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Posted on Oct 01, 2018

How to Write a Thriller in 7 Heart-Stopping Steps

Someone has been kidnapped and your protagonist is trying to prevent their murder. The clock is ticking but their car has just exploded, the building they were in has been set on fire, and, as they turn around to try to escape, they are face-to-face with a gun…. Now what ? Since you’re here, you obviously want to answer that question by writing your own thriller.

In this post, we look at how to write a thriller by outlining the main characteristics of the genre and turning to professional editors for their top tips.

What is a thriller?

A thriller is a fast-paced novel full of conflict , tension, suspense , unexpected twists, and high stakes. Every single scene and element in a thriller is meant to propel the action forward, test the characters, and take the readers on a roller coaster ride that will leave them on the edge of their seats.

writing a thriller novel

What is the difference between thrillers, mysteries, and suspense fiction?

Readers often conflate thrillers with mystery or suspense novels, which is perfectly understandable — bookstores often shelve them in the same section. But what are the differences between these other genres (if there are any)?

When it comes to the differences between thrillers and suspense novels, editor Allister Thompson suggests there is not a huge difference. He says that “the element of surprise, the release of tension, may be more important in suspense (the tension has to break at some point), while it could be said that a thriller needs more visceral action.” In a thriller, the danger, twists, and surprises that await the protagonist are important for maintaining the pace of the novel and keeping the reader on their feet.

In thriller and mystery novels, the action is driven by separate forces. According to editor Anne Brewer:  “In a mystery, the plot is driven forward by the protagonist, a sleuth, who is investigating a murder… In a thriller, the action is driven forward more generally by elements beyond the protagonist's control.” In both cases, the protagonists might be working toward solving a case, but the events that surround them — and how they get into them — are completely different. Another difference is that mystery novels generally involve a protagonist who is faced with a crime that they need to solve. On the other hand, in thrillers, the protagonist might need to stop the crime from happening in the first place.

Perhaps most crucially, the whole point of a mystery is to figure out the culprit. However, in thrillers you might discover the Big Bad on the very first page — which means they’ll be posing a threat to the protagonist from the start.

PRO-TIP:  To read 22 of the best psychological thrillers, check out this post right here . 

Thriller subgenres

Thrillers are just one term for a large category of fiction that includes various subgenres. Although it might seem trivial, deciding on a subgenre will actually help guide your writing since you’ll know where it fits in the market. They can encompass:

There is often some overlap among the subgenres, so don’t be surprised to find a book in two — or even three — different categories. Whichever subgenre you settle on, we recommend reading books that fit into that category to get an idea of the common elements that are often present.

So, now that we have defined what a thriller is and its characteristics — let’s see how to write one.

Which genre (or subgenre) am I writing?

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How to write a thriller in 7 steps

There’s no fool-proof way of writing a successful thriller (if there was, everyone would do it), but there are ways to ensure that your novel ticks all the right boxes. Based on advice from our network of editors, this is our take on how to write a thriller.

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1. Flesh out your characters and their motivations

Characters in thrillers are usually complex. The good guy might not be the model citizen, and the bad guy may have a justification and conviction for everything they do — at least in their mind.

The rivalries between these opposing forces is what will give rise to the action that will propel your story forward, so you need to give each of your characters a clear motivation . Ask yourself:

One great exercise when carrying out this kind of character development is to fill out a character profile template. You can try out our free one below. Lucky you!

writing a thriller novel


Reedsy’s Character Profile Template

A story is only as strong as its characters. Fill this out to develop yours.

2. Start with action

The opening scene is a pivotal moment in any book. In thrillers, it’s especially important because you need to start with action from the get-go. Oftentimes starting in medias res is a good way to accomplish this. Avoid an “info dump” where you accidentally include too many irrelevant background details.

You don’t necessarily need to start with a murder — in fact, in some thrillers, there isn’t one at all or it doesn’t happen until half way through the novel — but you need to start with something exciting that sets the protagonist in motion.

In the very first chapter of The Bourne Identity by Robert Ludlum, someone on a boat falls into the waters of the Mediterranean after being shot  — we don’t know who or why. He is eventually rescued by a fishing boat, and we find out that this survivor has amnesia. At this point, the reader has virtually no information about the characters or the plot of the book before being launched into a life-threatening situation.

writing a thriller novel

3. Show what’s at stake

High stakes are characteristic of thrillers, but the particulars change depending on the subgenre. For example, in a domestic thriller, the stakes will be more character-specific. Contrast this to a military or political thriller, where the consequences will probably be broader, affecting the fates of a group, country, or even the world.

writing a thriller novel

In Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng, a daughter’s disappearance and death puts the family at risk of completely shattering while they try to find out what happened to her. In this domestic thriller, the stakes are specific to the family. Even though they are the only ones affected by the events, it’s just as effective.

4. Make it difficult for your protagonist

Your audience needs to care for your protagonist and their fate, and a good way to do this is by placing them in situations where it’s impossible to tell if they’ll make it or not. This will help heighten the stakes and make their eventual success much more satisfying for the readers. So, put your characters in jeopardy by having dangerous situations come at them from unexpected places! Make their trusted allies turn on them seemingly out of the blue.

In Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl (spoilers!) , protagonist Nick is the main suspect for the murder of his wife, Amy, who disappeared on their fifth wedding anniversary. Even though he is made to look like the culprit, we later find out that everything had been staged by Amy herself as a plan to accuse Nick of murder. While Amy coming “back to life” is meant to exonerate him and bring his life back to normal, it ends up being worse as he’s then forced to live under her threats.

writing a thriller novel

5. Bring on the twists

As we have established, thrillers are mainly propelled by plot events, and the best way to keep readers engaged in the plot is by introducing twists and unexpected events . This is easier said than done, as twists can sometimes have the opposite effect. So, if you are not sure if your twist is enough to keep the story moving, Anne Brewer suggests asking yourself the following questions:

Once you have the answer to these questions, make it happen .

Chart showing the rise, climax, and falling action that the Fichtean Curve consists of.

6. Build up to the climax

Now it’s the moment that the protagonist — and the readers — have been waiting for: the final showdown against the antagonist that will decide everything.

The climax is a pivotal scene in your book, so make sure you dedicate time to polishing it and make it really shine. In particular, it may be helpful to write the climax first so that you already know where your characters need to end up. Once you’ve established that, you can pave their way through your plot twists. If you'd like some inspiration, go here for a list of 70+ plot twists .

7. Give your story a satisfying ending

A satisfying ending isn’t necessarily a “happily ever after.” Keep in mind the kind of story you’ve been telling so far and make sure the ending fits well.

In some cases, you may want to completely tie all the threads and answer all the questions. Or you might want to leave it as an open ending, where the final conclusions are left to the reader’s interpretation. If your plan is to write a series of books, then a cliffhanger might be the way to keep readers on the hook. Whatever kind of conclusion you go for, remember that it’s always necessary to wrap up the current action so that there’s a sense of satisfaction at the end of the book.

Now that we’ve covered seven steps to write a thriller, let’s cover a few bonus tips to ensure that it leaves a lasting impression.

Bonus tips from professional editors

Writing a gripping thriller can be a challenge, so we turned to our top professional editors for tips to help you write your own page-turner.

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Avoid anything that bogs down the pacing

According to editor Anne Brewer, “Thriller writers should avoid anything that bogs down their pacing. This tends to be either getting too wrapped up in everyday details or getting mired in plot developments that aren't exciting enough for the genre.” If you see that a scene or a plot doesn’t add enough excitement or it slows down the action instead of moving it along, take a step back and rewrite it.

Don’t mislead the reader

“If you are writing a thriller, or something you wish to call one, then action and/or danger must be there. If you write another kind of mystery novel that is gentler or more procedural and call it a thriller, you're misleading the reader,” says editor Allister Thompson. It is important that you stay true to the genre throughout the novel — otherwise you might just turn away readers instead of gaining them.

Don’t let your imagination get bogged down

When writing a book, it’s easy to let yourself be constrained by the limits set by your own abilities. However, Anne Brewer warns against this, saying: “Try not to let your imagination get restrained with what might normally happen: plot twists in thrillers are entertaining because they're inventively outside the norms.”

Make sure the stakes are high enough

“A thriller needs to have a palpable sense of tension or danger or, at worst, dire consequences that the characters are trying to avoid or escape. And there must be pitfalls along the way,” says Allister Thompson. In other words: make absolutely sure that the stakes are high for your protagonist, so that they are compelled to keep the story moving forward.

To write your own unstoppable thriller, don’t forget to create that action-driven tension, conflict, and suspense. Turn everything upside down — for the protagonist and the reader — with every turn and twist.

What are some of your favorite thrillers? Let us know in the comments below!

6 responses

Thomas Peterson says:

17/07/2019 – 14:02

It was great that you mentioned the climax is the most important scene to make great. I love reading and writing modern women suspense novels and it's great to get some tips on how to make the writing so much better and to help me understand these things when reading them. I would love to try some of these tips to enhance my reading and writing greatly.

↪️ Yvonne replied:

08/08/2019 – 01:54

Glad that you found the article useful and hope that you've gotten a chance to apply the tips! Looking forward to the success story :)

Kevon Brown says:

06/08/2019 – 12:54

Informative stuff!! Great job. Keep sharing.

Thanks for reading, Kevon!

Mary Hutson says:

15/01/2020 – 02:49

For anyone who would like to read a couple of very good Crime thrillers, checkout "Snapped" or "Sniper's Nest" by CM Sutter. I got them as free Kindle books on amazon .com and now, I'm learning how to write my own thriller. They brought me more joy than any other book I've read in years! The author's website: www.cmsutter also offers free downloads. I guarantee you'll be impressed.

Penelope Smith says:

11/03/2020 – 03:28

I liked your suggestion about not misleading the reader. It is always nice to know that you could have figured out the mystery in a book. I love reading books where I can try to start putting the pieces together early on and getting that pay off for that work later on.

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How to Write a Thriller Novel in 7 Steps [+ Free Template]

writing a thriller novel


Knowing how to write a thriller is the same as learning any genre. While any work of fiction allows for unlimited creativity and interpretation, there are still guidelines. 

Every genre has things that work and certain structures that are most effective. Every genre has “rules” that when followed, create a perfectly structured story in the style you’re after. 

There are seven basic steps to writing an effectively exciting thriller:

This is not to say rules can’t be broken. But, when you’re just starting out it is usually smart to follow the basic genre conventions. 

How to Write a Thriller Novel: What is it? 

When learning how to write a thriller, you’re looking at lots of action, suspense, high stakes, and a ton of conflict. Thrillers are largely plot-driven and a little bit less focused on character – though development is still important. 

You want each scene in a thriller to move the story forward. Everything should be advancing the plot. Thrillers are no place for fluff or filler. Perhaps some brief comic relief, but that’s it.

This ensures that the pace never slows. If your thriller slows down too much, you’ll lose the interest of your readers. They are there to be thrilled, after all. 

Thriller vs. Mystery

Many tend to get thrillers and mystery novels mixed up, or think they are the same thing. It’s an easy mistake – after all, mysteries are pretty thrilling, aren’t they? 

They are, but there are several key differences that separate these two similar yet different types of stories. 

The main separating force is the drive. The action in the story is driven by different things. 

In a mystery , the story is moved forward mostly by the protagonist themselves. This will be a sleuth or detective who is following the case, uncovering clues, and going after the answers. Their actions will keep the pace of the story. The central crime is almost always murder and the killer is not discovered until the end.

In a thriller , the action is driven primarily by things the protagonist cannot control. Outside circumstances and the decisions of others will play a much bigger role. Most of the time, your protagonist will only be able to react to these things, rather than dictate how they go. There doesn’t necessarily have to be a murder. Whatever the crime or evil is, the perpetrator is often known. The point of the story is not the discovery of their identity, but rather to take them down. 

In each story, you will be after clues, answers, and a proper solution. But, how each protagonist ends up where they do – the circumstances they find themselves in – are different. 

Lastly, a mystery may place more importance on the surprise and tension within the story whereas a thriller can be all physical action. 

Thriller vs. Horror

Another common misconception is that horror and thriller are the same and can be used interchangeably. While they are similar, they are not the same, either. 

Both are intense and can be freaky, but there are some distinctions: 

A thriller is, by definition, meant to thrill. What happens in a thriller will excite audiences and create a great deal of suspense and tension. The storyline and characters are more complex and psychological. You usually have to think your way through a thriller in order to follow what happens. 

A horror , on the other hand, is meant to horrify. A horror story will contain much more grotesque and detailed instances of gore, death, and violence. It will create disturbing visuals. It bypasses excitement and anticipation and goes right for fear. Horror doesn’t want to entertain you. It wants to terrify you. A horror usually won’t have as much focus on character and will instead focus on the events, circumstances, and horrors that are happening. 

It is important to keep these differences in mind when writing a thriller. Don’t let it become truly scary or bloody unless you want to jump the fence and create true horror. 

Thriller Subgenres

Another important part of knowing how to write a thriller is familiarizing yourself with the associated subgenres. Every genre will have a series of subgenres that fall into the same general category but make for different types of stories. 

Each of these subgenres will have its own set of conventions and styles that need to be followed in order for it to fall under the subgenre title. 

Some popular thriller subgenres include: 

Each of these will all follow the same basic novel structure of a thriller, but they will contain specific elements that make them what they are:

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Thriller Novel Template

Writing a book is not an easy task, and so learning how to write a thriller specifically can be a process. I’ve laid out the steps for you, but that doesn’t guarantee success. It’s up to you to put the steps into action and turn it into an action-packed masterpiece. 

I already touched on the dangers of being unorganized while writing. Especially with thrillers, keeping track of those plot twists, complex characters, and ever-rising stakes can be tough. Plot holes are a killer and you’re better off preventing them than trying to fix them. 

This is why writing with good software is important. In addition to this, it might be helpful to use a thriller novel writing prompt . Squibler has created a specific thriller writing template to help you write that thriller with as little headache as possible:

writing a thriller novel

The template will walk you through the seven steps individually. It will allow you to brainstorm and write freely while keeping the guidelines in mind.

Squibler’s goal is to help you write your novel in 30 days – not by rushing but by staying organized.

How to Write a Thriller in 7 Steps

Now that you know what a thriller is and which elements are most important, you should be more than ready to start writing your own.

Everyone works a little differently, but if you do your best to follow these seven steps, you will be able to put together a classic, effective thriller. 

1. Characters

Even though a thriller is action-packed and plot-driven, the quality of your characters is still paramount to the success of your story. 

The main characters in a thriller are usually as complex as the story itself. Not every type of person is cut out for what some thriller protagonists have to do, so you need to make sure you create the right type of character. 

They also need to be believable. It can be easy to create a perfect, easily-lovable hero and a crazy, evil, sadistic villain with no feelings. But, this isn’t realistic and it won’t hold up. 

Your characters need to be balanced. Give your protagonist some flaws and make sure your antagonist has some sort of justification for what they’re doing – even if it’s only internal. 

Most importantly, each character needs to have a clear motivation that will logically drive the actions that they take throughout the story. 

You can ask yourself a few questions to help determine their motivation: 

2. Take Action

Regardless of genre, the opening scene is one of the most important. It’s what gives the reader their first impression on the story, and they will have one of three reactions: 

Number one is, of course, the ideal reaction. Number two is not great, but manageable as long as the rest of your story is enough to pique their interest. The last one is what we want to avoid at all costs.

When a reader picks up a certain book, they are generally aware of the genre they have chosen. They will have certain expectations. With a thriller, they want to be thrilled. They want excitement and wonder. 

This is why action is almost always the best way to start a thriller. 

One of the most important things is to avoid dumping too much information. Don’t worry about background details, they can be revealed later. 

If you’re worried about confusing your reader – don’t! A tiny bit of confusion can work in your favor. It will make them want to read on to find the answers. 

This is often achieved by placing a murder in the opening scene. This is common because it’s effective, but it’s not the only way to do it. Feel free to be creative, just make sure you go big enough. 

Whatever you choose to do, you need to create a sequence that starts your protagonist moving forward right away. 

3. Raise the Stakes

Once you’ve taken care of the initial action, it’s time to show your readers exactly how high the stakes are for your protagonist. High stakes add to the tension, drama, and anticipation. It helps your readers become invested in your protagonist because they want to see them succeed against all odds. 

You can create high stakes out of several different things: 

You can create stakes out of anything like this that is big, important, and/or life-altering in a major way. Stakes can be extremely personal and remain within the family. Or, they can be as broad as an entire country.

The stakes you choose will depend on the type of story you are writing as well as the protagonist themselves. They just need to be big enough for your readers to become invested. 

4. Create Obstacles

Excitement is a huge part of a thriller. No story would be interesting if everything was easy for the protagonist. This is why you need to create challenges. 

