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Nine Things Your Thriller Needs to Be Lean, Mean, and Exhilarating


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So, you crack your knuckles and sit down at the keyboard to write a thriller. You’re eager to create a gripping story in which the protagonist tries to stop something dreadful from happening. You want to cause delicious anxiety and apprehension that keeps readers on the edge of their seats, turning the pages in dread and exhilaration. How do you create work that lives up to the name and thrills?

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Nine Things a Thriller Needs

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1. Minimal Weight

Thrillers must read lean and mean. Fluff and padding dull their impact. Cut needless words, scenes, and characters.

(By way of example: I originally titled this list “Ten Things a Thriller Needs,” but condensed it to nine.)

2. Powerful Conflict

Every story is a journey, told through conflict. The protagonist wants something. The antagonist seeks to prevent them from achieving their goal. That’s plot: obstruct desire.

With thrillers, the story needs a compelling main character, a devastating antagonist, and a sharp hook for the plot. The hook catches the protagonist’s world and yanks it radically out of balance. That kicks off the protagonist’s quest to put things right. Ideally, the hook involves the antagonist and the threat they present.

Protagonists must actively drive the story forward. They can’t sit back and watch events unfold. Passive protagonists will suffocate a thriller; your heroes and heroines need to be in the thick of the story, making stuff happen. Of course, they face incredible opposition: antagonists who are formidable adversaries. Weak, unintelligent opponents aren’t scary or dangerous, so give your antagonists power, skills, charisma, and overpowering drive.

In a thriller, the story is about the choices the characters make when facing deadly threats, under increasing pressure, often with time running out. The only real way to find out what characters are made of is to crack their world in half. Then you learn whether they can fight their way clear of the debris, rescue people who need help, and rebuild from the wreckage. Give your characters strengths, weaknesses, and dreams. Heroic courage and desperate flaws. Give them a past. A family. Baggage. (They were raised by thieves. They were orphaned in the woods and adopted by badgers. They were taught to fight, or to be quiet and demure.) How will that past haunt them and those around them? Will they escape it? Embrace it?

And give them a future. Give them two: one they strive for at the story’s outset . . . and a different future they find after they complete their quest. To sharpen conflict, drill deep into the characters’ lives—their drives, fears, and desires. Then set the characters against each other. The protagonist and antagonist each seek vital goals. Those goals clash. Their conflict will drive them to an irrevocable confrontation at the climax, where they resolve the issue between them . . . with talk, takedowns, or fire.

Bottom line: Trouble builds character. Go deep. Dig into your characters—intellectually, morally, emotionally, and spiritually. Then throw them into a struggle that puts them to the test. That’s Thriller Writing 101.

3. High Stakes

The stakes in a story are what will be won if the protagonist succeeds and lost if they fail. Does your protagonist face embarrassment? Professional failure? Maybe at the start. Maybe. But in a thriller, the stakes need to escalate until, at some point, death must be on the line. Perhaps it’s a metaphorical death—the end of a career or relationship . . . No, you’re writing a thriller. It’s physical death.

You need danger. Characters that readers care about should be in jeopardy. A sense of threat should hum through the story, like a jet engine that has a gremlin inside, Twilight Zone style, and might blow at any time.

4. Suspense

Suspense involves a state of anxious or excited uncertainty over how events will turn out. That uncertainty creates apprehensive doubt. It causes literal nail-biting. It jabs readers with pins and needles as they wonder what will happen next.

It keeps them turning pages.

As a writer, you cause that uncertainty by creating curiosity about what’s going to happen and concern for the characters.

So: Raise a question—and don’t immediately supply the answer. Pose a problem but don’t reveal the solution. Withhold information from the reader—and from the protagonist. Make getting that information vital to the protagonist’s goal, then parcel it out slowly, and force them to struggle for it. Stretch out the time it takes to resolve the uncertainty, and dangle the answer just out of reach. Have well-laid plans go awry. Let a character’s deepest fear become reality. Create a looming sense of danger. Have a crisis erupt that requires an immediate response.

Then make it impossible for your characters to immediately respond.

The writer’s job is to create a problem that demands fixing, then veer in another direction. Prolong and worsen readers’ desperate desire for resolution.

Add in concern for the characters, and suspense is exponentially amplified. Compassion and sympathy deepen readers’ connection with the people on the page. They guarantee that readers will remember the story long after it’s finished.

5. Tension

Tension is distinct from suspense. For thriller-writing purposes, consider tension equal to excitement. Dole it out in bursts. Suspense can be sustained over an entire novel. Tension spikes like a Geiger counter at a meltdown. It tightens the screws (or reveals that the screws the gremlin loosened in the jet’s engine are about to fall out). It’s a shot of adrenaline.

How can you create tension in a story? Insert moments of danger, friction, and confrontation. Set a deadline. Nothing ups the stakes like a timer ticking down. The bad guys are rolling into town on the noon train. The hurricane is due to hit at sundown, and the last boat off the island leaves in twenty minutes. A boys’ soccer team is trapped in a cave with water rising. The hero’s unit has been poisoned and will die in six hours without the antidote.

