What You Can Learn About Writing By Writing Thrillers

by Nick Thacker | 29 comments

This guest post is by Nick Thacker. Nick is a writer, author, and blogger. You can find Nick at his blog, LiveHacked.com, or on Twitter (@nickthacker). Thanks Nick!

I recently finished writing my first book—an action-packed thriller that’s a 110,000-word whopper of a tale.

It was the most fun I’d ever had, but I learned a lot during the process (as we tend to do when we write a book for the first time!).

Part of the process for me was in structure, outlining, and building characters that didn’t seem like cardboard cutouts, but what I want to talk about today is the idea of pacing.

car chase scene

In a thriller, like Dan Brown’s or James Rollins’ stuff, pacing is everything. Lose the tempo, and you lose the reader.

Arguably, it’s no different in any kind of fiction, so I thought this might be a helpful topic to other writers. Here’s a breakdown of things to keep in mind as you write:

1. Everything leads to something.

This might sound obvious, but in your prose everything that happens needs to happen for a reason. As Alfred Hitchcock said, “story is just life with the boring parts cut out.”

You don’t need to constantly be killing bad guys or have an explosion at every turn, a la Michael Bay, but you do need to make sure that every sentence your characters utter and every scene you pen has a purpose of moving the story forward.

2. When you get stuck, do something ridiculous.

This might be more for the “pansters” crowd, but I found that in my thriller whenever I’d get stuck figuring out what to do next, the story was dragging and slow. I’d do well to rewrite the section, change the characters’ goals or motives, or just scrap the whole thing entirely in favor of something more lively and action-packed.

Again, this doesn’t mean you need to blow something up or kill someone—a good strategy might be to just introduce a ridiculous “how-can-they-possibly-overcome-this-situation”-type moment into the plot. Doing this not only moves the story in a new direction and hopefully breathes new life into the scene; it also provides a boost of creativity and problem-solving right-brain activity for you!

3. Work backwards.

Unfortunately, I didn’t do this until it was almost too late, and I spent a few weeks rewriting my story's introductory scenes. If you want to really close with a bang (like most good thrillers and action/adventure novels), try writing an awesome, powerful, and momentous ending that seems completely implausible first. You’ll have 100,000 words to make it plausible.

Don’t worry about your readers’ “suspension of disbelief.” As a writer, that’s your creative bread and butter, and you’ll have much more fun trying to figure out the twists and impossible turns that lead up to that amazing, culminating scene. Bust out all the stops and forget about second thoughts—you and I both know that the best novels we’ve read end with that uplifting, powerful, or impacting note that only a true “bang” ending can provide.

These endings aren’t an accident—start by figuring out the most creative and cool way you could possibly end the tome, and work backwards from there to get your story and characters to fit onto the path leading to their fate.


Write an ending. Make it the most ridiculous, “out there” ending you can possibly come up with—we don’t need to know who your characters are or why they’re in this situation—just let the juices flow and be creative.

Write for fifteen minutes, and when you're finished, post your practice in the comments section. And make sure to comment on a few other pieces, too.

Writing should be fun, and if you can have fun writing your ending, you’ll certainly have fun figuring out how to make the rest of the story happen!

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  1. Missaralee

    The ninja assasins had Mary by the hair, a razor sharp blade to her throat. Scout was backed against the wall of the lime kiln, with nowhere to run and no way to rescue Mary.
    Just at that moment the bengal tiger burst from the underbrush, her once proud tail lit up like a chinese firecracker. Scout threw himself out of the way of the charging feline, knocking into the vat of pitch, spilling it over the scattered straw and branches on the
    kiln floor. Mary and her captor skipped out of the way of the hot liquid goo and Mary, losing her balance strayed too near the edge of the crumbling cliff, and tumbled out of sight as the earth cracked and gave way beneath her. The tiger’s tail lit the pitch as she
    passed by and Scout grabbed a handful of her fur and said a quick prayer as he was carried over the cliff to an unknown fate.
    The clan of ninjas were blocked from their pursuit by the inferno of the ignited pitch. The flames began to lick at the supply casks marked flour and powder stored in one corner of the abandoned kiln. Scout and Mary heard the deafening explosion from their perch in a
    deceptively strong pine with its roots wedged into a crevace in the cliff. The poor tiger scrabbled her way down the rocky slope and threw herself into the rapids, extinguishing the flames on her now charred tail.
    “I guess the next time we go on a Sunday picnic we should remember to bring the bug spray,” Scout said. He and Mary laughed until their
    sides hurt, finally giving into mirth and hysterics brought on by the day’s events.

    • Rachel Altsman

      Hahaha!  Now I want to know what happened with the bug spray!

    • Nick Thacker

      WOW! Ninjas, tigers, and fires–ALL AT THE SAME TIME?!?

      Awesome, Missaralee! Thanks for sharing!

    • alba 17

       Great dramatic scene. Love the bit about the bug spray.

    • Suzie Gallagher

      Missaralee, love this, so dramatic and the lime kiln. We have a lime kiln on our land we use it for barbecues so I love to see them in stories. Good job

  2. Harry Dunn

    This is so true and a great blog.
    My debut novel ‘Smile of the Viper’ is published on September 3rd 2012. I had always been a bit unsure how satisfying the ending would be to the reader.
    I was in a coffee shop one day and read the headline of a newspaper being read by the person on the next table. I wrote down five words on my napkin. Those words completely changed the ending and helped get me published.
    Best cup of coffee I’ve ever tasted.
    Best Wishes,
    Harry Dunn

    • Nick Thacker

      Awesome, Harry! What were the 5 words, if I may ask? 