You also need to continue making your readers care about your character and what happens to them. This can be done by placing them in impossible situations. When your reader can’t tell whether or not your character will be getting out alive, this increases the stakes and the anticipation. 

Within these challenges and difficulties, you’ll find your midpoint. In a thriller, this is usually either a false high or a false low. Your protagonist either appears to win/make significant progress, or fail completely. 

Either way, it ends up turning around. This event or series of events will give them some more insight into what the antagonist wants and why. This helps push them from a reactive state into a more proactive one. 

The obstacles and challenges will make the ultimate victory even sweeter for both your protagonist and the readers. 

5. The Plot Twists

Next, it’s time to start creating your plot twists. High stakes and obstacles are just the beginning. No thriller is complete without a proper set of plot twists. 

When people hear  “plot twist,” many think of a big, dramatic surprise ending that no one sees coming until it’s already there. These twist endings are often a fantastic way to end a story – especially a thriller. 

But, a thriller needs more than just one big reveal. The entire story should be peppered with unexpected events and fast-paced twists and turns in the action. 

Be careful and attentive when writing in your twists. It can be easy to let plot twists become plot holes. This is where good writing software can come in handy. Something like Squibler can be abundantly helpful in staying on track and keeping your thoughts organized. 

Squibler helps you outline, research, and write your novel all in the same place. It gives you a place to take notes and jot down ideas within a chapter or scene. Not only will this help you avoid plot holes by keeping everything straight, but it’ll get your book done faster and more efficiently in general. 

writing a thriller novel

In addition to staying organized, you need to make sure each twist is big enough. It needs to change things. It needs to keep things moving forward, otherwise, it will feel useless and boring to the reader. Keep these things in mind to create the best possible plot twists: 

Successful plot twists don’t always come easy, but they do always pay off. 

6. The Climax

As you near the end of your story, you’ll need to start bringing your characters into alignment for the climax. The climax is one of the most crucial points in the whole story. It is where your protagonist and antagonist have their final showdown and the ultimate victor is decided. 

Will your protagonist and their team receive their justice? Or will the bad guy win and create a new world order? 

As your protagonist nears this final showdown, give them little bits of success. This builds their confidence and paves the way for them to ultimately defeat (or lose to) the antagonist in the final battle. 

This final sequence doesn’t have to be an actual battle. It can be a battle of wits or a test of will. They can race to see who can outsmart the other faster. It can be a psychological showdown where only words are spoken. 

Whatever it is, don’t neglect it. It decides the ending of your story and thus, the fate of your protagonist and those surrounding them. Some find it helpful to write the climax before anything else. This allows them to know what they’re working towards when writing the rest of the story. 

7. The Ending

When all’s been said and done and the climax is over, your readers want an ending that leaves them satisfied. 

Don’t let yourself confuse satisfied with happy. A happy ending isn’t necessary. Sometimes, the villain wins. You can still satisfy your readers without the happiest of endings. 

There are two vital things that need to happen in order for the ending to be complete. First, you need to tie up all loose ends and unanswered questions. Unless, of course, you are purposely leaving things open-ended and up for interpretation. But, don’t do this by accident. 

Another exception is if you are planning to write a sequel or series of books that follow this one. In which case, unanswered questions and cliffhangers are good. This will keep readers coming back and buying the subsequent installments. 

Secondly, you need to depict, however briefly, what the world looks like now. What has changed for your protagonist? What is their life like now? Are things better or worse than before? How have they changed and what have they learned? 

Once you have accomplished these things, your story has ended. 

Tips for Writing a Thriller Novel

These are the seven basic steps for how to write a thriller novel. They will help you structure the story properly and ensure you include all the necessary elements to make it a true thriller. 

In addition to these steps, you can consider these tips to make your thriller even better.

Avoid Dreams and Flashbacks

Thrillers are all about action and pace. The story is constantly moving forward and your reader is on the edge of their seat – so to speak. You want to avoid doing anything that will slow or even break the pacing of the story. 

This is often the result of using dreams, flashbacks, memories, or anything similar. Dreams and flashbacks offer writers the chance to go off-topic and take a detour, which can be effective in many genres. But, when it comes to a thriller, they often have the opposite effect. 

They interfere with the fast pace and they poke a hole in the tension. Imagine you’ve got your reader holding their breath, turning pages rapidly, and waiting in great anticipation for the big reveal. 

The last thing you want is for them to release that breath and relax their muscles prematurely. Popping back in time or taking them somewhere else will do this. It reverts their attention away from the scene and rebuilding that tension will be difficult. 

The one place where a flashback may be effective in a thriller is during the climax. It can be used to create a memorable and emotional twist. You can have your protagonist remember something during the “final showdown” that before had seemed entirely insignificant. 

This piece of suddenly remembered information will become crucial to the climax and may even change their course of action. It should be entirely shocking for the reader. 

Show the Evil Happening

Even though your protagonist is, of course, the focus of your story, don’t be afraid to show the bad guy sometimes too. 

It can add to the excitement and anticipation when your readers are able to see the evil as it happens, rather than learning what happened when your characters hear about it. 

It also creates a bit of dramatic irony – when the readers know something the character doesn’t.

Use Time to Your Advantage

I’ve stressed more than once now that thrillers thrive on excitement and suspense. There are many ways you can create this in your story, and it’s advisable to use several different methods as to not bore your readers. 

One of the most effective ways to create a sense of urgency is to use time. Time that is running out, to be specific. Any sort of race against the clock will raise the tension higher than ever and create the adrenaline rush you’re looking for. 

This can be anything from a bomb that is set to explode in 24 hours, or a time limit imposed on an investigation before it will be shut down. 

Don’t Be Afraid of Misery

I already talked about creating challenges and obstacles for your protagonist. It’s important that you don’t have any reservations.

Don’t be afraid to make their lives miserable for a while. Do your worst. Have their best friends betray them. Let them be kidnapped. Kill their family. Take everything away from them. The bigger the fall, the sweeter the victory. 

Trust me, Your readers won’t hate you. Sure, they might be temporarily upset with you.

But in the end, they’ll love you that much more when your protagonist eventually wins. 

Or, maybe being hated is what you want. If you’re writing a tragedy, you’ll want everything to be permanently taken from your protagonist.  In this case, definitely, don’t hold back. Being hated by your readers should be considered a success. 

Make the Characters as Complex as Possible

Characters are always important, there’s no getting around that. Proper character development is necessary when writing any novel.

But, the complexity and depth of your main character(s) are especially crucial to a thriller. You’re going to put your character through hell. They are going to be scared, hurt, and overall miserable – until you give them the win. 

For this to be successful, you must make the reader care deeply about your protagonist, and possibly the few around them as well. The more complex, round, and lifelike a character is, the more the reader will care. The more invested they will become. 

When they are emotionally invested, they will read on obsessively until they see their new love become victorious. 

Don’t Trick the Reader

Bookstores organize books by genre for a reason. People seek out specific types of books and stories on purpose. People don’t usually choose a book at random with no prior knowledge. Most of the time, they walk into the store knowing they want a thriller, romance, comedy, etc. 

So, don’t label your book incorrectly. If you’re writing a thriller, make sure it has everything necessary to make it a thriller. 

Don’t write a mildly exciting mystery that’s heavy on dialogue and legal proceedings and call it a thriller. You’ll attract the wrong audience. They won’t be displeased because the writing is necessarily bad, but because it didn’t give them what they were after. 

Now You Can Write a Thriller With Confidence 

Learning how to write a thriller can be daunting, but it doesn’t have to be stressful. Follow these steps and use these tips to write a thriller with no hesitation. 

Don’t be afraid to grab some writing tools to help you, and get that first draft done in no time. 

Thrillers aren’t for everyone, but they sure can be fun to write. And while some avoid them, the genre has a dedicated fanbase. Those who love thrillers, love thrillers and will want to get their hands on all the good stuff they can – including your next bestseller!

writing a thriller novel

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How to Outline a Thriller Novel

writing a thriller novel

Regardless of whether you fall in the “plotter” or “pantser” camp, having a solid understanding of story structure will help you write a story that works and satisfies fans of the genre.

In today’s post, I’m going to show you how to write a well-structured thriller novel using the Three Act Structure. But before we get into the details, let’s talk about word count for a quick moment.

The first thing you’ll want to do when planning any novel is to decide on a  target word count. The average length of a thriller novel is 80,000 words, so I’ll be using that for my example. Once you have a target word count for your story, you can then divide your novel into sections using the Three Act Structure.

What is the Three Act Structure?

The Three Act Structure is a plot structure template that splits a story into three parts. Typically, the sections break out like this:

Now let’s take a look at the purpose of each act, as well as the key story moments that need to happen within certain sections of each act.

Act 1 – The Beginning

The purpose of Act 1 is to introduce your protagonist, his or her external goals, and the main conflict that’s keeping him or her from reaching their goals. By the end of this section, your reader should be wondering, “will the protagonist stop the antagonist before he or she commits any more crimes/hurt more people?” Act 1 includes these key story moments:

1. The Hook  (around 1% or 800 words)

The Hook is your first opportunity to grab your reader’s attention and draw them into your story. In a thriller, this is where you’ll want to introduce a unique or  compelling character  that readers want to learn more about at a critical moment in his or her life. This is a great place to give readers a glimpse at the main conflict of the story. 

2. The Inciting Incident  (around 12% or 9,500 words)

The Inciting Incident in a thriller is ALWAYS the discovery of a crime that indicates there’s a master antagonist on the loose. For example, if you were writing a serial killer thriller, the Inciting Incident would be when a body (or bodies) is found that points to a serial killer. The discovery of this crime gives rise to your character’s object of desire, which is usually to find and/or stop the antagonist before he or she can commit any further crimes (and to not die in the process). 

3. The First Plot Point  (around 25% or 20,000 words)

The First Plot Point is the moment where your protagonist will be personally affected by the conflict that is the basis for your thriller. Using the serial killer thriller example, this could be something super personal like the abduction of someone in the protagonist’s family. Or it could be something a little less personal like the protagonist’s boss telling him or her that their job depends on identifying and arresting or stopping the killer. Whatever it is, there’s usually some new development that raises the stakes and clearly defines the character’s goals going forward. This is also where you can introduce an external goal that might be more specific to the sub-genre you’re writing in. 

Act 2 – The Middle

The purpose of Act 2 is to prepare the protagonist for the final confrontation with the antagonist. This is where the protagonist will chase a trail of clues to uncover new information, learn new skills, get leads, and hatch a plan to stop the antagonist. If your story has an internal arc, this is where the character will need to start reconciling their differing wants and needs. For example, if the protagonist in a serial killer thriller lacks self-confidence, he or she will need to overcome that feeling in order to properly face the antagonist. Then, by the end of this section, the protagonist will hit an all-time low, and it will seem like they’re doomed to fail. The key story moments of Act 2 are:

4. The First Pinch Point  (around 37% or 29,500 words)

The First Pinch Point gives the reader and the character another glimpse at the opposition, or what your character’s face in terms of both inner conflict and outer conflict. For example, in a serial killer thriller, this could be a glimpse at the serial killer kidnapping their next victim.

5. The Midpoint  (around 50% or 40,000 words)

The Midpoint is another new development raises the stakes yet again. It can manifest as a “false-high” or a “false-low.” A “false-high” occurs when it appears that your protagonist is making progress toward achieving their story goal. A “false-low” occurs when it appears that there’s absolutely no way your character will succeed in reaching their story goal. In a thriller, the midpoint usually includes a moment where the protagonist discovers and/or understands what the antagonist wants and why. And it’s this newly realized information that helps the protagonist (and the reader) look at what’s happening in a new light and what helps the protagonist move from a reactive to a proactive state. For example, in a serial killer thriller, this could be when the protagonist realizes what’s motivating the killer to target a specific kind of person and/or why they kill in the first place.

6. The Second Pinch Point  (around 62% or 49,500 words)

The Second Pinch Point gives the protagonist (and the reader) another glimpse at who they’re up against. If your story has an internal arc, this moment might also highlight the character’s inner conflict—or what they need to overcome internally (a fear or false belief) in order to succeed in stopping the antagonist.

7. The Second Plot Point  (around 75% or 60,000 words)

The Second Plot Point is another new development that raises the stakes (again) to their all-time highest point. This is where the absolute worst thing that can happen to your protagonist happens, and it looks like he or she will never succeed in achieving their story goal. The protagonist has learned everything he or she needs to become the primary catalyst in the story’s conclusion, but might still be battling inner doubts, fears, or false beliefs. Whatever happens, the protagonist is now on a direct path to a confrontation with the antagonist.

Act 3 – The End

The purpose of Act 3 is to bring your protagonist into a final showdown with the antagonist. In other words, this section provides the answer to the question raised in Act 1. The key story moments of Act 3 are:

8. The Crisis  (around 88% or 70,000 words)

At the Crisis moment, your protagonist will have to choose between succumbing to their fears and letting the antagonist win or finding the strength and courage to meet the antagonist in a final showdown. Usually, this is where the protagonist realizes what he or she must do to fix not only the external story problems but more importantly, their internal problems as well. It’s the moment where he or she figures out the solution to their big problem  and  learns the theme or life lesson of the story.

9. The Climax  (around 90% or 72,000 words)

Almost always, the Climax of a thriller is a scene where the protagonist and antagonist face off. There’s usually a moment where the protagonist is at the mercy of the antagonist, and it looks like he or she is going to fail (and probably die). It’s at this moment that the protagonist has to unleash his or her special gift or talent in order to not only survive but also to overpower or outsmart the antagonist. It’s the answer to the question asked in the Inciting Incident, “will this character stop the antagonist from committing further crimes/hurting more people?”

10. The Resolution  (around 98% or 78,000 words)

The Resolution shows the reader a glimpse of what life is like now that the threat from the antagonist has been dealt with. The reader gets to see how your protagonist has grown and changed, and what they’re doing now that life has calmed down. The Resolution also shows the reader whether justice prevailed or failed in the story.

Final Thoughts

So, there you have it—the “broad strokes” of a thriller novel. There’s much more to it, but this should give you a pretty good framework to build your story around!

See also:  How to Plot Your Novel with the Save the Cat! Beat Sheet ,  The 6 Scenes Every Thriller Novel Must Have ,  The Conventions of the Thriller Genre

Want to work with me on your thriller novel?  If you need help getting started or getting to “The End,”  click here to check out my 1:1 book coaching service.  If you have a finished draft and want to know what’s working, what’s not working (and why), plus how to make it better,  click here to get your manuscript evaluated.

How to Outline a Thriller Novel | Savannah Gilbo - Are you writing a thriller novel? Learn how to write a thriller novel that works by including these key plot points in your story. Other thriller writing tips included, too! #amwriting #writingtips #writingcommunity

👉 Let's discuss in the comments:  Are you writing a thriller? Do you plan or outline your story before you write? What plot structure templates do you use? Let us know in the comments below!

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How to Write a Thriller Novel

Last Updated: May 6, 2021 References Approved

This article was co-authored by Lucy V. Hay . Lucy V. Hay is an author, script editor and blogger who helps other writers through writing workshops, courses, and her blog Bang2Write. Lucy is the producer of two British thrillers and her debut crime novel, The Other Twin, is currently being adapted for the screen by [email protected] TV, makers of the Emmy-nominated Agatha Raisin. wikiHow marks an article as reader-approved once it receives enough positive feedback. In this case, 90% of readers who voted found the article helpful, earning it our reader-approved status. This article has been viewed 119,868 times.

Thriller novels are written to keep the reader on the edge of their seat. Unlike mystery novels, thriller novels are about preventing a crime before it is committed. They should shock, intrigue, and keep the reader in suspense from beginning to end.

Starting the Novel

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Writing the Novel

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Polishing the Novel

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Begin a Novel

About This Article

Lucy V. Hay

If you want to write a thriller novel, use a plot diagram to draw out your story. Include elements like the opening, the rising action, the climax, and the resolution. Start the story off with some sort of exciting action, then try to keep the stakes high throughout the story. Eventually, the conflict should reach a dramatic confrontation, followed by a resolution. However, don’t be afraid to end your thriller on a suspenseful note, like the antagonist breaking out of prison or the hero heading somewhere unknown. For tips on getting help proofreading your novel, read on! Did this summary help you? Yes No

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Grammar Guide

How to Write a Pulse-Pounding Thriller

Zara Altair

Zara Altair

Author and Professional Semantic Writer

thriller novel outline flowchart

The thriller’s core emotion is excitement. A thriller novel is fast-paced and develops around what happens after you’ve established danger. Plan your thriller to keep moving and excite your reader.

Elements of a Thriller

How to plan your novel, act 1: the beginning, act 2: the middle, act 3: the end, keep your reader in suspense.

Before you plan your thriller, you should know the basic elements readers expect within the genre. Plan to include these elements as you think through your storyline.

