Is your next or current novel a thriller? Do you know the pitfalls and critical elements that go into a thriller novel? In a thriller, everything is amped up. Everything is fighting against a ticking clock, and the reader must feel the tension on every page. Your characters need to be bigger than life and have a singular purpose—to stop the evil that is about to hit the world. Below are some articles I found on thriller novels that are very helpful and precise in their tips to writing a thriller.
There is also a video on writing a thriller story with some how-to hints on this very successful genre. I’ve also listed a book that I have found extremely useful when it comes to writing a thriller. It is chocked full of information and insider tricks to help you on your journey. I hope you enjoy and use what you learn to sell more books😉
10 Basic Ingredients of a Successful Thriller
People often confuse the mystery and thriller genres. While it’s true that they often overlap, there’s a distinct difference: A mystery follows an intellectual protagonist who puts together clues to solve a crime after it’s been committed, and a thriller details the prevention of a crime before it has been committed.
At the 2008 Maui Writers Conference, bestselling thriller writer Gary Braver (Skin Deep) said that dread drives thrillers. You know who the good guys and bad guys are. Dull moments will lose an audience, and writers can’t afford to lose an audience, even for one page.
To captivate an audience (and agents and publishers), Braver offers these 10 essential ingredients for a successful thriller.
- You need to have a good story. Thrillers want to be thrilled. A common element in thrillers is that the protagonist will fall victim to someone else’s scheme and get stuck in a moment of dread. There are only three themes in all of literature: death and rebirth (Stephen King’s Misery); the hero slaying a dragon to restore the world to normalcy (James Bond, Indiana Jones); and the quest to make life better (The Da Vinci Code). Know which theme fits your story.
- Write about the underdog. Tell your thriller from the point of view of the person with the most to lose. The protagonist gives the story character. Give him baggage and emotional complexity.
- Multiple points of view can give you great range in a thriller. They allow you inside the heads of many characters, which can build more dramatic tension and irony.
- Open your book with an action scene. Don’t put biographical information or exposition in Chapter 1 (do that later). Introduce the crime—which tells you the stakes—and introduce the hero and villain, and even some obstacles the protagonist may face.
Don’t sacrifice style—use metaphors and good language—but stick with action.
- Early on, make clear what your protagonist wants and what he fears. You should know what the protagonist wants and how he would end the novel if he were writing it.
There are two quests: Stopping the bad stuff form happening (In The Silence of the Lambs, it’s to stop Buffalo Bill from killing) and dealing with the character’s baggage (for Clarice to be a good, professional FBI agent in a [then] male-dominated profession).
Think Cinderella: Her main quest is to get to the ball. It’s about liberation. When she gets to the ball she finds freedom.
- Make your characters miserable. Ask what the worst thing is that could happen to your protagonist and make it worse. Give them grief, false hope, heartaches, anxiety and near-death experiences. We don’t want our protagonist to win until the end.
- Your main characters have to change. It has to be an emotional change that shows growth and victory over some of his baggage. In The Silence of the Lambs, Clarice is stronger and tougher at the end and she gets a good night’s sleep.
- Pacing must be high: Strong Narrative Thrust. Each scene should reveal something new, no matter how slight it is. Don’t tell us about stuff that has nothing to do with the story. The villain has a ticking clock, so there’s no time to waste on pages with useless information. Short paragraphs and white space are good. Consider using cliffhangers at the end of every chapter, albeit a sudden surprise or provocative announcement.
- Show—don’t tell. Avoid the passive voice. Use action verbs (He heard the screams in his bedroom). Avoid adverbs—they are cheesy and cheap ways of telling instead of showing. Don’t start sentences with –ing words (“He stared” vs. “Staring at the …”). Make the subject and verb close and up front in the sentence.
- Teach us something. Make sure your audience has learned about something—an animal, medical treatment, social issue—so we walk away with more knowledge.
Writing a Thriller
How to write a thriller – what’s a thriller
Signs that you’re reading a thriller:
- racing pulse
- sweaty palms
- staying up all night
- missing your subway stop
- compulsive reading in inappropriate places (in class, under the conference table at a business meeting)
- crashing your car because you were trying to read behind the wheel.
