman's ability to negotiate–but the idea that the man is dealing with someone they consider in a way inferior. They may well find themselves wondering what the hell happened AFTER they're taken into custody.

    Makes me want to take a hostage negotiator class!

  3. Karna Bodman

    Very interesting article, Kim — and yes, I think women make better negotiators! And, of course, this skill is just one more to add to our thriller writing stash of outcomes. (I also enjoyed reading about Robin's experiences and training!) Thanks for a thought-provoking post.

  4. Lisa Black

    I also find hostage negotiation fascinating, Kim–it's a topic with such a myriad of possible outcomes! In one of the little serendipities of the writing life, when I was researching hostage negotiation for the first book in my last series, Takeover, I was at the Sleuthfest convention here in Florida, went to an MWA dinner, and happened to plop myself down next to the guy who had literally written the paper the FBI used for negotiation training, John Culley. You can bet I picked HIS brains!

  5. Jamie Freveletti

    Love the idea that women negotiators know how to "de-escalate" things. This skill is crucial and imagine how many lives could be saved if we taught such techniques-in depth-to our law enforcement and military. Just read that the training for this is woefully inadequate, with over 34 states not requiring it! Great post.