Build suspense by controlling information, eked out in small portions as the story progresses. The story has a central storyline to answer one question—like, will the hero save the world and defeat the antagonist? You control the suspense by managing when and how you release information. Those small bits of information sustain your reader’s interest.

Think of your “hero” as the protagonist. Often, thriller protagonists are not heroic; they are ordinary people overcoming odds stacked against them. They are often an unassuming person, ill-equipped and unprepared, attempting to save the world.

Malicious and cunning, the villain is the force that provokes and aggravates the hero. Introduced with clear intent, the villain’s motivations create the dilemma for the hero. Wise, with their own sense of morality, the villain’s personal morality internally justifies their evil. The villain is intent on their purpose and does not listen to reason.

Plot Twists

Fill your thriller with precarious challenges for your hero. Each time your hero thinks they are on the right path, something changes their direction. Twists are the meat of the suspense that keeps readers wondering what will happen next? And then the next thing is worse than the one before.

plot twist tip

Read our guide to crafting a plot twist your reader will never suspect.

Compressed Timeline

Put your protagonist under pressure with a dastardly deadline that’s coming soon. A sense of urgency to conquer the evil creates page-turning tension for readers.

Not always, but often, a secondary character supports your protagonist in their quest to overcome evil.

Blessed with an alternate skill set, the sidekick may act as a sounding board, provide emotional support, get themselves into trouble so the hero must rescue them, and provide comic relief.

The sidekick may be a mentor, romantic interest, friend, or helper. They offer the reader insights into the protagonist’s motivations, strengths, and weaknesses.


Build chapter endings around questions about what will happen next. Build cliffhangers by stopping the action of a conflict, before the moment of conclusion. Then switch to another scene. Author James Clavell was master of the cliffhanger.

Wondering how to write a cliffhanger well? We examine the ending of Stieg Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo to find out.

A Big, Exciting Climax

Thrillers build toward the end and it’s a big one. With just moments to spare, the hero faces their biggest obstacle and the reader learns all of the remaining information that’s been kept a secret.

It feels like the villain will win until at last the hero summons courage and initiative to conquer.

Planning your storyline before your write will help you build tension with ever increasing stakes for your hero.

Journalist Sarah Weinman distilled the essence of the thriller in her piece in the Wall Street Journal on Eric Ambler’s A Coffin for Dimitrios :

...taking an ordinary man and dropping him in the middle of extraordinary events that will put him in danger, test his mettle and reveal his inner survivor.

The thriller genre contains a number of sub-genres. You have a wide range of choices. Planning software StoryGrid names 12 sub-genre examples:

Though a thriller is a plot-driven story, your characters bring the story to life.

Create a character bible where you list all the story characters, create their personal backgrounds, make note of their traits and physical appearance. Use this as a reference so when a character reappears 100 pages later, their traits and appearance are consistent.

Download ProWritingAid's guide to crafting characters that readers connect with.

Once you have your cast of characters, outline the high points of the story. Then you can create scenes and chapters that lead from one story point to the next.

For this example, we’ll use the three-act structure and a book length of approximately 80,000 words.

Use percentage points to keep you on track with story progression. When I was writing screenplays for a producer, I used percentages to keep on point within the tight constraints of writing a script. Check in with percentage points to produce a balanced story.

Here’s a visual for each percentage point. You can keep this graphic handy for quick reference as you write and edit:

thriller plot points with percentage markers

Now you’ve got an overview, let’s get into details.

In the first act you introduce your protagonist and their internal and external goals. And, you introduce the malevolent force your hero must overcome.

You set up the main conflict between the protagonist and the antagonist and create the essential reader question—will the protagonist stop the antagonist before he or she commits any more crimes/hurt more people?

The Hook (approximately 1% or 800 words of the way into your story)

Grab your reader’s attention. Plunge them into the story by introducing your protagonist and getting the reader to care about them. This is a good place to introduce your protagonist’s special skill that seemingly has nothing to do with what lies ahead.

The Inciting Incident (around 12% or 9,500 words in)

Enter, the menace. In a thriller, the crime that indicates there’s a master antagonist appears here. The crime gives rise to your protagonist’s desire to stop the menace.

The First Plot Point (around 25% or 20,000 words in)

Now it’s time for your protagonist to take on the chase. Depending on your subgenre, they may be assigned to capture the menace or take on a personal commitment to conquer the antagonist.

Your protagonist sets goals to overcome the antagonist. They may not be the right goals, but they are the original plan to stop the antagonist. This commitment raises the stakes for your protagonist as they become personally involved.

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The middle of your thriller is filled with challenges, conflicts, and new directions. Your protagonist prepares for the final conflict.

They’ll chase a trail of clues to uncover new information. This is how you control the release of information for the reader to build suspense. Your protagonist may learn new skills, get leads, find false clues, and ultimately make a plan to stop the antagonist.

The middle is also the place to build any subplots based on your protagonist’s inner needs and goals.

The First Pinch Point (around 37% or 29,500 words in)

Your protagonist and your reader get a view of the antagonist’s threat.

Expand on the threat to the protagonist. Your hero begins to understand the amount of threat in the antagonist’s plan. They feel the threat, and so does your reader.

The Midpoint (around 50% or 40,000 words in)

At the midpoint, your protagonist realizes their original plan isn’t enough. He or she may feel they’re making progress and then discover the antagonist has the upper hand. Or they may feel overwhelmed, tasked with too great a challenge, and unable to fulfill their plan.

Either way, the protagonist has to rethink what they know and change direction with different actions in order to catch the antagonist.

As the story continues from the midpoint, your protagonist’s new plan, based on new information, helps them examine the current situation in a new light. Then they move from the reaction to the sense of failure at the midpoint to creating and taking action on their new plan.

The Second Pinch Point (around 62% or 49,500 words in)

The antagonist’s threat becomes clearer. The protagonist, and your reader, understand the full scope of what lies ahead in order to stop the menace.

You can complicate matters by putting the protagonist’s inner and outer goals in conflict. Once again, you’re raising the stakes of what could happen if your protagonist fails.

The Second Plot Point (around 75% or 60,000 words in)

The stakes are at an all-time high, and your protagonist is losing. The villain has the upper hand, and there seems to be no way out. It appears your protagonist will never succeed.

Also, your protagonist can battle inner doubts, fears, and false beliefs. Your protagonist is in direct confrontation with the villain and it’s all around bad for your hero.

tips for writing tension

Are your scenes not gripping enough? Learn how to build story-long dramatic tension to keep readers turning pages in this guide.

Your protagonist and antagonist have their final showdown. As you’ve dripped information slowly through your story, now your protagonist will find the last missing piece.

The Crisis (around 88% or 70,000 words in)

Your protagonist must choose between succumbing to fear and allowing the antagonist to win or find the courage to meet the antagonist in a final showdown.

They comprehend what they must do to conquer the antagonist, and overcome internal fears. They arrive at the solution and learn a life lesson at the same time.

The Climax (around 90% or 72,000 words in)

The protagonist and antagonist face off.

Create a moment where if feels as though the antagonist will win. Cliffs, caves, burning buildings, dark basements, secret labs—these are the settings often brought into play here as the antagonist has their way with your hero.

Now the protagonist must use his or her combined skills to not just survive, but defeat the antagonist.

You finally answer the question—will the protagonist stop the antagonist before he or she commits any more crimes/hurt more people? And the answer is: yes they will.

The Resolution (around 98% or 78,000 words)

Show the reader what life is like now that the threat is removed. Your protagonist has come to terms with their inner struggle. Show the reader how he lives with his newfound inner strength.

A thriller holds your reader in suspense until the climax. Your imagination, attention to detail, and adherence to reader expectations will result in a novel that keeps readers on the edge of their seats.

Are you ready to write your thriller novel? Download this free book now :

The Novel-Writing Training Plan

This guide helps you work out your narrative arc, plan out your key plot points, flesh out your characters, and begin to build your world.


Zara Altair writes traditional mysteries set in ancient Italy under Ostrogoths rule in The Argolicus Mysteries . She teaches mystery screenwriters and novelists at Write A Killer Mystery . She creates semantic web content for a select clientele.

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writing a thriller novel

How to Write a Thriller (& Keep Your Readers on the Edge of Their Seats)

Are you itching to try your hand at writing a thriller ?

Or perhaps you’ve already written one, or more, but feel that they lack a certain je ne sais quoi ?

People love stories that keep them on the edge of their seats, hold them in suspense, and get their hearts racing. And the thriller genre is one of the most popular and bestselling out there.

Writing thrillers is a little different from writing other types of novels. You have to be sure you’ve got all the right ingredients for a story that’s gripping, nerve-wracking, and has the pace of a runaway train.

Because if you miss the mark, your novel could be more of a plodder than a roller coaster.

In this post, we’ll talk about what differentiates a thriller from other, similar, genres, explore some sub-genres of thrillers and analyse elements of a good thriller.

So first, let’s pin down exactly what a thriller is.

What Is a Thriller?

Thrillers really do bring the thrills. They’re fast-paced and suspenseful. Think hanging on the edge of your seat, high-stakes action, with lots of tension and racing hearts, and the feeling of desperately needing to know how the story ends.

In a word, thrillers are exciting . And that poses a few challenges for authors — because in order to deliver the excitement your readers crave, you will need to master the arts of suspense, dramatic tension, pace, shocking but satisfying plot twists, and much more.

A good place to start to understand exactly what makes a thriller a thriller, is to see how it differs from other, similar genres.

Thriller vs Mystery vs Suspense vs Horror

There tends to be a lot of confusion between thrillers, mysteries, suspense and horror. It’s understandable, as genres can be quite fluid. They certainly overlap and each one often contains elements of the others.

There are, however, a few features which differentiate these types of stories:

Thrillers are defined by their fast pace, constant state of danger, high stakes, and that edge-of-your-seat feeling.

In most thrillers, a villain or some external circumstances drive the plot and the protagonist reacts and responds. The main character is often acting to stop a crime or tragedy that has yet to occur.

In suspense novels, the sense of worry or anticipation is high because the reader often knows information the hero does not. Suspense stories are slower-paced, ratcheting up the tension as they go along.

In a good mystery, the reader is trying to solve the puzzle alongside the hero, and the puzzle is usually: Who committed the crime? People read mysteries because they like to solve these puzzles, so these stories don’t have to be so fast-paced, high stakes, or violent.

Where a thriller wants to excite you, a horror wants to scare you. There is usually less mystery about the evil antagonist and their motivations.

It’s often as simple as a gruesome monsters with a single minded desire to kill. There is a lot more gore in horrors, and scenes designed to make you want to slam the book shut and hide behind the sofa.

Now that you know how thrillers differ from suspense, horror or mystery novels, let’s look at some of the various types of thrillers.

Thriller Subgenres

There are many categories of thrillers (some of which may be a little questionable as official sub-genres) but let’s look at a few of the most popular ones.

Psychological Thrillers

Psychological thrillers tend to revolve around a cat-and-mouse between a highly intelligent psychopath and a detective or other good main character trying to stop and/or catch them.

Action Thrillers

Action thrillers lean more towards action and less toward suspense and mystery. There’s lots of running, shooting, and car chases.

But action thrillers differ from regular action stories in that they’re more serious, with fewer jokes and less comedy relief. And they should still have high stakes.

Spy Thrillers

how to write a thriller

Even the term spy practically shouts “international intrigue”.

The spy aspect works well with thrillers, because you already have built-in danger, top-level secrets and some of the highest stakes imaginable, especially when it comes to preventing wars or other man-made calamities.

Legal Thrillers

The protagonist in legal thrillers is usually a lawyer, and the stories often involve an investigation and courtroom proceedings.

The lawyer typically gets involved on a much more personal level than they normally might, with their loved ones and their own life ending up in danger.

There is often a powerful evil authority such as a corporation or the mafia involved, as well as themes of good against evil and innocence prevailing against injustice.

So what makes a well-written thriller?

Elements of a Strong Thriller

Thrillers need many of the same things that are required by all novels — a believable goal or objective, great characters, and compelling conflict.

So if you’re writing a thriller, you’ll need to include all those elements.

But there are a few additional aspects which are much more specific to thrillers that you’ll also need to get to grips with if you’re going to take your readers on the ride of their life.

Most good stories will contain at least some suspense.

We always want to keep readers guessing and turning pages, no matter the genre.

But suspense is an absolute necessity in thrillers, and you can’t be wishy-washy about it — you have to grip your readers by their pounding heart, and not let go. Keep your readers desperate to know what’s going to happen next.

So how can you do this? Here are three techniques:

Withheld Information

In a good thriller, your readers won’t know all of the facts and circumstances. You can use this to draw them in.

For example, say your protagonist’s husband turns up dead. That would be dramatic and emotional.

But you could build more suspense by withholding the information about whether he’s dead or not. If instead, he just goes missing, but the protagonist suspects he might be dead or in danger, then you’ve got drama, emotion and suspense.

Or, as Steven James puts it far more succinctly:

‘A murder is not suspense. An abduction with the threat of a murder is.’


how to write a thriller

Many thriller authors use cliffhangers to compel readers to keep reading into the next chapter. After a lot of suspenseful build up, they stop the scene just before the resolution, so readers have to start the next chapter to find out what happens.

Good cliffhangers supply a satisfying resolution after using a cliffhanger. Poor cliffhangers use it as a cheap trick and then don’t deliver.

As Brandon Sanderson puts it, a cliffhanger could be,

‘And then there was a knock at the door.

A good resolution would be that the visitor was the long-lost father with important information that’s relevant to the story and character arc.

A bad resolution would be that it was the pizza guy, and then the story carries on.’

The Reader Has Info the Hero Does Not

If the reader knows the antagonist has laid a trap the hero is about to obliviously walk into, they will be much more stressed and anxious than if they are also blissfully ignorant.

Study this excellent article on the secrets to creating and sustaining suspense , which include foreshadowing and making — and keeping — your promises.

Another critical element of a thriller is pace .

One key to maintaining a good pace is creating a ‘ticking clock’ — a deadline by which the characters must complete their difficult task – otherwise something terrible will happen. Without a ticking clock, the characters are free to continue at a leisurely pace.

Another key is keeping the timeline as compressed as possible, without breaking the story.

For example, if some aspects of a scene are taking a couple of days, could they be squeezed into a single day? ake everything happen as fast as you can get away with.

One final aspect of pace is running. There’s usually a lot of it in thrillers. *wink*

High Stakes

Will the family get to the dance competition on time? Will the protagonist get the promotion they’ve been vying for? These situations aren’t really high stakes enough for a thriller.

Thrillers tend to have life or death stakes at minimum — there are quite often kidnappings or missing people… who are in grave danger.

But the stakes will often be even higher than the life or death of individuals. It could be an entire nation or planet in danger, through genocide, potential collapse of government or weapons of mass destruction.

Plot Twists and Turns

Well-written thrillers will include at least a few surprising and unexpected developments. These include:

Red Herrings

Good thrillers skillfully make readers jump to the wrong conclusion, usually by having everyone behaving suspiciously — even if they’re innocent of the main crime.

Evidence often points the finger of blame at someone, only for there to turn out to be a perfectly reasonable explanation for it.

People behaving suspiciously will have secrets, and over the course of the story these secrets will come to light. Some of the secrets will be very dark, and may be causing people to do bad things in order to cover them up.

Betrayal is very common in thrillers, since it so naturally intertwines with both conflict and secrets.

Obstacles / Conflict

As in all fiction, you need obstacles and conflict . The hero is trying to achieve their goal, and there are lots of complications that stand in their way.

In thrillers, it’s particularly important that the obstacles and conflicts rapidly increase in stakes, risk and danger, so the thrills are constantly being ramped up.

The Techniques of a Thriller in Action

We’ve put together this little vignette to show you some of these techniques in action…

The setting is this: our hero has to reach an important politician to warn her that there are poisonous chemicals contained in a letter she was sent.

Thrilling elements: life or death stakes (really, higher than life or death stakes as the politician represents authority and order), ticking clock (arriving before the letter does.)

The hero arrives at the building to see the post van leaving — so the post is already in the building.

Thrilling element: ticking clock counting down (post van leaving).

Hero races inside, but is stopped by security at reception, who don’t believe the story about the post. Hero may even see the post cart trundling into the elevator, watch the doors close, and see the lights marking the floors lighting up.

Thrilling elements: obstacles (security guards), ticking clock (elevator lights).

The hero pushes past security, who shout and chase after him, as he bursts into the stairwell and races up the stairs

Thrilling elements: conflict (security guards), obstacles (the stairs), pace (running).

Our hero rushes out, panting, onto the correct floor, but the politician’s PA tries to block him. The protagonist demands to know if the post has arrived.

Frowning, the PA says it just went in. The hero shoves through and bursts into the office just as the politician lifts up the poison-filled letter and the letter opener.

The hero screams “stop!” just as he realises the politician is none other than the secretive woman he got chatting to at the bar the other night.

Thrilling element: obstacles (PA), plot twist (he recognises the politician).