      Thanks for commenting, and for stopping by!

  3. Harry Dunn

    Hi Nick and thanks for your message. Trouble is,if I give away the five words,I give away the ending!! Now there’s a dilemma. What would you do if you were me?

    • Nick Thacker

      Ah–I understand! 

      Haha, well don’t give it away–instead, let us know where we can grab a copy of it, so we can enjoy those final words as well!

    • Harrydunn2005

      Hi Nick,
      Well, some long delay since I wrote but I have been busy. Honest! Smile of the Viper is receiving 5 Star reviews on Amazon and I’m a third into the sequel, Forever Evil, so it has been head down in the writing pit.
      I hope all is well with you.
      Kind Regards
      Harry Dunn

    • Nick Thacker

      Awesome! Glad to hear it!

  4. RD Meyer

    My most recent work was a thriller, the first I tried to write, and I was surprised at how much fun it was.

    • Nick Thacker

      It’s a blast! Especially when it’s planned out ahead of time (unlike mine…)!

    • RD Meyer

      I planned out as much as I could, but I found I couldn’t go too far.  The writing often surprised ne with where the story led.

  5. Suzie Gallagher

    …running, running away, running toward. He ran mile upon mile, his mind in turmoil. There was no wall, physical or mental that stopped him. He ran on. He had within him the one piece of information, the vital snippet that would unravel the banking system, that would bring down the government, that would start a war between the two biggest nations, that would stop this civilisation in its tracks, that would bring a wave of anarchy that would go around the world.

    He had no plan except to run, whichever way his mind turned he could see only destruction, he could only see annihilation and so he ran. As he came towards the cliff path he suddenly had a plan, he could not keep the information within, it would eat him up and as he looked at the gathering sunset he ploughed on. Running always running, he ran off the edge and screamed the secret to the sea as he plummeted to his death. 

    The banks opened the next day as they had every other day, the Government did its business and the earth continued turning on its axis. His heroic death went unnoticed. 

    • alba 17

       Neat idea!

    • Nick Thacker

      Cool! This REALLY gets me thinking! If you ever finish the story, let me know–I’m very interested in reading more!

    • Suzie Gallagher

      Its working title is ‘the deconstruction of a missile’   and the man is an engineer, a joe soap, who is just a tad too curious  ooh and he runs

    • Yvette Carol

      Oh no! The instant they run you know they’re doomed…

  6. Leti Del Mar

    I’m just starting my second novel (Romantic Suspense) and I’m using the practice and tips.  Thanks for the great ideas!

    • Nick Thacker

      No problem, Leti! Glad you found it useful!

  7. alba 17

    Really interesting column! I thought I’d give this a shot, but, well, this isn’t particularly out there.

    He was almost there. Ambrose could see the light of the sky
    at the top of the tower. His skirts tripped him up as he ran up the steps,
    higher and higher. Lungs in pain now, wheezing. Behind him, the knights
    clattered, lugging themselves up the stairs with their heavy chainmail. If they
    caught him, he was done for, they’d kill him immediately. He could hear their
    harsh, ragged breathing getting closer. He tried to speed up but he wasn’t used
    to exercise and he was flagging.


    He fell on the top step. The bell was just above him, a wide
    circle of darkness hovering. The parchment, priceless, was crumpled in his
    sweaty hand. He’d given up everything and by God, he couldn’t let them take it.
    His life’s work gone in a minute.


    Just as the first knight rounded the circular stairs toward
    him, Ambrose managed to scramble to his feet on a surge of pure adrenaline. The
    window of the bell tower was right in front of him and he jumped up into it,
    swaying with fear and indecision. The ground looked very far away.


    “No!” someone yelled. The knights were bearing
    down on him, swords out and flinty sharp. He knew their orders were to kill.


    The ground beckoned. Would God forgive him for everything
    he’d done? His lips mumbled a quick prayer for absolution, then he jumped. For
    one moment, he was cleansed, the air cold and bracing on his face. Then pain
    and darkness.

    • Nick Thacker

      Hey abla! Thanks for the practice–great job! 

      I LOVE castle/knight historic pieces, and I’d love to read more of this! Thanks for sharing!


  8. Oddznns

    It  disengaged itself from the old man’s dying body as quickly as it could, breaking free from his veins and tendons just before he breathed his last. It was so good to be weightless again, simple pure spirit.  But if it wanted to remain earthbound, here, this lightness could only be a three second pleasure.  It allowed its essence to thing, stretch all the way down the empty street, until it touched a finger of warmth, a pulsating vein. It found a pore and entered the sleeping baby. 

    • Nick Thacker

      NICE! Reminds me of Prometheus, from the alien’s POV! Good stuff!

    • Yvette Carol

      Woo that’s good… and creepy somehow. You should write this book!!

  9. Yvette Carol

    This is a great idea. I started out my WIP with a kick-butt ending which I loved… however I have to admit in the process of rewrites & edits the ending has changed a dozen times. Now it’s not even remotely connected to the one I started out with!

  10. Notion Press

    I found your guide “What You Can Learn About Writing By Writing Thrillers”, very useful. I represent a self-publishing company, Notion press and this information means a lot to our network of writers, to whom we will be sharing it. We also have similar useful content on our academy page. Please feel free to check out and get in touch with us.




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