Yes, thrillers are written to give readers a thrilling ride. Unlike other genres or types of fiction that get their names because of what they’re about (romances are about romance, Westerns are about the West, etc.), thrillers get their name because of how they make the reader feel. And everything in a thriller is designed to create this feeling of heart-pounding, white-knuckle suspense.
So what are thrillers about? There are a lot of subcategories – spy thrillers, political thrillers, psychological thrillers. Many, but not all thrillers are about violent crime, but they are different from mysteries because of the angle they take. A mystery is about solving a crime that has already happened. The killer’s identity is hidden until the end because otherwise, there would be no mystery — right? A thriller is about a crime (or another type of disaster) that is about to happen … unless the hero can stop it. The reader often knows who the villain is from the very beginning — even watches over the villain’s shoulder as evil is being committed.
How to write a thriller – thrilling characters
Unlike other types of fiction, thrillers often divide characters clearly along lines of good and evil. There is a hero(ine) or a team of hero(ine)s, and there is a villain or a team of them.
But this doesn’t excuse you, the writer, from doing your character development homework. The more real you can make both the hero and the villain to readers, the more interesting your book will be. Read more about character development here.
How to write a thriller – thrilling plots
When it comes to thrillers, take everything you’ve learned about plot development, and multiply it by ten (if you haven’t studied plot development, you can do it here). Turn up the heat! Add time pressure if that works with your storyline, to make things even more tense. Keep raising the stakes. Pile on the trouble until your poor hero looks like a goner.
But make sure your hero has enough strengths that there can be a real fight. Otherwise, the story will seem to be over before it’s begun. And if you decide to have a happy ending, it’s more satisfying if this comes from the hero’s actions and strengths, not as a gift dropped out of the sky.
One way of building excitement is to keep shifting the advantage from one side to another. First, it looks like the hero’s a goner, but then there is a ray of hope. But the ray of hope turns out to be an illusion. The enemy grows. But then the hero gets an ally…
Plan your thriller so that the story gets more and more exciting until it reaches a peak, which is called the story climax. The climax should happen right before the end of the book. While in a mystery, the climax is when the hero discovers the killer’s identity, in a thriller, the climax is when the hero stops the enemy (or is conquered by the enemy if you are not after a happy ending).
How to write a thriller – ideas for thrillers:
- Your hero discovers a secret conspiracy of enemies (for example, a secret political or criminal organization).
- The villain has discovered the hero’s point of psychological weakness and is playing mind games with the hero. The hero will have to overcome this psychological weakness in order to stop the villain from committing a crime.
- A crime is about to happen. Or a crime has happened and is about to be repeated as a larger crime. The hero alone can stop it. For example, there are many thrillers about serial killers, who kill at least once at the beginning of the book and who, if not stopped, will commit more and even worse crimes.
- The hero is trying to stop a disaster (medical, nuclear, environmental, political) that has spread out of control.
- The hero is involved in a dramatic court case that has drastic consequences outside of the courtroom.
How to write a thriller – tricks of the trade:
- Cliffhangers – You can create suspense by ending chapters or sections of the novel at a moment of suspense, so that the reader keeps going to find out what happens.
- Ticking clock – Thrillers often include a race against time; for example, a bomb that will go off in 12 hours, or a criminal who will be executed in two days if he is not proven innocent. The ticking clock element adds to the reader’s adrenaline rush.
- Show evil over the evildoer’s shoulder – It often adds to the excitement if the reader can actually watch the villain in action and see the crimes taking place.
- Make it personal and specific – This is a very important point. If your thriller is about the risk of a bomb going off, introduce the reader to Sue and John, the nice couple in Missouri, who will be blown to bits when it happens.
If your thriller is about a terrible disease that is taking over the Earth, introduce the reader to Jenny Jones, engaged to be married and daydreaming about her honeymoon… when green bile starts to spurt out of her nose and ears; poor Jenny writhes in agony, then collapses dead over her stack of wedding invitations. That makes the disease real for the reader.
Sure, everyone knows that nuclear holocaust and alien attack are bad things. But they are just ideas until you bring the reader into the lives of the characters who will be affected.
- Great characters and sharp writing that “shows” instead of only telling. I feel like I’ve been writing this on every page of the website, but it’s worth repeating.
How to write a thriller – next steps
Choose one of the links below:
- Click here for ideas about how to write a thriller outline.