Ever wondered how to write a thriller novel? The name pretty much says it all, right? The defining characteristic of a thriller is that it thrills. It grabs a reader by the throat, propels him along, and doesn’t let go until the story ends. And sometimes, not even then.
A thriller is not just a rollercoaster ride, but like a whole day at a theme park with head-of-the-line privileges. Ride after wild ride with maybe just enough down time to eat a corndog and take a bathroom break. The necessary ingredients for a thriller include conflict, tension, and suspense, all tied up in a nice, twisty package.
So how does a writer deliver the goods?
Like any other genre, it comes down to meeting reader expectations. When a reader cracks open a thriller, she craves a certain type of experience, and the best way for a writer to create that experience is to give her what she’s expecting — but in a way she didn’t see coming. Tricky, right?
Before you dive into writing a thriller, you should understand reader expectations, and no one has the conventions and obligatory scenes of a thriller more dialed down than Shawn Coyne. In his book The Story Grid, Shawn lays out what you need to know, and I highly recommend reading the book before you get started.
I discovered The Story Grid just as I began writing my thriller, Nocturne In Ashes, and it was a game changer for me, making the whole process easier and the end product solid.
How to Write a Thriller Novel: 7 Critical Elements
Shawn will give you the details, but I’ve put together a list of seven critical elements you need to think about, and include, when writing a thriller. Here they are:
1. A devastating crime
Thrillers involve a crime, and the bulk of the novel usually consists of hair-raising, nail-biting attempts to stop that crime from happening.
If the action kicks off with a crime, that early crime is just a sample of what’s to come. If there’s not a crime at the start of the book, there has to be a credible threat of a crime. The story centers on the hero’s efforts to prevent a catastrophic crime from occurring.
2. Life, liberty, and justice
These are the values at stake in a thriller. Readers identify with the hero. They want to share with him the experience of being on the edge, nearly losing life or liberty, and pulling back from the gaping jaws just as they snap shut. They want to run down the villain and see him get what’s coming to him.
Put anything less than life, liberty, and justice on the line and your reader will walk away disappointed.
3. Reveal the stakes
Life, liberty, and justice are the intangibles at stake. There also has to be something fairly concrete — the formula for a bioweapon that will allow the villain to take over the planet, a time machine programmed to bring Hitler into the modern world — whatever your story demands. If you’ve ever heard anyone refer to the MacGuffin, this is what they meant.
You have to make the villain’s objective clear, as well as the dire consequences of his success, so that readers can actively participate in the story by keeping score and placing bets.
4. Balance of power
Both the hero and the villain must be formidable, brilliant, powerful, or somehow awe-inspiring. But also complex, real, and multi-dimensional. Though they might appear well-matched, the balance of power must be drastically tipped in favor of the villain.
The hero has an obvious flaw that holds him back. The villain is flawed, too, but his flaw might come across as an advantage until the climactic scene. If you can swing it so that his flaw plays a part in his ultimate demise, you’ve hit a story bullseye.
And if your book doesn’t start with these two pitted against each other in intimate conflict, you must arrange things so that by the end, it’s personal.
5. Clues and red herrings
Here’s where you have some overlap into the realm of mystery conventions. Your characters must follow a trail of clues and false leads, going through a series of try/fail cycles.
The situation grows more hopeless and perilous with each cycle, until the final breakthrough which leads to a definitive victory for one side and defeat for the other.
6. Climactic scene
You must have that ultimate, climactic Hero at the Mercy of the Villain scene, where it appears impossible that your protagonist will come out on top. Against all odds, your hero must somehow outsmart or overpower the bad guy, ideally using the villain’s own flaw against him.
This is the highest rise and drop on your reader rollercoaster. It’s where you put the tightest loops and the greatest G-force curves. It’s a critical scene, and tough to innovate with something that hasn’t been done before, so put a lot of your writing eggs in this basket.
It’s worth the time and effort.
7. False ending
You know that moment in a horror flick when the monster is finally defeated and the hero turns away from the twisted, horrific sight of the dead creature to fan herself, catch her breath, and give the audience a good view of the monster rising up behind her? That same idea is a convention of the thriller genre. You lull your reader into thinking it’s over, but the fat lady hasn’t actually busted it out yet.