Notice how the elements work together to raise the excitement levels?

How — and Why — to Analyze Thrillers

One of the best ways to learn about the craft of writing is to read the masters.

So if you want to write thrillers, pick up a handful of your personal favourites, read them again and then answer the following questions:

The more thrillers you read, the more you’ll learn why the best ones work so well, and you’ll find plenty of inspiration for your own stories.

Are You Ready to Write Your Thriller?

Once you know the elements of good thrillers and learn how to combine them to make a strong, fast-paced story, you’ll be as unstoppable as your novel’s heroic main characters.

So immerse yourself in the stories that get your blood pumping. Notice what elements the authors have included to make you feel that way, and get in the habit of analyzing authors and stories you’d love to emulate.

And when you’re working on your own novel, make it bursting with thrilling elements, including those high-pressure ticking clocks, life-and-death high stakes, and incredible plot twists.

Inspired? Excellent! Check out the Novel Writing Roadmap and start planning your thriller today.

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How To Write a Thriller Novel: Step-By-Step

Thrillers are a popular genre in fiction and, if done correctly, almost guaranteed to find an audience. But not everyone can write fiction properly. So here’s how to write a thriller novel like a pro.

It’s probably the most well-known story of them all. A tale of good versus evil. The good guys versus the bad guys. Fighting against high stakes and insurmountable odds. The ticking clock, bombs going off, the bullets flying, and glamorous spies in tuxedos drinking Martinis.

Sounds familiar? Well, it should. The thriller genre – and its related subgenres – have been around since the beginning of fiction, and Hollywood screenwriting adaptations have also popularised the genre. As a result, readers love nothing more on their Kindle than a good thriller storyline that leaves them on the edge of their seats, biting their nails as the hero or heroine races against the clock to save the world from imminent catastrophe.

Types of Thrillers

Psychological thrillers , the 8-step manual to writing a good thriller, the final word on how to write a thriller novel, faqs on how to write a thriller novel.

How to write a thriller novel?

Thriller writing takes skill – and not everyone can pull it off. It’s one of the most challenging forms of creative writing to get right. Even after 17 spy thriller novels, I’m still in the learning process of refining the perfect thriller novel. But if you follow these tips, you’ll be well on your way to emulating great thriller bestsellers such as The Bourne Identity .

First, we should specify what types of thrillers are out there. It’s worth pointing out from the outset that “thriller” has arguably a wide-ranging definition. Any story genre which generates excitement, adrenaline, and a heightened heartbeat can be seen as a thriller. So technically, science fiction, mystery novels, and crime fiction can fall under the thriller category. 

I’m sure you’ll agree that Hannibal Lector pitting wits against the FBI in The Silence of the Lambs would count as a thriller. So would Sherlock Holmes foiling Professor Moriarty’s latest devious plot. Even though they would likely be categorized as horror and crime, respectively.

Here are the five main types of thriller novels you’ll find today on bookshelves.

You might also be interested in learning how to write a quest story .

This is probably one of the most popular types of thrillers of all and the subgenre most likely to find its way onto the Hollywood big screen. Gone Girl immediately springs to mind , which starred Ben Affleck in the main character role. 

Everyone loves a nail-biter, and a psychological thriller can easily have crossover with the horror genre (again, The Silence of the Lambs being the classic example).

Legal / Crime Thriller

John Grisham thoroughly dominates this is the corner of the thriller market. With bestselling books such as The Firm and A Time To Kill , Grisham has proven time and time again that the law can definitely co-exist with the thriller genre. Hollywood agrees, which is why most of Grisham’s books are now successful movies.

In the crime thriller sub-genre, the best examples that come to mind are Stieg Larsson’s Girl With the Dragon Tattoo trilogy and Thomas Harris’s Hannibal Lector trilogy. An older but more classic example would be Raymond Chandler.

Political Thriller

Political thrillers are unique in the sense that they are almost always confined to US politics. Rarely do you see a political thriller set in other countries. The author that comes most to mind with political thrillers is James Patterson , who is now collaborating with former US President Bill Clinton. 

Former Georgia Governor candidate Stacey Abrams has also brought out a political thriller called While Justice Sleeps , which shows that politicians are not afraid to use their experience to try and churn out a thriller novel or two.

Historical Thriller

A historical thriller can also be classed as a war thriller, with spy thrillers set during World War II especially popular. So as you can see, there’s a lot of crossover between sub-genres. 

Historical thrillers are any story set in a specific historical period. Examples include authors such as Ken Follett, C.J. Sansom, Hilary Mantel, Robert Harris, and Alan Furst. Even horror writer Stephen King got in on the act with his alternative history thriller about the JFK assassination, 11.22.63 .

Spy Thriller

How to write a thriller novel?

Spy thrillers (or “espionage” to use the proper name of the genre) is also an extremely popular thriller genre and the one I decided to specialize in with my Department 89 series. Spy thrillers have been written for more than a hundred years by the likes of Joseph Conrad and John Buchan. However, these days, the ones dominating the genre include Tom Clancy, Daniel Silva, Charles Cumming, Steve Berry, Ian Fleming, and Robert Ludlum. 

However, Clancy, Fleming, and Ludlum are all now dead, with their work being continued by trusted ghostwriters .

Let’s now take a look at the different ways to write a really good thriller.

1. Flesh Out Your Main Characters

Nobody likes one-dimensional, stereotypical, bland characters. If the reader doesn’t connect emotionally to the characters, they won’t feel the need to keep going with the story because they simply won’t care what happens to them.

So for each of the main characters, you need to flesh out and develop their characters and backstory. Every successful thriller has relatable and believable characters who have motivations, weaknesses, ambition, flaws, and ego. You need to introduce each of them to the reader gradually, so by the end, the characters become almost like good friends – even your villain.

What you should not do, however, is give the reader an “info dump” where you attempt to give all the pertinent character information in one go in one book. This slows down the story and kills momentum. Instead, it’s much better to spread the information over a series of books, perhaps in the form of flashbacks.

One trick I often employ when introducing a new character is to visualize what actor would theoretically play the character in a movie or TV version of your book. Then I develop dialogue and mannerisms based on how that actor usually acts on-screen. I find it makes the character more real to me.

2. Start With a Bang To Hook The Reader

This is what I call the “Bond effect” – at the start of every James Bond movie, there is an opening sequence which launches the viewer right into the action. More often than not, the opening sequence is entirely unrelated to the actual story – it’s just there to grab people’s attention and get everyone fired up.

For example, who can forget the infamous opening scene in Casino Royale when Daniel Craig remembers his first sanctioned kill in a bathroom? After watching it, nobody could stop watching.

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In thriller books , you MUST hook your reader from the very first page. Otherwise, you’re going to lose them very quickly. So from the first time they open your book, the opening scene has to suck them in, so they keep turning the pages. I employ this tactic in all my spy thriller books to great success.

3. Include Plenty Of Plot Twists and Turns

Another thing nobody likes in books is for the storyline to be absurdly easy. Anti-climatic plots are always going to annoy a reader who has invested time and money in your book. So throughout the story, everything has to appear hopeless and against the odds, only for your good guys and girls to pull it off at the end.

Whether it’s an uncatchable serial killer, a hidden bomb about to release a deadly plague, or a hostage situation, never let up on the challenges and the tension. Put in lots of plot twists, so just as the reader thinks they’ve worked out what’s going to happen, you turn a hundred and eighty degrees and surprise them.

4. Take Inspiration From Movies

Despite what some people may tell you, it isn’t plagiarism to be inspired by the movies. If you’re stuck and unsure how to proceed with your story, think about some related movies you’ve seen lately. Did they have some great scenes that stick out in your mind? Could you incorporate elements of that into your story?

Subconsciously, I’ve often found myself inserting elements of movie scenes into my thriller books. For example, parts of the famous car chase scenes in The Bourne Identity and Ronin have got into my books when I’ve had car chase scenes myself.

5. Look At What’s Going On In Real Life

If the movies don’t help with story ideas or plot problems, then how about real life? Watching the news, for example, can give you a wealth of ideas. Whether it’s criminal activity, terrorism, or politics, seeing things unfold in the real world can often make you wonder, “what if that were to happen in my book? How would my version of the event play out?”

Some readers don’t like “grabbed from the headlines” plots, but if done properly with a compelling story and a suitable number of twists, the newspaper could be your new best friend.

6. Avoid Really Unrealistic Scenarios

Anyone who has ever watched an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie will know what I mean here. I’m talking about someone holding onto the side of a jet fighter as it whizzes through New York. Then, ripping off the cockpit window, grabbing the pilot, shooting them, and throwing them out, before finally jumping into the moving plane themselves and taking over the controls.

I’m all for escapist fiction, and I’ve had a few plots which may have stretched credibility just a tad. But there’s stretched, and then there’s ultra-stretched. If you write something ridiculous , it’ll annoy the reader and ruin your credibility as an author.

7. Keep The Pacing and Dialogue Brisk and Snappy

Another thing that ruins a perfectly good thriller book is when the story slows down to a snail’s pace. This could be due to an “info dump,” or you’re trying your best to squeeze in all the loose ends before the end of the book. Either way, you don’t want to slow down the story. Keep the pace fast and constantly moving.

Snappy dialogue is also essential. The one thing I and many others love in a story is rapid-fire dialogue between characters. Whether it’s an argument between colleagues, the cop making the criminal realize they’re definitely going to jail, or a passionate monologue from your main character, getting the dialogue right is the most critical part of the book. So keep tweaking your draft until the dialogue sounds sensational.

One thing to remember while doing dialogue is to avoid slang, colloquialisms, and sayings that someone not from your country wouldn’t understand. If the reader has to reach for a dictionary to look something up, you’ve just spoilt it for them.

8. Set Up High Stakes And An Amazing Climax

Every successful thriller is a page-turner, which means you need to set up the stakes to be high enough. You don’t want the reader to feel cheated when you build up the suspense only to present them with a damp squib at the end of the book. That’s one guaranteed way to lose a reader and get a negative Amazon review into the bargain.

So if you’re introducing a bomb, make it a nuclear bomb. If it’s a knife, make it a Samurai sword. If it’s a gun, make it the biggest baddest gun you’ve ever seen in your entire life. Go big or go home.

If you’re writing a series, the best tactic to employ is a cliffhanger which is guaranteed to have the reader buy the next book in the series (provided you’ve given them a good story so far). I do this all the time with my books, as I know from personal experience that there’s nothing worse than a rotten ending.

If you’re not writing a series, ensure that you’ve wrapped up all loose ends at the end and that the good guys have saved the day.

Writing a thriller is an art form, but like any art form, it can be mastered if you practice it. If you’re new to the genre, you need to read other thriller books in your chosen subgenre, study the elements that make the books work and don’t work. For example, study the dialogue and how sentences are phrased. 

Once you think you’ve got it figured out, then start to write your own. All going well, you’ll eventually make it as a bestselling author, even though the competition is fierce (and getting fiercer by the day).

What’s the difference between a thriller and suspense?

To be honest, there’s not a whole lot of difference. Both thrillers and suspense books provide tension, shocks, surprises, and excitement.

What are the key elements of a thriller?

First of all, a good story with high stakes and a sense of “dread.” A likable protagonist is next, along with a believable and nasty villain. And everything should be underpinned with cliffhangers and a ticking clock plot.

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Mark has been a freelance technology writer since 2004 when he wrote a regular eBay column for AuctionBytes (now renamed eCommerceBytes). He also contributed articles to the now-defunct Bookologist, Google Tutor, and a few other sites now lost to time (although you could probably find them on the Wayback Machine). Then came a couple of years of soul-destroying English teaching work before MakeUseOf asked him in 2007 to become the managing editor.

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How to Write a Thriller Book That’s Truly Thrilling

To write a successful thriller book, you must keep readers on the edges of their seats. This starts with a good understanding of the genre.

Thrillers are some of the most fun genres of books to write (and read!), but writing a page-turner that keeps thriller junkies on the edge of their seats is no small feat. Below, we’ll break down what a thriller book is, the tropes, structure, and characters that define this genre, and how to get started on your own draft. 

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What is a thriller, how to write a thriller novel, thriller readers.

A thriller is a genre of fiction in which the plot is driven by suspense. A thriller book often involves murders, mysteries, and danger. Whatever way you choose to write your thriller book, you must ensure it’s fast-paced and full of tension, contains a twist or two, and has a comprehensive story arc and conclusion that will satisfy thriller readers.

Writing a good thriller book requires thoughtful planning. After all, the success of a thriller is dependent on a good structure, the kind that keeps up the pace and the tension and has you racing through to the finish . 

Thrillers also often contain character archetypes and tropes that readers will be familiar with—including the elements below you’ll want to include in your thriller to make it a satisfying read.

The Tropes of a Thriller 

A “ trope ” is something that’s found throughout several works of fiction, based on the established rules of the genre. In a romance novel, for instance, readers expect to find a “happily ever after” at the end of the book. 

In thrillers, there are many different tropes you can play with. Here are just a few:

The Ticking Clock

Often, the protagonist only has a certain amount of time to solve a problem. Maybe they’re being blackmailed and only have so long before the blackmailer strikes, or maybe they need to sort out the details of a crime before a trial. Whatever it is, adding a ticking clock to your story can add tension and help with the pacing.

The Locked Room/Isolation Trope

This is when the characters find themselves stuck somewhere with no way out. For example, in the Agatha Christie classic And Then There Were None , the protagonists find themselves stranded on an island off England, with no way to get off or to get word to the mainland. They must figure out the mystery of who is killing them off while stuck together.

The Hidden Past

Often, a character—perhaps even the protagonist—has some deep, dark secret they’ve kept hidden away that will directly tie into the mystery that needs to be solved. Guessing what this secret might be can keep readers on the edges of their seats.

The Unreliable Narrator 

As readers, we often trust our narrators to tell us what’s going on—but what happens when your narrator can’t be trusted? Maybe they’re not telling you everything. Maybe they have amnesia. Maybe you’re reading a journal entry from them that’s not telling you the whole truth, à la Gone Girl . Whatever the case, books with unreliable narrators can be some of the most fun to read.

The Final Twist

A good thriller book will always have a good twist—something the reader never saw coming. A lot of thrillers also include, at the very end, a twist on the twist—just when you think everything is settled and figured out, a new piece of information is revealed for one final shock.

Of course, this list isn’t exhaustive—the fun thing about thrillers is there are so many different ways to mess with your readers’ minds .

But for now, let’s move on to structure.

The Structure of a Thriller 

The basic thriller book structure, if you’re following the classic three-act structure , generally goes as follows:

The Status Quo

The beginning of the story, showcasing the protagonist living their ordinary life. 

Disruption of the Status Quo 

Also known as the inciting incident , this is the moment the story really kicks off. In a thriller novel, this plot point is often the discovery of a dead body, though it doesn’t have to be. 

The Hint of Danger

During or after the inciting incident, there should be a hint of danger—not necessarily a full-on attack, but something to show us that the protagonist is not entirely safe in this new world. A hint that the killer may strike again, or a threatening note—just something to show us that danger is lurking around the corner.

The Brush With Authority

If your story includes a protagonist who is setting out to solve a crime, there’s usually an encounter with an authority figure around this point. The police may come to question them, or they may get a call from the FBI. This plot point isn’t strictly necessary but is often included.

The Impetus to Investigate

This is when your protagonist fully commits to solving the crime or addressing the event that occurs during the inciting incident, and where Act Two of your story starts. If your protagonist has a sidekick, ally, or love interest (or someone who’s a combination of all three), this is where they will fully come into play. 

The First Point of Investigation

The protagonist and their ally begin to investigate. Often, they’ll start with the most obvious line of investigation, which will typically end up being a red herring.

Subsequent Points of Investigation 

Often one line of investigation will lead to another, and then another. Most of these lines of investigation will be red herrings. But sprinkled in here will be hints of the true solution—who really killed the victim.

The Midpoint Crisis

The characters will continue to investigate until the midpoint—which, in a thriller, is typically a big twist. Maybe another dead body shows up. Maybe the protagonist is shot at while investigating. Maybe they’re arrested. Whatever it is, it should be big enough to have your readers speeding through the rest of the novel to see what happens next.

The Flurry of Investigation

Similar to the “points of investigation” earlier, this is where the protagonist and their ally rush to find a solution before time runs out. As they do, they should get closer and closer to the real solution—without giving anything away to the reader until the end.

The Third Plot Twist

This is when you break into Act Three of your story. There’s usually a bigger hint of danger here, maybe another brush with authority. Your protagonist is likely now heading off down the wrong path, and it’s time to see where that takes them.

The Dark Night of the Soul

Often, your protagonist will push their allies away and head out on their own. They’ll have a low point—maybe they’ve lost sight of their purpose, maybe they’re doubting their skills. Whatever it is, they’re especially vulnerable at this point—which makes them a prime target for the villain.

