Ah, thriller novels. Yes, many of them may not be “serious literature”, but they’re not supposed to be. They’re meant to be fun. They’re meant to be the kind of book that you start reading and just can’t put down until you reach the last page, despite the fact that you’ve got other things to do. Yes, thriller novels are amazing. However, they are apparently surprisingly difficult to write well.
Although I’ve only really dabbled in writing thriller fiction (usually combined with sci-fi and/or horror elements) and only really feel qualified to offer very basic advice, I thought that I’d give you a few tips which might be useful if you’re new to this genre.
1) Read a lot of thriller novels: This is probably the most important thing to do if you’re planning to write a thriller story. Not only will a good amount of background reading help you to avoid things which have been pretty much done to death, but it will also show you fairly clearly what does and doesn’t work in a thriller novel. In addition to this, it will give you a chance to look at several different writing styles and to see what elements they have in common with each other and what elements you with to incorporate into your own writing.
If you’re totally new to this genre, I would recommend reading anything by Dan Brown (especially “Deception Point” and “Digital Fortress”), literally anything by Lee Child, “Seven Ancient Wonders” by Matthew Reilly (more on this book later) and some of Shaun Hutson’s non-horror fiction (eg: “White Ghost”, “Exit Wounds” and “Knife Edge”).
2) Plot reigns supreme: The most important thing about a thriller story isn’t the characters or even the quality of the writing, it is the plot.
A thriller story can have two-dimensional characters and a writing style which almost makes you want to throw the book into the bin in disgust, but it can still be the kind of thing you just can’t put down purely because the story is so fascinating.
Whilst this shouldn’t be used as an excuse for bad writing, it means that the writing in thriller stories doesn’t always have to be as “perfect” as other types of stories in order to be both publishable and very readable (in fact, your writing should be relatively simple, concise and “matter of fact”). As long as your thriller story has a very strong and compelling plot, then everything else doesn’t matter quite as much.
A perfect example of this is probably a novel called “Seven Ancient Wonders” by Matthew Reilly. Go and read the first hundred pages of it. Take note of the gratingly annoying way that Reilly uses line breaks for “suspense”, take note of some of the more ludicrous set pieces and the relatively small amount of characterisation. Now put the book down.
Go on, stop reading it.
Still reading? I thought as much. You see, Matthew Reilly’s novels are the perfect example of just how important good plotting is to thriller novels. Everything else about his books is absolutely terrible but, because the plots are so interesting and dramatic, they are still extremely readable and compelling.
So, how do you come up with a good plot for a thriller novel?
3) Thriller novels are basically detective novels on steroids: If you’ve read even a small number of thriller novels, then you’ll have probably realised that the plots almost inevitably revolve around either solving a mystery of some kind or finding something before someone else does. Once you strip away all of the car chases, explosions, gunfights etc… a thriller novel is nothing more than a souped-up detective novel.
The main reason for this is because mysteries are inherently fascinating and they make people feel curious. If people are curious, then they are going to want to keep reading until they no longer feel curious (eg: until the end of your story). As such, this type of plot tends to be used in most thriller novels because it works astonishingly well.
Unlike an action movie, which can basically just fascinate and entertain people with lots of special effects and well-choreographed combat, a thriller novel needs to back all of that kind of stuff up with an even more fascinating story.
4) Opening lines: A strong beginning is essential to any story, but it is even more essential to thriller stories. If the first few lines of your story don’t grab the reader’s attention and make them want to see what happens next, then the rest of your story doesn’t matter.
It can be the most thrilling thriller novel ever written, but if it starts with something like: ‘I woke up early and looked out of the window as the rosy fingers of dawn played their way across the idyllic Cornish countryside surrounding our house. My husband was still sleeping as I walked downstairs and picked up the morning paper from the doormat. The headline mentioned some celebrity scandal that I didn’t really care about. I threw the paper onto the table before putting the kettle on and making a cup of tea…’ Most people will stop reading out of boredom.
When it comes to the very beginning of your story, assume that your readers have an incredibly short attention span and need something shocking, fascinating and/or dramatic in order to keep reading.
To give you an example of a good beginning to a thriller novel, check out the opening sentences to Lee Child’s “Gone Tomorrow”: ‘Suicide bombers are easy to spot. They give out all kinds of tell-tale signs. Mostly because they’re nervous. By definition they’re all first-timers.’
See what Lee Child does here? The first sentence contains something dramatic (eg: suicide bombers) as well as something intriguing (eg: Why does the narrator know that they’re easy to spot?). This is followed up by some additional descriptions which keep both the reader interested and make the reader even more curious about why exactly the narrator knows all of this stuff.
Because suicide bombers are mentioned in the very first sentence, more astute readers will realise that they’ll probably show up in the story fairly soon. So, of course, the reader knows that the narrator may encounter a suicide bomber in the near future, but they don’t know how, where or when. Of course, the only way to find out is to keep reading….
5) Pacing and structure: If you’ve read a few modern thriller novels (eg: anything written since, say, the mid-1990s) then you’ll probably notice that the chapters are usually fairly short.
This structure is useful because, not only does it allow the reader to feel that they’re moving through the story more quickly than they actually are (eg: “I read the first seven chapters in twenty minutes” sounds like a lot more than “I read the first thirty five pages in twenty minutes”), it also makes the story more appealing to readers who don’t have the time to read the book from cover to cover, since there are plenty of points where they can stop reading.
In addition to this, short chapters force the writer to ensure that every word matters and to make sure that something significant happens in every chapter. If you’re writing a thriller novel and one of your chapters doesn’t either add a lot to the reader’s understanding of the characters, contain something dramatic or move the story forward, then leave that chapter out of your story. Your readers won’t miss it.
However, at the same time, your story should also have a fair number of “quieter” moments and less eventful scenes in order to make the action-based parts of your story more dramatic by comparison.
For a lot more information (and a lot more detailed information) about pacing in thriller stories, check out an excellent book called “How To Write A Thriller Novel” By Scott Mariani
6) Research: If you’re going to write a “realistic” thriller story, then you are going to have to do a lot of research – especially if your story involves firearms, the military, the police, technology etc… Whilst you can obviously take a few creative liberties in some parts of your story (since absolute realism doesn’t always make for extremely dramatic stories), there will probably be people who will probably gladly point out any large errors in the “realistic”/technical parts your story.
One way to sidestep doing a large amount of research is to make your thriller story clearly fantastical (this is one reason why the few thriller stories I’ve written have been sci-fi ones).
But, if you want to write something realistic, then be sure to do as much research as you can. This can include talking to people with experience of the subjects in question, reading books about the subject, reading online articles (eg: Wikipedia), watching documentaries, visiting locations you plan to use in your story etc…. But, remember, realism should never get in the way of telling a fascinating story.
Sorry that this article ended up being so long, but I hope that it was useful 🙂