You, as writer, have to hold one more ace up your sleeve. You can do this by misdirecting your reader’s attention like Thomas Harris did in The Silence of the Lambs when he sent the FBI to crash down Buffalo Bill’s door, miles away from where Clarice was about to encounter the villain, in the flesh.
Or find another ingenious way, but don’t overlook this convention.
Two Foundational Scenes
The two scenes you must absolutely nail are the climactic scene mentioned above, and the opening scene of your novel. These are so critical that I would suggest writing the climax before you write anything else, so that you can shape and direct everything you write toward that scene.
When you write a solid climax to your story, it becomes a guide, answering so many questions that you, as writer, need to address. It can shed light on the character flaws of both your villain and hero. It can suggest the underlying theme of your book and help you infuse deeper meaning into the story. It can help you know what you need to set up in the earlier parts of the novel.
Next, write the opening, but don’t get hung up here. This scene is crucial, and the weight of it can cripple you right out the gate. Don’t let that happen. Just write the scene, and move on.
Later, when you have a better handle on the tone and direction of the story, you can return with laser focus and perfect this scene.
Ingredients of an Opening
The three things to remember are to start with a character, in a setting, with a problem. And make the reader care about what happens next. I grabbed some books off my shelf for a few examples:
It’s midnight now. The house is dark. I am not sure how this will turn out. The kids are all desperately sick, throwing up. I can hear my son and daughter retching in separate bathrooms. I went in to check on them a few minutes ago, to see what was coming up. I’m worried about the baby, but I had to make her sick, too. It was her only hope.
Prey by Michael Crichton
Riley stood naked on the dressing room floor. She fingered the smooth black silkiness of the gown she would wear to cover herself on stage, knowing the very essence of herself would remain exposed, uncoverable by any length of silk. It was what she always felt before a performance, and the knowledge exhilarated and terrified her.
Nocturne In Ashes by Joslyn Chase
I was in a deep sleep, alone aboard my houseboat, alone in the half acre of bed, alone in a sweaty dream of chase, fear, and monstrous predators. A shot rang off steel bars. Another. I came bursting up out of sleep to hear the secretive sound of the little bell which rings at my bedside when anyone steps aboard The Busted Flush. It was almost four in the morning.
The Dreadful Lemon Sky by John D. MacDonald
Did you notice how I slid my own book in there? Hey, if I don’t put myself side by side with the likes of Crichton and MacDonald, who will?
Again, it’s important to ground your reader deep in the character POV with specific, sensory detail filtered through the character’s opinions and emotions. Once you’ve grasped the reader and given her a reason to care, rev up the action and shatter her world.
A Few Last Words
I’ve given you the most essential elements in the tips above. Here are a few more things to keep in mind as you write your thriller:
- Remember, as the writer, you are the god of this world and you are unstuck in time. Move around at will, write in whatever order you wish, make the pieces dance on your command.
- Don’t forget the power of a ticking clock to heighten tension and keep the story tight.
- Think cinematic. Picture the story, as you write, like a movie with an unlimited budget. Make it big and exciting in your mind, and translate that excitement to the page.
- If you start with a prologue, keep it short and compelling. A teaser, not an info dump. Switch to your main character as soon as possible, because readers want to form a bond quickly, and if you withhold your protagonist for long, they won’t like it.
- Put tension on every page, and make sure every scene turns — that is, ensure that a character does something or reveals new information that changes the dynamic or direction of the story.
Obviously, everything you need to know about how to write a good thriller cannot be contained in one short article. Here are a couple good resources to check out:
The Story Grid, book and podcast, Shawn Coyne, joined by Tim Grahl on the podcast
The Editor Roundtable podcast, hosted by a group of editors analyzing popular books and movies in terms of Story Grid elements.
How To Write A Damn Good Thriller, James N. Frey
Satisfied readers is the goal, and meeting reader expectations is how you get there. Work hard to honor your readers by giving them what they crave, and they will reward you by coming back for more.
Are you a seasoned thriller reader? What do you hanker for when you open up a thriller? Do you have any other tips for how to write a thriller novel? Let us know in the comments.
Write the climactic scene for the thriller you’re working on or thinking about writing. Make sure the balance of power is tipped in the villain’s favor, as the scene begins. Find a way to turn that around and bring your hero out on top. This is not easy, but have fun playing with it, and try different versions.