The A-ha Moment

This is when the protagonist, lured away by the villain in their weakest moment, realizes the truth: It was you all along! This is also where they’re in the greatest danger in the book. The villain has them, likely alone, perhaps at gunpoint, or in some other equally dangerous situation. The protagonist must gather all their tools to get out of this alive.

The Confrontation

This is where your “villain monologue” may come in. The villain explains to the protagonist why they did what they did, and how. Be careful not to make this scene too cliché or too long—there has to be a believable reason for them to divulge all this to your protagonist. But this is where all is revealed to the protagonist—and the reader.

Also sometimes known as the “high tower surprise,” this is when something unexpected happens to thwart the villain. Maybe the ally shows up to save the day. Maybe the protagonist busts out a martial arts move to kick the gun out of their hand. Whatever it is, it should be something the reader never saw coming but that makes total sense in the context of the story.

The Resolution (Overcoming the Bad Guy)

This is exactly what it sounds like—when the protagonist beats the bad guy, either by escaping, killing him, turning him over to the police, or something else.

The Conclusion

This is the end of your story, where your character gets a moment to breathe and reflect on everything that just happened. This is also where you’ll want to tie up any loose ends—and possibly include that final twist, if you have one.

The Characters in a Thriller 

Those are the basic plot beats. Now, let’s talk about your essential characters.

Most thrillers revolve around a murder or unexplained death. That means you need a dead body in there, preferably sooner rather than later. Decide who this person will be, and why they matter to your protagonist.

The Detective 

You don’t need a literal detective, but you do usually need someone actively trying to solve the mystery or crime. It’s usually your protagonist. They could be a layman interested in the crime, the relative or friend of the victim, or an actual detective, whose job it is to solve the crime. Whoever they are, their stakes in the story need to be big.

The Sidekick

This is the person helping your detective solve the crime. It could be their partner, their friend, or a relative. This character may also be a love interest, which is an interesting way to complicate the plot.

The Red Herring(s)

You’ll usually have a few of these throughout the story. There’s the Obvious Red Herring, who will be the person your protagonist first suspects. Then there are usually at least two more potential suspects, sometimes even more. Throughout the course of your character’s investigation, they should suspect and then at some point discard these people as suspects—leaving a few uncertain until they find the real villain.

The Villain

Every good thriller needs a villain! This is the person hiding in plain sight who committed the crime. They need to be present in the story from close to the beginning, but disguised in such a way the protagonist (and the reader) don’t know it’s them until the end.

There are usually more characters than this, of course, but these are your basics.

Thriller book readers are some of the most satisfying to please. Because they tend to read so voraciously, they’ll be able to spot any obvious villains or solutions to mysteries a mile away—which is why your plot needs to be twisty enough to fool even the most seasoned readers. This is why planning out your story when you’re writing a thriller is such an important step.

Start Your Story

A thriller book can be one of the most challenging story structures to master for newbie writers—but also one of the most fun to play with. 

If you’re not sure where to start, do what every great writer does—read! There are the classic thrillers, like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo , Murder on the Orient Express , and The Silence of the Lambs , more modern thrillers, like In the Woods , Big Little Lies , and You , YA thrillers like One of Us is Lying , Dangerous Girls , and The Ivies —and so much more. Read widely, let your creative juices flow, and see what comes out—we bet it’ll be something good.

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How to Write a Thriller Novel

by Joslyn Chase | 0 comments

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.

How to Write a Thriller Novel

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.

Ten Types of Stories: The Thriller

Value Based Plot Types

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.

This loss of liberty or justice is the “worse-than-death” value we talked about earlier. 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:

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.

Write for fifteen minutes . When finished, post your scene in the Pro Practice Workshop here . And when you're done, check out others who have shared their scenes. Let them know what you think!

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Joslyn Chase

Any day where she can send readers to the edge of their seats, prickling with suspense and chewing their fingernails to the nub, is a good day for Joslyn. Pick up her latest thriller, Steadman's Blind , an explosive read that will keep you turning pages to the end. No Rest: 14 Tales of Chilling Suspense , Joslyn's latest collection of short suspense, is available for free at .

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writing a thriller novel

writing a thriller novel

Ian Fleming Explains How to Write a Thriller

"you have to get the reader to turn over the page.".

There is no literary spy—and perhaps no literary character, full stop—more famous than James Bond, which should already be enough of an argument for any aspiring writer, but particularly any aspiring writer of thrilling tales, to seek advice from his creator, Ian Fleming.

Luckily, I recently stumbled across an essay by Fleming, aptly entitled “How to Write a Thriller,” which appeared in the May 1963 issue of Books and Bookmen , only a little over a year before the author’s death. (I admit that the below version has been pieced together from a few incomplete online sources, primarily this one , which was reprinted by Peter Morwood, and which seems to have been a slightly different edit from the Books and Bookmen version.) It meanders a little, and it’s a little pompous in places (even as it tries to be casual about it) and parts of it have not aged particularly well (delicate shade of pink, indeed), but in the end, most of it is still pretty good advice.

“How To Write A Thriller,” by Ian Fleming (1963)

The craft of writing sophisticated thrillers is almost dead. Writers seem to be ashamed of inventing heroes who are white, villains who are black, and heroines who are a delicate shade of pink.

I am not an angry young, or even middle-aged, man. I am not “involved.” My books are not “engaged.” I have no message for suffering humanity and, though I was bullied at school and lost my virginity like so many of us used to do in the old days, I have never been tempted to foist these and other harrowing personal experiences on the public. My opuscula do not aim at changing people or making them go out and do something. They are written for warm-blooded heterosexuals in railway trains, airplanes and beds.

I have a charming relative who is an angry young littérateur of renown. He is maddened by the fact that more people read my books than his. Not long ago we had semi-friendly words on the subject and I tried to cool his boiling ego by saying that his artistic purpose was far, far higher than mine. He was engaged in “The Shakespeare Stakes.” The target of his books was the head and, to some extent at least, the heart. The target of my books, I said, lay somewhere between the solar plexus and, well, the upper thigh. These self-deprecatory remarks did nothing to mollify him and finally, with some impatience and perhaps with something of an ironical glint in my eye, I asked him how he described himself on his passport. “I bet you call yourself an Author,” I said. He agreed, with a shade of reluctance, perhaps because he scented sarcasm on the way. “Just so,” I said. “Well, I describe myself as a Writer. There are authors and artists, and then again there are writers and painters.”

This rather spiteful jibe, which forced him, most unwillingly, into the ranks of the Establishment, whilst stealing for myself the halo of a simple craftsman of the people, made the angry young man angrier than ever and I don’t now see him as often as I used to. But the point I wish to make is that if you decide to become a professional writer, you must, broadly speaking, decide whether you wish to write for fame, for pleasure or for money. I write, unashamedly, for pleasure and money.

I also feel that, while thrillers may not be Literature with a capital L, it is possible to write what I can best describe as “Thrillers designed to be read as literature,” the practitioners of which have included such as Edgar Allan Poe, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Eric Ambler and Graham Greene. I see nothing shameful in aiming as high as these.

All right then, so we have decided to write for money and to aim at certain standards in our writing. These standards will include an unmannered prose style, unexceptional grammar and a certain integrity in our narrative.

But these qualities will not make a best seller. There is only one recipe for a best seller and it is a very simple one. You have to get the reader to turn over the page.

If you look back on the best sellers you have read, you will find that they all have this quality. You simply  have  to turn over the page.

Nothing must be allowed to interfere with this essential dynamic of the thriller. This is why I said that your prose must be simple and unmannered. You cannot linger too long over descriptive passages.

There must be no complications in names, relationships, journeys or geographical settings to confuse or irritate the reader. He must never ask himself “Where am I? Who is this person? What the hell are they all doing?” Above all there must never be those maddening recaps where the hero maunders about his unhappy fate, goes over in his mind a list of suspects, or reflects what he might have done or what he proposes to do next. By all means, set the scene or enumerate the heroine’s measurements as lovingly as you wish, but in doing so, each word must tell, and interest or titillate the reader before the action hurries on.

I confess that I often sin grievously in this respect. I am excited by the poetry of things and places, and the pace of my stories sometimes suffers while I take the reader by the throat and stuff him with great gobbets of what I consider should interest him, at the same time shaking him and shouting “Like this, damn you!” about something that has caught my particular fancy. But this is a sad lapse, and I must confess that in one of my books, Goldfinger , three whole chapters were devoted to a single game of golf.

Well, having achieved a workmanlike style and the all-essential pace of narrative, what are we to put in the book—what are the ingredients of a thriller?

Briefly, the ingredients are anything that will thrill any of the human senses—absolutely anything.

In this department, my contribution to the art of thriller-writing has been to attempt the total stimulation of the reader all the way through, even to his taste buds. For instance, I have never understood why people in books have to eat such sketchy and indifferent meals. English heroes seem to live on cups of tea and glasses of beer, and when they do get a square meal we never hear what it consists of. Personally, I am not a gourmet and I abhor food-and-winemanship. My favorite food is scrambled eggs. In the original typescript of Live and Let Die , James Bond consumed scrambled eggs so often that a perceptive proof-reader suggested that this rigid pattern of life must be becoming a security risk for Bond. If he was being followed, his tail would only have to go into restaurants and say “Was there a man here eating scrambled eggs?” to know whether he was on the right track or not. So I had to go through the book changing the menus.

It must surely be more stimulating to the reader’s senses if, instead of writing “He made a hurried meal off the Plat du Jour —excellent cottage pie and vegetables, followed by home-made trifle” (I think this is a fair English menu without burlesque) you write “Being instinctively mistrustful of all Plats du Jour , he ordered four fried eggs cooked on both sides, hot buttered toast and a large cup of black coffee.” No difference in price here, but the following points should be noted: firstly, we all prefer breakfast foods to the sort of food one usually gets at luncheon and dinner; secondly, this is an independent character who knows what he wants and gets it; thirdly, four fried eggs has the sound of a real man’s meal and, in our imagination, a large cup of black coffee sits well on our taste buds after the rich, buttery sound of the fried eggs and the hot buttered toast.

What I aim at is a certain disciplined exoticism. I have not re-read any of my books to see if this stands up to close examination, but I think you will find that the sun is always shining in my books—a state of affairs which minutely lifts the spirit of the English reader—that most of the settings of my books are in themselves interesting and pleasurable, taking the reader to exciting places around the world, and that, in general, a strong hedonistic streak is always there to offset the grimmer side of Bond’s adventures. This, so to speak, “pleasures” the reader . . .

At this stage let me pause for a moment and assure you that, while all this sounds devilish crafty, it has only been by endeavoring to analyze the success of my books for the purpose of this essay that I have come to these conclusions. In fact, I write about what pleases and stimulates me.

My plots are fantastic, while being often based upon truth. They go wildly beyond the probable but not, I think, beyond the possible. . . . Even so, they would stick in the gullet of the reader and make him throw the book angrily aside—for a reader particularly hates feeling he is being hoaxed—but for two further technical devices, if you like to call them that. First of all, the aforesaid speed of the narrative, which hustles the reader quickly beyond each danger point of mockery and, secondly, the constant use of familiar household names and objects which reassure him that he and the writer have still got their feet on the ground. This is where the real names of things come in useful. A Ronson lighter, a 4.5 litre Bentley with an Amherst-Villiers supercharger (please note the solid exactitude), the Ritz Hotel in London, the 21 Club in New York, the exact names of flora and fauna, even James Bond’s Sea Island cotton shirts with short sleeves. All these details are points de repère to comfort and reassure the reader on his journey into fantastic adventure.

Well, I seem to be getting on very well with picking my books to pieces, so we might as well pick still deeper.

People often ask me, “How do you manage to think of that? What an extraordinary (or sometimes extraordinarily dirty) mind you must have.”

I certainly have got vivid powers of imagination, but I don’t think there is anything very odd about that. We are all fed fairy stories and adventure stories and ghost stories for the first 20 years of our lives, and the only difference between me and perhaps you is that my imagination earns me money. But, to revert to my first book, Casino Royale , there are strong incidents in the book which are all based on fact. I extracted them from my wartime memories of the Naval Intelligence Division of the Admiralty, dolled them up, attached a hero, a villain and a heroine, and there was the book.

The first was the attempt on Bond’s life outside the Hotel Splendide. SMERSH had given two Bulgarian assassins box camera cases to hang over their shoulders. One was of red leather and the other one blue. SMERSH told the Bulgarians that the red one contained a bomb and the blue one a powerful smoke screen, under cover of which they could escape.

One was to throw the red bomb and the other was then to press the button on the blue case. But the Bulgars mistrusted the plan and decided to press the button on the blue case and envelop themselves in the smoke screen before throwing the bomb. In fact, the blue case also contained a bomb powerful enough to blow both the Bulgars to fragments and remove all evidence which might point to SMERSH.

Farfetched, you might say. In fact, this was the method used in the Russian attempt on Von Papen’s life in Ankara in the middle of the war. On that occasion the assassins were also Bulgarians and they were blown to nothing while Von Papen and his wife, walking from their house to the embassy; were only bruised by the blast.

As to the gambling scene, this grew in my mind from the following incident. I and my chief, the Director of Naval Intelligence—Admiral Godfrey—in plain clothes, were flying to Washington in 1941 for secret talks with the American Office of Naval Intelligence, before America came into the war. Our seaplane touched down at Lisbon for an overnight stop, and our Intelligence people told us how Lisbon was crawling with German secret agents. The chief of these and his two assistants gambled every night in the casino at the neighboring Estoril. I suggested to the DNI that he and I should have a look at these people. We went, and there were the three men, playing at the high chemin de fer table. Then the feverish idea came to me that I would sit down and gamble against these men and defeat them, thereby reducing the funds of the German Secret Service.

It was a foolhardy plan which would have needed a golden streak of luck. I had £50 in travel money. The chief German agent had run a bank three times. I bancoed it and lost. I suivied and lost again, and suivied a third time and was cleaned out, a humiliating experience which added to the sinews of war of the German Secret Service and reduced me sharply in my chief’s estimation.

It was this true incident which is the kernel of Bond’s great gamble against Le Chiffre.

Finally, the torture scene. What I described in Casino Royale was a greatly watered-down version of a French-Moroccan torture known as passer á la mandoline , which was practiced on several of our agents during the war.

So you see the line between fact and fantasy is a very narrow one. I think I could trace most of the central incidents in my books to some real happenings.

We thus come to the final and supreme hurdle in the writing of a thriller. You must know thrilling things before you can write about them. Imagination alone isn’t enough, but stories you hear from friends or read in the papers can be built up by a fertile imagination and a certain amount of research and documentation into incidents that will also ring true in fiction.

Having assimilated all this encouraging advice, your heart will nevertheless quail at the physical effort involved in writing even a thriller. I warmly sympathize with you. I too, am lazy. My heart sinks when I contemplate the two or three hundred virgin sheets of foolscap I have to besmirch with more or less well chosen words in order to produce a 60,000 word book.

In my case, one of the first essentials is to create a vacuum in my life which can only be satisfactorily filled by some form of creative work, whether it be writing, painting, sculpting, composing or just building a boat. I am fortunate in this respect. I built a small house on the north shore of Jamaica in 1946 and arranged my life so I could spend at least two months of the winter there. For the first six years I had plenty to do during these months exploring Jamaica, coping with staff and getting to know the locals, and minutely examining the underwater terrain within my reef. But by the sixth year I had exhausted all these possibilities, and I was about to get married – a prospect which filled me with terror and mental fidget. To give my idle hands something to do, and as an antibody to my qualms about the marriage state after 43 years as a bachelor, I decided one day to damned well sit down and write a book. The therapy was successful. And while I still do a certain amount of writing in the midst of my London Life, it is on my annual visits to Jamaica that all my books have been written. But, failing a hideaway such as I possess, I can recommend hotel bedrooms as far removed from your usual “life” as possible. Your anonymity in these drab surroundings and your lack of friends and distractions in the strange locale will create a vacuum which should force you into a writing mood and, if your pocket is shallow, into a mood which will also make you write fast and with application.

So far as the physical act of writing is concerned, the method I have devised is this. I do it all on the typewriter, using six fingers. The act of typing is far less exhausting than the act of writing, and you end up with a more or less clean manuscript. The next essential is to keep strictly to a routine—and I mean strictly. I write for about three hours in the morning—from about 9:30 till 12:30—and I do another hour’s work between 6 and 7 in the evening. At the end of this I reward myself by numbering the pages and putting them away in a spring-back folder. The whole of this four hours of daily work is devoted to writing narrative.

I never correct anything and I never go back to what I have written, except to the foot of the last page to see where I have got to. If you once look back, you are lost. How could you have written this drivel? How could you have used “terrible” six times on one page? And so forth. If you interrupt the writing of fast narrative with too much introspection and self-criticism, you will be lucky if you write 500 words a day and you will be disgusted with them into the bargain.

