12 Elements of Writing a Thriller

Everyone likes a good thrill, to be on the edge of their seat, biting their fingernails, hardly daring to turn the page to see if the character they’re rooting for will survive. This is true for fans of nearly every genre, so it’s little surprise that thrillers are hugely popular. Look in a library, or online. You’ll find a vast array of fiction which includes the word ‘thriller’ in its genre description. Spy thriller. Psychological thriller. Action thriller. Crime thriller. To mention just a few.

crime_sceneThe word ‘thriller’ says something to the potential reader. It promises them the pages in the book they’re looking at contain a roller coaster ride that will keep them breathless. So we shouldn’t bandy that word around too freely. We don’t want to disappoint, do we? We need to treat it with respect if we want to keep our readers believing in us and enjoying our writing.

So, how do we ensure we deliver? Is it enough to have a cool main character, or a break-neck pace? Should we always put the love interest in danger?

Here are twelve tips to help make your book a fingertip-hanging read.

1                     Open without a Parachute. Start your story with action. Don’t go into it describing where it’s set or the political or historical situation. Get straight into the story. Make things happen. Think of a 007 movie. Does it ever start in an office with ‘M’ telling Bond about his mission? No. The opening scene is roof-top leaping, bullets-flying, face-mashing mayhem. Or, if it’s a crime thriller, start with the murder, or the robbery. Or the psychopath stalking his victim. Or, of course, your character pulling the ripcord to find the parachute doesn’t open.

2                     Pace. It should be a roller coaster, but the pace in any thriller should always be fast. Yes, stop to develop ideas and characters, but not for too long. Don’t dwell over how cool a car, or a weapon or an idea is – mention it and then get on with the story. End your chapters with cliff-hangers. Ideally you should then switch to a different point of view character. Then your reader will be reading faster, to find out what will happen to the first character. Then end that scene with another cliff-hanger.  Ideally you should be juggling it, so the reader is always wondering what the alternate character is doing, or if they’re going to survive.

3                     Dread. You need to introduce jeopardy as soon as possible. There has to be danger, either to the protagonist or the world at large. Are terrorists holding hostages? Is a virus about to be released? Is the serial killer lining up his next victim? There should be a villain and, somehow, the central character must fall victim to his evil machinations.

4                     Something to Lose. What does your protagonist have to lose? Is it their reputation? Their marriage? Their family? Their life? Must they make the ultimate sacrifice in order to save the ones they love? The more he/she has to lose the, the more appealing they will be to the reader.

5                     Average Joe. The protagonist doesn’t have to be a super-cool ninja with awesome gadgets. In fact, better if he isn’t. Better, still, if he’s just the guy next door, with nothing he (or she) wants from life but an easy time. Your reader can identify with such a person. Your main character could easily be them. How would they, themselves, respond to all that danger and fear? Would they win or lose?

6                     Something small. Introduce something seemingly insignificant. Maybe a bullet the character puts in their pocket without thinking, or a rope that holds the spotlight overhead. Or maybe the villain has an allergy to house dust. Something that your protagonist (and your reader) barely notices. This is your small scene, barely even mentioned, but it’s there, ready and waiting for the climax, when it comes.

7                     Hopes and Fears. Get inside the main character’s head. Explore his thoughts and feelings. What does he want? What is he afraid of? Does he have a phobia or mental issue which, of course, he will have to confront and beat in order to win the day?

8                     Development. Your character cannot go through the story and not be changed. So how will they develop? Will they come out stronger? Braver? More compassionate? Do they learn that they do love their wife after all? Do they discover that, instead of the timid nerd everyone thought they were, they’re courageous, cool and capable?

9                     Intrigue. Don’t lay out too much for the reader. Keep them guessing. Half the fun for a reader is figuring out what’s going on before the big reveal. Put clues in, maybe a red herring or two (but not too many of those), let them work out who the real villain is before the end. This allows a reader to become deeply engaged. They have their own, personal, vested interest in the outcome. Kudos to you.

10                 Point of View. Pick your point of view carefully. The best one for a thriller is Third Person Limited, but, as a writer, you ultimately get to choose. The reason TPL is best for a thriller is that it allows you (and the reader) to enter not only the main character’s head, but the villain’s too. They can learn the antagonist’s motives, see what they’re up to, and how it might impact on the efforts the protagonist is making to stop them. This sets up another layer of jeopardy. Will all the effort John McClain has made to thwart the bad guys be undone because the head baddie can put on an English accent?

11                 So Close and Yet so Far Don’t let the protagonist win. At least not until right at the end. He should be thwarted at every turn, have sure-fire plans that get scuppered by another person, bad luck or by the villain. Make it tough for them. Put them, and your reader, through hell. Get to the point where it seems the protagonist has nothing else left. No ideas, no strength, just stubbornness and a will to survive. Then, when it seems the villain has surely won, use your ‘something small’.

12                 Gadgets. Yes, for some kinds of thrillers there must be gadgets. I’m talking anything from infrared night-vis, high-mag binocs to which is the protagonist’s preferred weapon, which car he drives, what ascending and rappelling equipment he uses. This means research. The people who read action/military/spy thrillers expect you to know what calibre an AK47 fires, what mag-clip it uses and its rate of fire. To keep them believing in you, and your story, better not get it wrong.

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4 thoughts on “12 Elements of Writing a Thriller

  1. There are, also, strange conventions attached to thriller-writing. If, for instance, you want to write teenage thrillers (or teenage horror novels) you need to have 3 deaths in it. (They worked this out. Don’t ask me. But check any teenage thriller novel.) You can just about get away with 4 deaths if it can be ‘justified’.
    If you have only 2 deaths, you are not doing yourself any favours. And if you go down to 1 or none – maybe you should be writing in a different area.
    You need to know the market.

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    • And once upon a time you ‘couldn’t kill the dog’. But now you can. (You can kill the horse if you like.)
      This is just teenage/YA thrillers I’m talking about. There are conventions, but they change. You need to be aware of them. Know your market. Publishers are buying books for 2 or 3 years ahead, so you need to be looking in that direction.

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    • Thanks for these comments, Peter. There are conventions or ‘formulas’ for most genre-types, which is what these articles are looking at. I agree, there are definitely ‘fashions’, which change and develop as time goes by. This has its good and its down-sides – it can make a book ‘dated’ over time, but also keeps new releases modern and fresh.

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  2. Around 40% of published books are thrillers. This clearly suggests that this is the area publishers are most interested in. The downside, of course, is that (partly or possibly) because of that, the competition in that area is ferocious.
    But with the competition being ferocious in every area of fiction, thrillers still constitute the biggest target to aim at – and the one offering the most scope and most opportunity.
    But you can’t write them if you don’t believe in them.
    (Another good article, Martine.)

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