Thriller is a big genre in fiction and covers a multitude of sub-genres, including psychological, action, military, spy, mystery and suspense. It’s no surprise that many thriller novels have been made into films, as they’ve got all the ingredients for a good cinematic experience, so check out my ‘films that thrill’ list at the end of this post.
Despite being such an all-encompassing topic, there are still some aspects of writing a thriller that are common throughout the genre. Here are the six elements of writing a thriller:
- The threat: The key element of a thriller is the threat because without that, you’re unlikely to thrill your audience. The threat should be big, but doesn’t always have to be death. Threats can vary from a bomb to a killer on the loose, but could also be as simple as being fired or losing your reputation, if you think about corporate thrillers, such as The Big Short. Essentially, the threat you choose determines the type of thriller you’re writing, but make sure it has serious consequences that drive your story on.
- The ticking time bomb: Thrillers often use the clock to add a whole heap of tension on top of the initial threat. So maybe our corporate thriller hero has to find out who the person leaking the company secrets, but they have to do it before the big boss expects the report, otherwise they’ll get the blame. Of course, films often have a literal time bomb – think of the TV show 24 and hostage plots, where the captors say deliver the helicopter in two hours otherwise I start shooting. Take your threat and add a time limit to ramp up the thrills.
- The hero as underdog: In action thrillers, like Mission Impossible, the hero is often highly competent, but they’re pushed to the limit. It’s always more fun (for the reader), if the odds are stacked against our protagonist. The classic one is a blind woman pursued by some loon with a knife, but you can be more creative than that. Maybe the lead is just an ordinary guy caught up in a bad situation – the Coen brothers films are always good at this type of thriller. A thriller can even be domestic if you come up with a threat that matters to the protagonist and the audience. The protagonist should be out of their depth – a supermarket checkout woman caught up in a murder mystery or a wife who thinks her husband isn’t who he says he is – because this makes the audience question their ability to survive and that’s always thrilling.
- Pacing: Thrillers don’t mess about. You need pacing to keep the reader on the edge of their seat. That means every scene has to count and every chapter has to end by answering one question, but asking two more. So the noise from a wood shed was a window banging in the wind, but who left that note scratched into the wall and who is that standing at my bedroom window? Pace is conveyed with a sense of narrative progression, as well as keeping things sharp and to the point. Don’t meander along with description, if you’re tackling a tense scene. Focus on all the senses, but keep the sentences short and then release the tension with a reveal and a slower pace.
- Location: When it comes to location, make it very big or very small. The protagonist may have to rush across the city to make it to the next dop point or they may be stranded by bad weather at their farm. Planes and trains are typical locations, but it can be as simple as a lift or a phone box. Small spaces are automatically tense, but going large is better for an action hero.
- Make it personal: An asteroid colliding with Earth is certainly thrilling, but it’s on the big scale side of thrills, as it impacts on the whole world, making our protagonist’s plight just one of millions. Make the danger personal and the tension reaches another level. This goes back to choosing your threat wisely. Taking it from a global disaster to the death or loss of a loved one, whether that’s through death or just because they walk out the door adds to the hero’s woes. Will she save the world or her relationship with her daughter? If your lead is a politician, then losing the election or their reputation is enough to make it really mean something – that’s a societal death, but still something they’d fight tooth and nail for. You want your hero to be desperate and bruised and battered by the end, whether they win or lose.
Films that Thrill:
The film Whiplash is a thriller about a young jazz drumming student being tormented by his college tutor, who pushes him to the brink. The threat is the tutor and being dropped from the elite class and losing the springboard to a glittering career, but the price is even higher.
Since the financial crash in 2008, the world of finance has become the perfect setting for a thriller. In this film, a couple of young staff members discover an error at their investment firm, which could ruin them all. Fat pensions, promotions and bonuses are all at stake. The film takes place over one night, using the perfect combination of small location, threat and a time-bomb to keep up the tension.
A taxi driver picks up what seems like a normal ride – turns out he’s a hit man who has to do a series of jobs and won’t let the cabbie go until he’s done them. Tense thriller made better by the close quarters setting of a car.
The infamous 80s psychological thriller sees Glenn Close as the ex-lover with an axe to grind and a bunny to boil. Man plays away and decides to call the whole thing off and stay with his wife, but the other woman has other ideas. This set-up falls into the ‘boys are bad and girls are mad’ trope, which has become popular again in books and films, such as Gone Girl. It makes for a good thriller, but doesn’t do much for gender politics.
Books that Thrill:
Many of these are films too, but worth mentioning anyway, if you want to see how to write pacy, taut thrillers that Hollywood loves.
Jason Bourne by Robert Ludlum
These are military, espionage thrillers about Jason Bourne, the highly trained operative who wakes up with no memory, but all the skills he needs stay alive and stay under the radar. I haven’t read the books, but the first three films are superb.
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
A man’s wife is missing, but he’s accused of her murder. Hounded by the media, the scorn of the town and the people closest to him, he has everything to lose. An old-fashioned psychological thriller, but it has a clever twist, which I won’t spoil.
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John Le Carre
If you want to write spy thrillers, then study Le Carre. These books are classic Cold War tales of double agents in dingy hotel rooms in foggy London and Moscow. Everything is grey, including the moral lines.
Waking Lions by Ayelet Gundar-Goshen
Thriller fiction exists beyond Europe and America, as this work by an Israeli writer proves. A surgeon hits an African migrant, one night and flees the scene, but his wife is the police officer in charge of the investigation and the migrant’s wife appears on his doorstep. His career, marriage and sense of himself as a good man who saves lives are all at stake – now that’s some serious threat right there.
The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexander Dumas
Another translated work here and a literary classic. On his wedding day, Edmund Dante is blamed for a crime he didn’t commit. He’s framed by three men who want him out of the way for different reasons and have him incarcerated on a remote island prison with little hope of escape. This is a revenge thriller set in Bonaparte’s France. It doesn’t have the pace of a modern thriller, but it sets the perfect motivation for a man intent on intricately planned vengeance.