By following my formula, you write 2,000 words a day and you aren’t disgusted with them until the book is finished, which will be, and is, in my case, in about six weeks.

I don’t even pause from writing to choose the right word or to verify spelling or a fact. All this can be done when your book is finished.

When my book is finished I spend about a week going through it and correcting the most glaring errors and rewriting passages. I then have it properly typed with chapter headings and all the rest of the trimmings. I then go through it again, have the worst pages retyped and send it off to my publisher.

They are a sharp-eyed bunch at Jonathan Cape and, apart from commenting on the book as a whole, they make detailed suggestions which I either embody or discard. Then the final typescript goes to the printer and in due course the galley or page proofs are there and you can go over them with a fresh eye. Then the book is published and you start getting letters from people saying that Vent Vert is made by Balmain and not by Dior, that the Orient Express has vacuum and not hydraulic brakes, and that you have mousseline sauce and not Béarnaise with asparagus.

Such mistakes are really nobody’s fault except the author’s, and they make him blush furiously when he sees them in print. But the majority of the public does not mind them or, worse, does not even notice them, and it is a salutary dig at the author’s vanity to realize how quickly the reader’s eye skips across the words which it has taken him so many months to try to arrange in the right sequence.

But what, after all these labors, are the rewards of writing and, in my case, of writing thrillers?

First of all, they are financial. You don’t make a great deal of money from royalties and translation rights and so forth and, unless you are very industrious and successful, you could only just about live on these profits, but if you sell the serial rights and the film rights, you do very well.

Above all, being a comparatively successful writer is a good life. You don’t have to work at it all the time and you carry your office around in your head. And you are far more aware of the world around you.

Writing makes you more alive to your surroundings and, since the main ingredient of living, though you might not think so to look at most human beings, is to be alive, this is quite a worthwhile by-product of writing, even if you only write thrillers, whose heroes are white, the villains black, and the heroines a delicate shade of pink.

Emily Temple

Emily Temple

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7 Tips For Writing A Thriller Novel

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7 tips for writing a thriller novel.

Eve (E.V.) Seymour

By Eve (E.V.) Seymour

With numerous successful  novels  to her name, guest author and blogger  Eve Seymour  has cemented herself as a master of the thriller genre. In this post, Eve shares her secrets for writing a thriller you just can’t put down.

1: Focus On Characterisation

Whatever the genre, strong, memorable main protagonists are important.  In thriller writing, they are absolutely vital and can make or break a story.  Irrespective of gender, if your main player lacks the tenacity and determination to crack the code or conspiracy, locate the kidnap victim or hunt a murderer, he is pretty much sunk before that opening chapter is penned.  So if your main player would rather file his/her nails, watch sport on TV, or stay in bed, think again.

In a similar vein, boredom and cynicism are no defence for inactivity and ‘seeing how things pan out.’  The main protagonist needs to at least make a stab at being in control of events, rather than behind the curve, even if he fails due to the many obstacles thrown in his path.

Notwithstanding all of the above, there’s no need for your central character to be an angel.  Crime fiction and thrillers are littered with flawed individuals.  Drink and relationship problems, sometimes inextricably linked, and failure to commit are popular attributes.  It’s easier for readers to empathise with characters who have identifiable weaknesses and failures and who, at times, seem just like us.  Recently, there’s been a trend towards characters that are morally ambiguous.  This can be a thorny path to tread for the new writer and requires the utmost skill to pull off.   Probably best not discussed here.

It may be stating the obvious, but an octogenarian with a limp isn’t going to cut it with the  bad guys .  The obvious simple fix is to ensure that your main man (or woman) is young enough or fit enough to run like hell – even if in the opposite direction.  More importantly, they must be smart.  This does not mean they are members of MENSA, but they do need to be bright and have a measure of psychological insight, (which means that writers need to too).  Street cunning and being able to think outside the proverbial box also goes a long way to defeat enemies of whatever persuasion.

Which brings me to those pesky ‘bad guys.’

It’s not enough to refer to shadowy dark forces doing dastardly things in dungeons.   Give your foe a face.   Let the reader hear an antagonist’s voice, see how he behaves, take a trip inside his mind and let’s hope it terrifies because a main protagonist is only as ever good as the main villain.  This is where a writer can really pull out all the stops.  Seems easy, doesn’t it?  And yet, to avoid stereotype and caricature, coming up with convincing antagonists is harder than it sounds.   The best way to avoid obvious pitfalls is to ensure that your bad guy or femme fatale ticks with his or her own internal logic, even if he/she seems nuts to the rest of us.  How to do this?  Look at motivation and backstory, and ensure both are watertight and credible.

2: Create Plausible Characters

Still on the subject of characterisation , there’s a school of thought that writers somehow have to choose between characterisation, or plot.  In truth, the two are indivisible because, although a story can unfold in a variety of ways, these are self-limiting due to the particular attributes of character.

To take a facile example: say your main guy is an estate agent.  He’s unlikely to grab an MP5, eliminate the opposition, board a helicopter, grab the controls (and the girl) and fly off into the great blue yonder even if this is  to suit the purposes of plot.

While coincidence occurs in real life, it’s harder to pull off in fiction and yet often writers will write characters that just happen to be on the right street at the right time, enabling them to randomly carry out an action critical to the story.  Sounds vague?  That’s because it is.

While coincidences  can  occur at the beginning of a story – a killer claps eyes on his victim  – random events fare less well if dumped into the plot mid-way.   The obvious faux pas is when a random event occurs to get the writer out of a hole, a classic case of Deus Ex Machina.  When applied to an ending, the result can be excruciating.


3: Ensure Every Scene Contains A Plot Twist

When creating a scene, ensure that you give enough away to compel the reader to keep turning those pages, or clicking the side of a Kindle.  While you might be able to confine this to a minimum number in other genres, in thrillers there’s a requirement for numerous ‘turning points’ or revelations to sustain the narrative and guarantee exceptional pace and tension.  If a scene doesn’t ‘turn’, then, as brutal as it is, it has to go. After all, plot twists are an essential part of the thriller genre, and they are particularly crucial in psychological thrillers .

It’s known as ‘murdering your little darlings’, and nobody likes blood on their hands.  It can be dispiriting to chop lovingly written material, containing tons of detail and exposition, but, sadly, no ‘turning points’.

However, information alone won’t cut it.

Everything  must  be relevant to the main thrust of the story.  If your main man is en route to question a potential suspect, he’s not going to drop into Costa for a coffee and baguette en route, or spend time discussing Christmas plans or his next salsa class with his best mate first.  It’s really tough to excise a perfectly decent or beautifully written scene but if it doesn’t drive the story forward, your best option is to hit the delete button.

A good tip when creating a scene is to think about the situation in which the main protagonist finds himself.  Simplistically, if things are going roughly his way, then mix things up and throw in a few obstacles so that, as the plot develops and he makes more  discoveries  (relevant to the main plot line), his situation turns from not too bad to not too good.  The reverse also works (to a point).  With more and more (hopefully grim) revelations, and pressure put on your main protagonist, clearly the ‘bad days’ will outnumber the ‘good days’, as he finds himself boxed more and more into a corner.  If you do this, before you know it, tension will be as taut as cheese wire.

4. Avoid Superfluous Exposition (An Instant Pace-slower)

This is really the incestuous cousin of the above.  Some writers are natural scene-setters.  They love the build up.  They love description – and they are very good at it.  That’s grand and most definitely has its place but it cannot be a substitute for telling the story, or a delaying tactic for ‘getting on with it’.

‘Cut to the chase’ is one of my most overused pleas.  The trick is to understand what’s important and what isn’t.   Nine times out of ten, less is more.  This particularly applies to the writer who ‘overwrites’ or ‘covers old ground’.

More often than not, this will occur around the halfway mark and it usually signifies that the plot is in trouble and the author has run out of steam.  As a basic rule, if the reader is made aware, for example, that great aunt Ida is a bit of a cow, there is no need to remind the reader at any and every opportunity.  We get it.

Aside from resisting the urge to bash the reader over the head with something already well established in the text, there is a very good reason for heeding this advice.   Superfluous exposition has a deadly effect on pace, suspense, and tension .  Before you know it, the reader will be thinking about what’s for dinner and whether there’s time to nip to the gym.  A good way to avoid the story running into ‘snooze time’ is to read it aloud.  If you start to flag after a chapter or two, the reader stands no chance.

5: Avoid Dreams, Memories, Recollections And Flashbacks

Unless applied with exceptional skill to ‘turn’ a scene, in which case they can be used for dramatic effect, these are instant pace-slowers. For some reason writers can be quite taken with dream sequences and recollections. Perhaps it’s the freedom to go ‘off piste.’ Scenic detours, like these, may well work in other genres, but in thrillers , when focus is a key issue, they can overshoot their intended destination. Not only do they interfere with strong narrative drive in what must be a fast moving plot line, they puncture tension.

As mentioned, there is an exception to the ‘rule’. A flashback or recollection might emerge during the last third of a novel when a character suddenly remembers something that has a bearing on current events. If used within the climactic scene, they can be used to stunning effect because they throw an original and illuminating light on the denouement. It’s a cliché but, for example, if good guy comes face to face with bad guy, and is about to kill him in self-defence, the good guy might recollect to playing with his (missing) brother as a kid, and recognise the birthmark on his arm.

The effect on the reader should be an emotional one, i.e., ‘Blimey, didn’t see that one coming.’

6: Collect Two Types Of Research: ‘Nuts And Bolts’ And Emotional

Both are essential for authenticity and quite distinct from each other.  ‘Nuts and bolts’ might be research into police procedure, forensics or ballistics, and all the permutations in between.  Imagination will only carry you so far.

Basically, you can’t take the procedure out of the police procedural , or the military out of the action adventure.   Today’s crime readers are so sophisticated that they can sniff out lack of authenticity at fifty paces.  Many will give the average crime or thriller writer a run for his or her money when it comes to knowledge.  Unless you’re an ex-con, intelligence officer, police officer, in the military, with inside knowledge at your fingertips, you’ll need to get out and about and  research .

Google is a good starting point, but if we all write according to the Gospel according to St. Google, then our stories will wind up with same or similar shout-lines.  I’m a fan of multiple sources.  If you have a library, use it to check out your chosen subject.  But, and it’s a big one, nothing beats approaching people ‘in the know.’  Most folk respond to a friendly and polite approach, especially if the ‘help’ word is applied.  While I wouldn’t suggest rocking up at your local police station to bend ears, there are other avenues to pursue, via police press officers.

If you’re really stumped, there are now plenty of recently retired police officers that, for a fee, will walk you through an investigation.  Similarly, pathologists, ballistics experts and crime scene examiners are normally happy to talk about their favourite subject.

If you can ferret out a tame source, you’ll get a feel for how things roll.  In the interests of research, I’ve flown in helicopters, spent a memorable evening with firearms officers in a laser-simulated training suite, flown to Berlin and Barcelona, both for location hunts, and talked to people working at the United Nations and those connected to various charities involved with refugees and victims of war.

All this comes with a warning:  if you’ve spent your hard-earned money on obtaining information or oceans of time fact finding, there is a temptation to slay the reader with your newly acquired fund of knowledge.   This is where I refer you back to point number 4.  A few books ago, an editor once told me:  ‘This is really interesting, Eve, but it doesn’t add anything to your story.  Cut.’

I did.  Lesson learned.

‘Write what you know’ is a well-used, and occasionally misunderstood, phrase. While we may all believe that our existences are thrilling, not many of us lead the kind of lives that will translate easily into great page-turning thrillers .  So what does ‘write what you know’ really mean?  It means you draw on personal emotional experience.  Just saying someone is sad or angry won’t cut it.

This is where emotional research comes in.

All writers are amateur psychologists.  We need to know how people tick and how they respond.  While you might not experience what it’s like to be shot at, you will know what fear feels like, just like you’ll know how it feels to have loved and lost, loved and found the woman or man of your dreams, got the job you always wanted, failed to get the job you always wanted, passed your driving test, or failed it for the millionth time and, dare I say, obtain agent representation after slogging away for years, or feel the cutting pain associated with your umpteenth rejection.

In essence, we all know what it’s like to feel lonely and unhappy, elated and sad, frustrated and angry and everything in between. These are the emotions  you  draw on for your characters so that, when you describe them, they are a true representation.

‘Okay,’ you might say, ‘I can do all of the above, but how do I write about something well outside my sphere of experience, for example, the trauma associated with violent crime, either as perpetrator or victim?’

Simply put, it’s hard to avoid cliché, stereotype, and melodrama when tapping into trauma, if you have no direct experience of it.  Again, crime readers are bloodhounds at spotting false notes.  Best advice is to, firstly, ensure that the stakes are raised high in your story so that characters are forced to grapple with powerful, life-on-the-line events.  Be bold in this regard.  Think of the worst that can happen to your character then make sure it does.  This way, you’ll ensure that your characters are properly motivated to respond truthfully.

Sneak right under their skins and imagine the extremes of human behaviour and what it does to people.  But, before you do this, climb under your own skin and dig deep.  You may well be surprised, maybe even shocked, at what you find loitering beneath.  Whatever you unearth, this is what you use as a foundation for your character’s response.

If this doesn’t work, you could always try a more ‘nuts and bolts’ approach, and talk to a psychologist or someone trained to help people who have encountered tragedy in their lives.

7: Take A Big Breath And Read Aloud

You’re a writer.  You love stories.  You’re interested in words and their correct spelling.  You go all tingly when your sentences flow and convey your magical  (or should I say your diabolical) world.  So ensure you take the time to read the entire manuscript aloud to pick up on pesky typos, clumsy sentences, repeat words in consecutive sentences, verbal ‘tics’, punctuation and grammatical errors, and mysterious verb tense changes.  Avert your eyes now if you are of a sensitive nature.

In three words:  ‘This.  Stuff.  Matters.’

And it’s no good thinking that you can wing it.

If you don’t know the difference between ‘there’, ‘their’ and ‘they’re,’ or ‘where’ and ‘were’, do yourself a favour and learn.  On occasion I’ve been told that ‘Agent Bloggs will be so knocked out by the story, it won’t matter …’, and ‘The copy-editor will fix it …’, as if he or she has a handy magic wand with which to transform your less than perfectly polished prose.

Agents receive so many submissions they can afford to be picky.  If your lovingly crafted story is set aside due to a multiplicity of errors on the first page, it stands no chance of reaching the fairy copy-editor.  Your hard work would be wasted. And that would be a shame.

Very best of luck.

Jericho Writers is a  global membership group for writers , providing everything you need to get published. Keep up with our news, membership offers, and updates by  signing up to our newsletter . For more writing articles, take a look at our  blog page .

About the author

Eve is the author of eleven novels and writes in two genres. She also writes under the name G. S. Locke. Her spy thrillers feature male main protagonists; her psychological thrillers female leads. The Good Book Guide wrote of her spy novels, ‘Seymour is able to convey the excitement of the more straightforward brand of adventure thriller, while freighting in the subtle undertones of the more sophisticated novelists of the genre.’ In a bid to make her work as authentic as possible, she has bent the ears of numerous police officers, firearms officers, scenes of crime, the odd lawyer and United Nations personnel. Her latest novel, Six , was released in 2021. She is represented by Broo Doherty at DHH Literary Agency. See more on Eve's website , Twitter , or Amazon author page .  

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Author Simone Campos on writing a feminist thriller

Alice Gawthrop  3 March 2023

Brazilian author Simone Campos opens up about writing a feminist thriller and tackling real-world issues like sexism and racism

RD: Nothing Can Hurt You Now is your first thriller. What made you want to write a thriller? How was it different from your other work?

I get bored doing the same thing over and over again. I’ve tried so many different genres , including an interactive novel with many different endings! 

"I tried to write what I would like to see in the genre"

With thrillers, I’ve always wondered why the typical victim is a white woman with lots of traits that are considered sympathetic. You have to pity her. And if she’s not innocent and basically a saint, it’s like, should we not feel empathy for her? Doesn’t she still deserve to be saved? I wanted to get into the mind of complicated women and explore their characters fully. I tried to write what I would like to see in the genre, basically.

Has your experience as a translator affected your approach to writing?

Yeah, professionally I started translating technical work. My vocabulary expanded a lot. I started out studying American English, so I have more of an American accent. Then I decided to do a little immersion in the UK, and I went to London when I was 16 writing my first novel. I think reading in English from that age meant I was getting outside influence for my writing style.

Do you think there are differences between feminism in America and Brazil? 

Well, no feminism is perfect. I think there are some differences. I was living in Silicon Valley and there was a lot of so-called “ girlboss feminism ”. That’s not my thing. I don’t think feminism is about being the boss, you know, there’s no rosy path to success. 

Maybe we need to fight the patriarchy more than emphasising how we need to be successful in a traditional way. I think we should question what it means to be successful, not just for women but for every gender.

Rio, Brazil

Rio, Brazil

In Brazil, I think there is more intersectional, anti-colonial feminism. Obviously there are still criticisms you can make of any feminism but I think intersectionality is really important. I’m not into conservative ideologies disguised as feminism, you know, I’m pro sex workers, pro trans people.

Also in Brazil women are struggling with different levels of salary and wages, with not being well received by the police when trying to escape from stalkers or abusive relationships. I mean, that happens all around the world, I saw it in America too, but I think it’s worse in Brazil at the moment.

When it comes to tackling complex, real-world issues like sexism, racism and violence, what do you think fiction can bring to the table? Can it offer something that non-fiction perhaps can’t?

I think with fiction you can weave in lots of profound character building and different points of view, which might not be the case if you have, for example, a memoir or a documentary. Of course these are important too, I don’t think non-fiction has to be in competition with fiction! 

"What we call fiction is a manner of constructing truth, really"

But what we call fiction is a manner of constructing truth, really. It’s modelling the world you see around you in a way you can understand. 

How do you approach writing characters with different lived experiences than your own?

Some things you can just feel from inside, but with other things you need to do your research. I really like learning in a class setting, reading material and preparing notes. I have a PhD, which I adored getting, so you know, I really enjoy research groups and all that!

So I went to a teacher from a small independent programme, Sueli Feliziani, and I took a course on the history of non-white feminism. It was very enlightening. I hadn’t read bell hooks , for instance, or Angela Davis . It was a punch, but I needed it! It was really good to do this reading and ground my characters in this research.

"When you go really deep into the process for writing something, I find it often leads to self-discovery"

It was really interesting because while researching autism spectrum disorder (ASD), which my character Vivian has, I realised it was too easy to write her character. I started to look into it and say, oh, I think I might have this. I kept that to myself for some time. Then I joined this Facebook group for Brazilian autistic women, and they had doctor recommendations if you wanted to get an official evaluation. I did that and voila , I am on the spectrum! You know, when you go really deep into the process for writing something, I find it often leads to self-discovery. The road often leads back to you.

What made you put a sister relationship at the heart of Nothing Can Hurt You Now ?

The seed idea for this book was about how the media distorts our perceptions of ourselves as women. Having sisters at the centre of this felt natural because girls growing up together often feel a pressure to compete with each other. 

Simone Campos

Simone Campos

I explored this through Lucinda and Viviana. At the start Lucinda has this dream of being in front of the camera but in the end it’s her younger sister who becomes a model, just by chance. So that’s the beginning of the book and it sets the tone for their relationship. It’s almost like the original sin—afterwards there’s a price to pay for both of them. 

That competition between them, as well as being tied together by their relationship and their past together, was really intriguing for me as the basis of a thriller. I feel you don’t see this often in thrillers , you know, a focus on relationships between complex women, so I really wanted to explore that. I also wanted a more hopeful ending! Without giving spoilers, I didn’t want to mask the suffering that they experience but I also didn’t want to glorify it. I wanted to have a little bit of hope at the end.

What’s on your reading list for 2023?

I’m trying to be open to reading any book that comes my way! Currently I’m halfway through Fé no inferno by Santiago Nazarian, a Brazilian writer of Armenian descent. I’m not sure if it’s out in English. It’s called Faith in Hell in English, and it’s really good!

I also recently read an English book that I loved, Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo . I love the way she weaves so many stories together. 

Nothing Can Hurt you Now by Simone Campos

Nothing Can Hurt You Now by Simone Campos (Pushkin Press, £16.99) is available now

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How a uae-based finance consultant took solace in writing thrillers and mystery novels, the author talks about his latest novel.

writing a thriller novel

Somya Mehta

Published: Thu 2 Mar 2023, 7:39 PM

A finance and management consultant by profession, Rajiv Shah has been an active part of both social and professional organisations in the UAE. While his day job requires immersing himself in numbers and business operations, Shah has always been enamoured by the power of creativity. Having a strong penchant for the stage, including acting and singing, Shah has been an active member of the performing arts scene in the country. Getting in touch with his creative side has also allowed Shah to write two novels. The author is working towards writing a series of five thrillers involving themes of romance, suspense and murder mystery. His first novel, Forever , explored the theme of love, while his recent novel, Forbidden , explores the theme of having a mid-life crisis.

How did you interest in writing and performing arts take root?

I had been writing small bits and pieces of literature over a period of time. However, I never really imagined I would become an author. It was only around 2016 when I first put pen to paper to write a story. At that time also, I did not think the story would be converted into a book. I have been a stage actor and have enjoyed singing and dancing. These performing arts interests have helped me construct the plot.

How do you balance a career in finance alongside a creative profession (the two worlds seem to be far removed from each other)?

It has been a very unique experience for a finance person to write about romance and mystery and I think I found my alter ego in writing books on subjects completely different from my academic pursuits. I believe we all have diverse interests within us, but not often we take the initiative to follow these. Once you decide to follow your passion, you will automatically find time to make good of it. My theory in writing a book is simple – ‘write a page a day’ and within a year you will have your book in your hands.

What made you want to explore the 'thriller' genre for your novels?

I never thought I would write romantic fiction or murder mystery, but when I wrote Forever , I thought it was possible. I am writing a trilogy now and with Forever and Forbidden being the first two books in the series. The idea is to write these books with a very important social message. Forever was about love versus lust. Forbidden is about mid-life crisis. And my future books will also contain some sort of a social message while being romantic thrillers. In today’s OTT world, thriller is a genre that works the best, and I intend to keep writing in this genre as I wish to develop an OTT series on these books in the future.

Your book focuses on mid-life crisis as a theme. How do you define this?

Forbidden is a book on love and can be classified as a ‘love tragedy’. It has its moments of love, romance, humour and suspense. One can falter in love and the consequences can be devastating not only for the fallen but also for the people around him.

In this case, the protagonist Karan, a married man, falls in love outside marriage and the story deals with the problems he faces in his life due to this. This is a crisis created by insecurity in a marriage and feeling of incompleteness in a relationship. The book delves on this topic from a perspective of all people involved in this quagmire.

Lastly, what else can we expect from your latest novel?

Forbidden is a good mix of romance, thriller, murder mystery, humour and complications of relationships. It is a roller-coaster ride till they solve or read the mystery of who killed Karan. A significant portion of the book is based in Abu Dhabi and Dubai. So, readers in the UAE will enjoy that part of the story based here. In a time when people are losing the habit of reading, it is my effort to rekindle that trait again.

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Forbidden can be purchased through and

(Kindle Edition)

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writing a thriller novel

How to write a thriller: 8 tips for page-turners

Understanding how to write a thriller – the role of pacing, tension and suspense – will help you tell a story that has readers obsessively turning pages.

writing a thriller novel

Learning how to write a thriller, and popular thriller types, will help you write an electric read. Read tips from the best thriller authors plus tricks to ratchet up suspense and keep fast pace:

How to write a thriller novel

Here’s a summary of how to write a thriller story that has fast pace and a plot that keeps your reader guessing (keep reading for more detail and examples):

First, explore thriller subgenres – are you going to write a crime thriller, paranormal, legal, or other type of book?

Next, brainstorm characters and their goals, motivations, and the conflicts these lead towards.

As you write, focus on action, dialogue and tight description over long-winded narration.

As you draft, think about things like reversals, plot twists and surprises that make your reader reassess what they thought they knew.

To write a gripping thriller, you need to make your reader both fear and hope for an outcome. Fear grows as stakes rise.

Use tone, mood and atmosphere to heighten suspense and think about troubling signs and signals that could make readers hold their breath.

Great thriller auteurs linger on shots like street lights at night turning red to create foreboding.

Study authors such as Agatha Christie (for crime) and Stephen King (for paranormal) who are skilled in many of the writing techniques thrillers require.

Keep reading for more on each of the above steps to a good thriller:

Explore thriller types and find your idea

What is a thriller? The genre is commonly grouped with mystery and suspense (as Amazon does in their book listings). These genres share several elements. Thriller novels typically:

Types of thriller novel

First, what type of thriller novel do you want to write? It is an eclectic genre that includes:

These are just a few of the thriller subgenres available.

To start your story and finesse your thriller idea , complete the ‘Central Idea’ prompts in the Now Novel dashboard.

How to write a thriller infographic

Develop thriller plot ideas using GMC

How to develop thriller plot ideas: Stakes and story tension arise from characters’ goals or desires, motivations. Conflicts that arise from opposing (or taboo) desires drive the narrative.

‘Goal, motivation and conflict’ (formalized by Debra Dixon in her book GMC: Goal, Motivation, and Conflict ) are agents of change.

It’s change plus tension and suspense – chains of urgent change showing cause and effect – that makes thrillers gripping reading.

How goal, motivation and conflict works in thrillers

Deeds and goals in thriller stories.

In thrillers, an antagonist or wrongdoer’s deeds and goals are often criminal or outside the bounds of moral conventions .

This wrongdoing and its possibly mortal dangers or extreme stakes and consequences is part of the thrill.

Many thrillers (especially psychological thrillers) spin dark tales from the fact that we never, truly know a person completely:

I saw a quote the other day that was something along the lines of you only know what someone is willing to share with you, so you might never really know a person. We like to think that we know everything about a family member or a partner or a best friend, but do we? Probably not. Exploring intimate relationships with the backdrop of a thriller is so fascinating to me. Jeneva Rose, Q&A for Fresh Fiction blog, April 25th 2022

What drives action and motivation in a thriller?

In thrillers, characters’ deeds and goals necessitate action. Whether the protagonist must rescue hostages or defend a lover who is suspected of murder, it’s urgent.

Our motivation is naturally higher when there are more terrible, potentially devastating stakes or feared outcomes.

What do the high-rise hijackers want in Die Hard ? What does attorney Sarah Morgan want when her husband’s mistress is found stabbed to death in Jeneva Rose’s The Perfect Marriage ?

Thrillers thrive in internal and external conflict

Sarah Morgan is a good example of an intriguing thriller protagonist. Emotionally conflicting experiences drive her actions. The external conflict of uncovering spousal infidelity, firstly. Then the internal conflict of her defending her husband against a murder charge.

People often write of ‘plot’ and ‘character’ as though they are totally separate categories. Yet in truth, ‘plot’ emerges out of characters whose desires and motivations are sometimes known, sometimes not. Often opposed or in a state of flux.

Duplicity and deception are staples of the thriller genre because it so often deals with characters who have secrets. The genre often features people who venture into morally darker, more conflict-riddled territory.

Conflict in a thriller – as with other genres – grows from the ‘why not’ that stands in your MC’s way, as Now Novel writing coach Romy Sommer shares:

Make pacing quick, actions urgent

An essential ingredient in how to write a thriller is fast pacing .

Thriller reviewers often mention reading a book ‘in one sitting’ or say ‘I couldn’t put this book down’.

For example, two ‘shouts’ for the novel we discuss below from Amazon review extracts:

“I couldn’t put this book down!” “I can count on one hand the number of books I’ve read in a single sitting. This is one of those books!” The Perfect Marriage , reviews via Amazon.

How to create fast pacing for thrillers

Let’s explore the opening page to Jeneva Rose’s The Perfect Marriage , a thriller that has over 24,000 Amazon reviews.

This particular thriller keeps pace fast by:

When the outcome of a scene or chapter is left hanging, the pace naturally picks up because the reader will turn the page to find out what happens next. Jessica Page Morrel, ‘7 Tools For Pacing A Novel & Keeping Your Story Moving At The Right Pace’, Writer’s Digest, 2012 .

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Dissecting a thriller prologue

The prologue to The Perfect Marriage is only 8 lines long. It begins with the active question ‘Did he love her?’ and ends with the question ‘did he kill her?’

Did he love her? He loved the way she looked at him – the way her bottom lip trembled and her foot quaked when she… [but] did he kill her?’ Jeneva Rose, The Perfect Marriage , 2020

Between these leading questions, there is detailed sexual description implying a carnal relationship. This implied physical intimacy jars with the final line’s implied violence.

This juxtaposition and sense of rollercoaster distills characteristics of thrillers generally. Their darker subject matter, and the way they often explore turbulent scenarios, desires and actions that veer between extremes .

The imagery and language may be a little obvious, but this is not a more ‘literary’ thriller. Commercial thrillers maintain accessible (even if at times obvious or rote-seeming) style.

How to begin a thriller with fast pace and action

How do you begin a thriller story with quick pacing?

Let’s look further at the opening pages of The Perfect Marriage . After the prologue, the first chapter (subtitled ‘Sarah Morgan’ to indicate the viewpoint narrator) continues. The first chapter:

Launches into an emotional scene in medias res (in the middle of the action). Chapter 1 begins with the spoken words, “Not again.” This creates an immediate sense of a situation already unfolding.

Creates the narrator’s POV and emotional state fast. The opening quickly proceeds in Sarah Morgan’s POV, without narrated exposition or backstory:

The disappointment in his voice fills the room and hangs there like a light flog, clouding us from one another. I take in a deep breath, removing the haze, and let it out just as quickly, clearing the path back between us. I don’t need to look at him to know his eyes are disheartened and his lips pressed firmly together. I don’t blame him. I’ve disappointed Adam again. Rose, The Perfect Marr iage

Gives clear, simple and descriptive actions. After the above line, we read, ‘I slide a white blazer over an emerald-green blouse and straighten out my pencil skirt.’

Key takeaways for pacing a thriller from the above:

Lee Child quote on writing thrillers

Make plot put your reader on shifting sand

Thinking about how to write a psychological thriller? Put your reader on shifting sand. So that just when they think they have everything figured out, new information has them guessing again.

Film actor Mark Strong, interviewed by Collider , said:

When you’re making a psychological thriller, what you need to do is have an audience on shifting sand so they’re never quite sure where they are.  But if I flag that too heavily with the character, I think that’s the wrong way to go.  I have to play him, as I said, just dead straight. Mark Strong, interviewed by Sheila Roberts , Collider, 2014.

How to keep thriller readers guessing

To keep that sand shifting and readers guessing, you could:

Understand the psychology of suspense

Great thriller stories give us gripping suspense.

The standard definition of suspense is ‘a state or feeling of excited or anxious uncertainty about what may happen’ ( Oxford Languages ).

Psychologists of suspense have theorized that we feel suspense because of ‘prospect emotions’ such as fear and hope. We desire (or fear) a specific outcome (the wolf hunts the three little pigs, we identify with the vulnerable protagonists, and we (probably) hope straw, sticks and bricks will hold out).

How to create thriller suspense

You ramp up suspense by:

The SEP describes the connection between suspense and the undesirability of an outcome using an odd orange analogy:

Fear is amplified as the degree of danger, the undesirability and/or likelihood of an outcome, increases. If I am fearful of being attacked, I am more fearful if the prospective attack is more undesirable: Given equal likelihood, I would be more fearful of being stabbed in the gut with a knife or a beaten about the torso with a pillowcase full of oranges than merely punched repeatedly. ‘Aaron Smuts, ‘The Paradox of Suspense’, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy , revised 26 October 2021.

Tease and caution to heighten suspense

Suspense in thriller stories doesn’t only build because there is a feared outcome with mortal or other grave risks. Moment to moment, suspense may build due to:

How often have you watched a thriller or horror and said, ‘What are you doing?! Don’t go in there!’

In thrillers novels, protagonists often take the wrong turn, or there is narrative irony (where the reader knows more than the character does about a place or situation) which also creates suspense.

The filmmaker David Lynch uses cinematography to excellent suspense-creating effect in the cult classic series Twin Peaks . A frame may linger, for example, on a traffic light at night changing from green to red. Or the camera lingers on the menacing spin of a ceiling fan, while a panic-stricken mother hunts for her daughter.

Setting in thrillers is your ally for creating unnerving tone and mood.

Create arresting tone and mood

Mysteries, thrillers and suspense novels share close attention to tone and mood. If you compare the two prologues of contemporary thriller bestsellers, The Perfect Marriage and The Housemaid by Frieda McFadden (2022) , there are overlapping features:

The two thriller novels discussed above are of course commercial, bestseller thrillers. This means that they are written in an extremely accessible (you might even say cliché-ridden) style.

Yet they achieve what great thrillers do. They make the reader keep turning pages because they have questions needing urgent answers .

Study the best thriller writers

Who are some of the best thriller writers? Readers love thriller authors such as:

These are just a few of the big names in their respective thriller subgenres (or hybrid genres with thriller elements). The authors above published over 170 novels between them.

It is worth keeping up with contemporary thriller authors, too.

Keep track of nominated and awarded authors for major thriller prizes such as the International Thriller Writers Thriller Awards . Find thrillers to study in lists such as this list of the 100 greatest thrillers of all time for Stacker.

Start writing a thriller using Now Novel’s story outlining tools. Get help developing your story from coaches and a constructive critique community.

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Jordan is a writer, editor, community manager and product developer. He received his BA Honours in English Literature and his undergraduate in English Literature and Music from the University of Cape Town.

2 replies on “How to write a thriller: 8 tips for page-turners”

Best way to write a thriller is to read one that isn’t that well known for starters! If you’re into espionage try an unusually thrilling autobiography entitled Beyond Enkription (misspelt on purpose) by Bill Fairclough (ex MI6 agent codename JJ). It’s a must read for espionage cognoscenti. The fact based narrative is set in 1974 about a British accountant working in London, Nassau and Port au Prince who unwittingly works for MI6 and later the CIA.

It’s a compelling read but whatever you do, don’t just surf through the prologue as I did. Also, if like me you could only just stomach the film Jaws don’t be put off by the passing savagery of the first chapter. I finished this huge book in two sittings and a week or so later read it again.

To get the most out of it try researching the real events behind it on the web. There is a lot out there once you start digging but as a minimum include a half hour read of one of the author’s bios which don’t include spoilers. You’ll soon feel like you know his family. After my first reading I did even more research and kept on unravelling increasingly enthralling material that drove me to reread the book. My second reading was richly rewarded and just as captivating as my first.

If you like raw or noir espionage thrillers, you’ll love it. Len Deighton and Mick Herron could be forgiven for thinking they co-wrote it. Atmospherically it’s reminiscent of Ted Lewis’ Get Carter of Michael Caine fame. If anyone ever makes a film based on Beyond Enkription they’ll only have themselves to blame if it doesn’t go down in history as a classic espionage thriller.

Hi Janice, thanks so much for your very detailed suggestions, I don’t know the Bill Fairclough and that sounds fascinating, will definitely add to my ‘TBR’ list. Thanks for reading our blog and sharing your thoughts.

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NY Book Editors

How to Write a Thriller

Equal parts mystery and suspense, anxiety and expectation, the thriller genre is one of the most exciting to read. And, one of the hardest to write.

Do you need help writing an edge-of-the-seat masterpiece? Are you looking to create a page-turner that leaves your reader squealing with anticipation?

Let’s get started. In this post, we’ll discuss how to lay the groundwork for a terrifying and terrific tale.

Here are 10 tips to help you amp up the tension in your thriller. Subscribe to receive this extra resource.

Download your bonus content:

Choose a Strong Plot

All thrillers have intriguing plots. But let’s take a step back and define what a plot is and what it is not .

The plot is not the same as the story.

A story is a simple retelling of events. A plot is showing how the events are connected, usually by highlighting the cause and effect. The plot also explains why the story happens.

Here's an example:

A story : The dish and the spoon ran away.

A plot : The dish ran away with the spoon.

As you can see, when looking at the plot, there’s an obvious connection between the actions of the dish and the spoon. There’s also the sense that the dish ran away because of the spoon’s action. I’m not going to get too deep in a nursery rhyme, but you get the point: Stories tell what happened. Plots tell how and why it happened.

If you want a strong thriller, you need to create a plot that shows the connection between events, and how one event causes another.

Plotting, my friend, will take planning. Even if you’re a pantser (i.e. you hate outlining), you’ll need to plan out your plot so that you show how each major element in your story is connected.

Create a Strong Protagonist

Your reader needs to experience your thriller with a relatable (but not necessarily reliable) protagonist. The reader needs to care about the protagonist’s future and understand what drives your protagonist to make certain choices. Give the reader something to root for by revealing the protagonist’s goals and shortcomings.

In some genres, the plot is more important than the protagonist. But in a thriller, both work together to deliver a gripping story. It’s the actions and reactions of the protagonist that not only propel the story forward but make the story compelling for the reader. Because you’ve taken time to add depth to your protagonist, the reader understands what’s at stake for the hero at every turn.

In order for the thriller to be effective, the reader must follow the protagonist as he teeters between risk and reward.

Craft a Believable Villain

Writing a thriller

You can’t have a hero without a villain.

The protagonist is the main character and it’s his story that you’re following. However, you still need a realistic and fully-fleshed out villain to thwart the protagonist.

In fact, in most thrillers, the villain drives the plot. He acts and the protagonist reacts.

For an unsettling example of this, let's look at Cormac McCarthy's novel, No Country for Old Men . Antagonist Anton Chigurh is a heartless hitman who abides by his own moral code. He is a seemingly unstoppable force that’s constantly on the hunt. While he sometimes reacts to the protagonist, it’s usually the other way around.

The antagonist is just as important as the protagonist. This means that you should spend at least as much time defining the villain as you do the protagonist. The push and pull of these two main characters will create a taut thriller.

Choose a Strong Opener

The opening of your novel is no place for backstory. And don’t set the scene with lengthy prologue either.

Jump directly into the action. Shock the reader with something that will grab them by the collar. The goal is to get them to turn the page now, not tomorrow evening.

I recommend dedicating no less than the first three pages to a shocking opening. Start at the immediate moment where the protagonist’s life takes a turn. Use vivid language to describe the scene in real-time (not in a flashback).

After the reader is disheveled and out of sorts, then reel back and make the polite introductions. Ease up on the tension and help them understand how the protagonist must be the person who will solve the dilemma.

Drop Clues Throughout

An effective thriller is littered throughout with hints, clues and foreshadowing. While you should close all open ends by your story’s conclusion, you should never rely on deus ex machina to do so.

What is deus ex machina?

Deus ex machina is Latin for "God from the machine." It comes from the ancient Greek theater where actors often played gods and goddesses. The actors were lowered by a crane (i.e. the machine) onto the stage. The god or goddess would then resolve the conflict and end the story.

While it worked in ancient Greece, in literature, deus ex machina is not a good thing. It's a plot device that allows you to quickly wrap up your story but not in a satisfying manner. If you introduce a character or a story element at the last minute to resolve the plot, you're cheating the reader and damaging your story.

One of the thrills of a good thriller is being able to read it again, this time seeing how everything leads to your satisfying conclusion. A good thriller is filled with breadcrumbs that make a second read even more rewarding than the first.

Create Conflict

Writing a thriller

How do you make both the reader and the protagonist uncomfortable? Conflict!

Insert heaping helpings of conflict throughout your thriller. Conflict should be present both internally and externally and present in every single scene. Throw mines across the protagonist’s path. When they’re alone, give the protagonist an internal struggle. By keeping the protagonist on their toes, you’ll create an uneasy atmosphere that prevents the reader from relaxing.

If you break your plot into three main acts, here’s how to add conflict in three parts:

It’s also important to know what’s at stake for everyone in the scene. What are they fighting for, internally and externally?

Add Twists and Turns

No thriller would be complete without a set of twists, turns and misdirection. You’ve got to knock your reader off of his feet periodically or they won’t be thrilled. (See what I did there?).

The best time to introduce plot twists is in act 3 when the reader feels convinced that they know how the story will end. This is the time to kill a beloved character suddenly and without warning (although foreshadowing should be present when re-reading). Give the protagonist hell. Do everything you can to stop a happily ever after. But, of course, close all arcs, straighten all twists and write a satisfactory ending.

Additional Resources

You've made it to the end of this post but not the end of our resources. Here are a few posts that will help you in your quest to write a killer thriller:

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writing a thriller novel


writing a thriller novel


Writing Thrillers: A Deep-Dive on Subgenres, Plus 4 Must-Have Elements

Posted on Mar 6, 2023

by Gloria Russell

Writing thrillers takes work. It takes practice and know-how to balance high stakes and high stress over a long period of time. Too much, and the novel starts to feel predictable or melodramatic. Too little, and it’s not a thriller.

How can we, as writers, keep our readers hooked all the way through our thriller? What makes a good thriller, anyway, and what’s the difference between thriller and suspense or horror?

In this article, we’ll answer all of these questions and give you some tips for outlining and drafting your thriller novel. By the end, you’ll be ready to stress out any reader who picks up your book (in the best way imaginable)!

What defines a thriller novel?

First things first: what makes a thriller novel a thriller novel?

Thriller novels use heightened emotion to keep their readers hooked. They often feel cinematic and involve high stakes and dramatic plot points. Thriller often overlaps with other genres, namely mystery and crime novels.

Thrillers are defined by how they make the reader feel, and thrillers make their readers feel anxious. They aim to make readers unsettled, nervous, and eager to read what happens next. All fiction should elicit some amount of stress in the reader in the form of conflict, but in a thriller novel, the stress is the main feature.

Writing Thrillers

What are some examples of thriller novels?

If you’re going to be writing thrillers, you’ll need to read lots of them. Here are five thriller novels to start you on your way—think of these as a starter kit for reading thrillers.

1. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

2. The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware

3. A Time to Kill by John Grisham

4. American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis

5. Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty


What are the key elements of a thriller?

These elements are commonly found in all types of thriller novels.

1. Suspense

Suspense is how an author builds tension throughout the story. It’s necessary in any genre, but it’s absolutely vital in thriller novels. Ultimately, your goal for the reader is that they never want to put the book down.

How do you make sure that happens? End each chapter (or most chapters) with a cliffhanger. Throw in a twist. Change up the pacing. More on this in the coming points.

2. High stakes

If you want to stress a reader out, you need to give them something to be stressed about. This means you need a plot with high stakes. The characters must have a lot on the line—it needs to really matter whether or not they succeed. This is why thrillers are so often crime or mystery novels, especially murder mysteries, and it’s why you don’t see a lot of thrillers about, say, bake sales or fantasy football teams.

3. The big question

In a thriller, the plot should be driven by one big, important question. Think Gone Girl —from the start, the reader is asking themselves what happened to Amy, and whether Nick had anything to do with it. This question drives much of the suspense throughout the novel. It fizzles in the back of a reader’s mind and laces everything that happens in a layer of nail-biting anxiety.

4. Realistic pacing

Readers will get worn out with nonstop action. Real-life doesn’t actually include bombs going off every five pages and shootouts around every corner. The suspense and intrigue need to be constant, but the action doesn’t have to be. Oftentimes interesting and punchy dialogue , dream sequences, or the character reviewing the disparate facts and puzzle pieces is enough to keep you turning the page.

Types of thriller novels

On Masterclass, their site outlines eight types of thriller novels—this list isn’t all-inclusive, but it covers most of the thrillers you’ll come across.

Also, note that there’s often overlap between these sub-types. Gone Girl, for example, is a psychological thriller for its use of an unreliable narrator and its exploration of its characters’ psyches and relationships. It’s also a crime thriller because it centers around a missing person investigation.

We’ll follow the Masterclass list , but explain each subgenre in more detail.

1. Psychological thriller

Psychological thrillers concern themselves with the inner workings of people’s minds. They’ll often be about subjects like mental illness, substance abuse, trauma, morality, and crime. Psychological thrillers are likely to use unreliable narrators, since unreliable narrators are great for bending reality and being generally creepy.

2. Action thriller

Action thrillers are distinguished by their focus on physical danger. In an action thriller, most of the excitement comes from watching characters navigate action sequences. An action-thriller will have things like car chases, shoot-outs, or fist fights. Action scenes will probably come up in other types of thriller novels, but again, in an action thriller, the action scenes are the main attraction.

3. Crime novel/crime fiction

As you might have guessed, these types of thrillers revolve around solving a crime. Sherlock Holmes is the epitome of this genre. The mystery might be a murder, a series of robberies or assaults, a drug cartel, or any other criminal activity. The drama comes from the nature of the activity and the solving of the crime by our protagonists .

4. Political thriller

Political thrillers take place within the government. The tension comes from the high stakes—if the problem isn’t solved, there are probably some huge ramifications for the nation or government. Usually, a political thriller explores the nature of politics and forces the audience to consider their stance on political issues.

5. Mystery thriller/mystery novels

In a mystery thriller, the characters are working to solve a mystery. This is usually a crime, but doesn’t necessarily have to be—the justice system isn’t always involved. The tension comes from seeing the perpetrator captured in time to avoid further crises.

6. Spy thriller

Think James Bond or Jason Bourne. These thrillers follow a spy, usually working for a real or fictional government agency, and the excitement comes from watching the spy navigate their mission. Often, this genre combines action, politics, and crime, and there’s some focus on the spy’s psychological state as well for added tension.

7. Legal thriller

Think John Grisham. Legal thrillers focus on a specific legal investigation. Characters will be in a court case navigating the justice system. These usually showcase the impacts of the legal process on the characters involved, and they also ask readers to explore their understanding of justice.

8. Science fiction thriller

Think Jurassic Park! Or the Marvel series. Science fiction thriller authors take a look at science and ask themselves: how could this be used in the weirdest, most stressful way possible? Sci-fi thrillers often explore the ramifications of scientific experimentation, and they’re often rooted in some believably scientific premise (though your suspension of disbelief may vary).

Tips for writing thrillers

How do you make sure that your thriller keeps your readers hooked from page one to the end? Follow these tips to create a fast-paced, interesting thriller that not only hooks your audience , but sticks with them after they’ve finished reading.

1. Focus on crafting great characters

Writers often lose themselves in the technical aspects of crime or mystery novels. They’ll write pages explaining the layout of a museum or dedicate an entire chapter to the ins and outs of a given chase sequence. In doing this, writers detach from characters, and this is the fastest way to lose a reader.

People care about people. Readers are interested in characters above anything else. In any story, the conflict and intrigue come from wondering what’s going to happen to the characters. If the readers don’t care about the characters, especially the main character, they’re not going to be glued to the page to find out what happens to them.

Create a compelling protagonist with a vested interest in the plot. Make them emotionally involved in the story so that your readers get emotionally invested, too. A reader will forgive any number of plot contrivances in the name of a character they love, but they’ll be less likely to care about a technically perfect plot if they have to see it through the eyes of an uninteresting character.

Need help developing your characters? Check out this free resource below.

Character Development Cheat Sheet [also printable!]

Fast track your character development in HALF the time.

Keep your characters feeling REAL and organized at the same time with a fully customizable and printable character development worksheet designed to make your characters shine!

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2. Create an interesting problem with high stakes

Readers might forgive plot contrivances for characters they love, but that doesn’t mean the plot shouldn’t be interesting!

The central conflict of your thriller should revolve around an interesting problem with high stakes. If you’re writing about a serial killer, what’s interesting about this particular serial killer? If it’s a murder mystery, what about this particular murder is different and unique?

The problem should also have high stakes. It should matter deeply to the main character that the problem is solved—maybe the killer is coming for the protagonist or the protagonist’s loved ones next, or maybe the fate of the nation hangs in the balance. Again, you want the character emotionally connected so that the audience will be emotionally connected, too. Make it personal.

3. Don’t make it easy

At the risk of sounding too obvious, a thriller should, first and foremost, be thrilling. If a reader can tell who the killer is on page three, they’re not going to be interested in reading the rest. If they do keep reading, they’re probably going to be frustrated that the characters can’t seem to see the obvious solution dangling in front of them.

To make your thriller satisfying and exciting, you’ll want to put your characters through some serious difficulties. Throw obstacles in their paths. The bigger the obstacle, the more satisfying it’ll be to watch the character overcome it. Don’t be afraid to really change up the status quo for your characters.

Have your characters lose their jobs, their spouse, or their friends. Have them get lost, have them get caught by the villain and have to fight their way out, and take away all their weapons. Making it as difficult as possible for the characters to achieve their goals will not only make the reader more interested to see what happens next, but it’ll also make the reader respect and like the characters more for gritting their teeth and persevering.

One easy way to nail this is to create a great villain. The villain should be powerful, unpredictable, and have some personal connection to our main characters.

4. Nail the pacing

This is an entire subject to study on its own, so this is a very, very quick rundown of how to nail the pacing in your thriller novel.

First, keep your action scenes quick . Any fight sequence should be vital to the plot, contain high stakes for everyone involved, and change the status quo when it’s done. These scenes should also be fast-paced. It should happen as quickly as possible (without losing important details). Instead of focusing on the technical movements of the fight, focus on the character’s reactions, feelings, and problem-solving skills.

Next, keep the pace varied . Not every single scene in your thriller should be fast—you need slower scenes to build suspense. Maybe the cop just finished a day of high-stakes interviews with suspects, comes home and debriefs with his wife, and settles into bed. But then, he has a wild dream that in some way seems connected to solving the mystery.

Balancing high-drama scenes with slower scenes will make your book more balanced, and it gives you more room to build momentum as you work toward the climax.

Finally, don’t neglect your climax! All the momentum in your story should point toward it, and when it happens, it should be all-hands-on-deck. This is why it’s often hard to put a good book down once you’ve gotten about three-quarters in. Everything builds to the climax, and if you’ve done your job, the reader will be eager to see the story through.

What’s Next?

If you saw this article through to completion, we must have kept the suspense at just the right level for you. At Self-Publishing School, we have a ton of resources to help you write and publish your novel. If you’re serious about getting started and writing a thriller, check out this free training:

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Gloria Russell

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writing a thriller novel


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