Think of tension in terms of minutes or seconds of peril. Or an explosive confrontation. Which can involve a volcanic eruption, or the deadly showdown with Brenda from HR.

6. A Swift Pace

Thrillers move. They rumble, roll, race. They don’t lumber. And they never tread water. The story should advance on every page. Give it energy. Make sure it never sits still. Your story is the 82nd Airborne, diving out the door of the plane while the sergeant shouts, Go, go, go!

Of course, the characters—and readers—do need breathers. They need moments to exhale, reflect, and rest up. But the story as a whole is like the Pony Express. Someone’s always got to be waiting to take that handoff and ride.

You can write scenes where characters take a languid midnight swim in the ocean. Give them a chance to banter and blow off steam. Or to walk the dog, cook dinner, and make love. Nonstop action isn’t what makes books feel relentless. Books feel relentless when the action slows but unanswered questions lurk in the background.

The pace can relent, but the suspense never should.

Let your characters have a moment of zen, or ecstasy, or pie. Let them laugh. There’s nothing like a splash of humor to give characters—and readers—a lift. But keep tension and unsettled is- sues churning away in the story, and in the reader’s mind and gut. Mysteries remain unsolved. Clocks tick down. Bad guys scheme, and load weapons, and creep nearer. And each lighter scene can feed into the main plot. Beasts lurk beneath the placid surface of the ocean where the hero swims. The heroine’s dog slips the leash and dashes into darkness, where a killer lurks.

7. Action

Because the ultimate stakes in a thriller are life and death, even slow-burning stories of psychological suspense will eventually feature physical action. And physical action—including violence and chase scenes—works best when it combines tension with emotional stakes.

A note on violence: Explicit brutality doesn’t make a story more frightening. Gore doesn’t necessarily up the tension. In fact, what often increases fear and tension is a threat that remains partially veiled in mystery—because readers’ imaginations will create terrors more frightening than authors can portray. The theater of the mind is more powerful than a bucket of blood.

Simple, visually clear action descriptions work most effectively. You don’t need to analyze every muscle twitch involved in a commando’s silent leap from a rooftop, or describe the exact angle at which the villain cocks her fist before walloping somebody. And always remember: Action should reveal and amplify conflict, suspense, tension, and character. Mere blows don’t land in a story any more than they do in a video game.

Chase scenes likewise must be visually clear. Beyond that, they must be even more emotionally powerful than equivalent scenes on the screen. Readers don’t get the visceral sensory impact that viewers receive from watching a chase scene, so you need to deliver other kinds of punches. And for a chase scene to excite readers, it has to avoid every cliché pulled from other chases you’ve seen or read. Bullitt is iconic. Try to duplicate it, and you’ll write a predictable knockoff.

Elements that go into a chase scene include:

Setup. Build in suspense, tension, and questions from the beginning. The hero must get to Buenos Aires or Terrible Thing X will happen. The heroine must escape from Moscow with the Tiny Thing the Spies Want, or the truth will die with her. Give the character a goal. Lay out the stakes.

Buildup. Create a vital goal: freedom, rescue, justice, survival. Then start throwing obstacles in the character’s path. Add time pressure. The flight is canceled. The replacement flight is diverted by a medical emergency. Or it’s brought down in the wilderness by a flock of geese, and now the hero must escape on foot.

Climax. Add emotional pressure. Up the stakes. The Tiny Thing the Spies Want starts ticking. The Cub Scout troop that’s leading the hero out of the forest betrays him to the conspirators. The hero finally eludes the cops and arrives at the convent with seconds to spare . . . only to discover that Sister Mary Margaret has been taken hostage by the bad guys.

Ingenuity. Think of unexpected twists and build them in from the beginning. In The Dead Pool, Clint Eastwood is chased across the hills of San Francisco, à la Steve McQueen in Bullitt—not by hit men, but by a tiny remote-controlled car that’s packed with explosives. It’s simultaneously an homage to a classic and a fresh, clever take.

Never forget: Chase scenes should be designed to illustrate, reveal, or develop character. Make us care about the people on the page. Show us how and why they do what they do . . . and how the action affects them and others.

8. Twists

A plot twist is an unexpected turn in the story that dramatically shifts the direction or expected outcome of the narrative. Twists turn stories upside down. They surprise readers who think they know what’s going on.

Twists can involve a discovery, a revelation—say, of a secret—a betrayal, a declaration of love, a mistake, a failure of courage . . . the possibilities are wide open.

Writers can withhold information or mislead readers with ambiguous or false information. This is a classic technique in mysteries, where uncovering information—and the killer’s identity—is the goal of the story. You can toss in red herrings or an unreliable narrator. You can create misdirection: Make readers think the big, bright explosion on the mountaintop is the important development. Get them to look away from what’s bubbling in the harbor.

But no matter how you plant a twist, it should be earned, or the reader will feel burned. Use twists to ramp up tension, suspense, the stakes; to reveal and change character.

Yeah, you’re wondering. But . . . how do I think up a twist?

Write down all the wild ideas that hit you. Play with them. Think about what happens if you put your wild idea at the story’s beginning. Or its midpoint. Or at the climax. Work both forward and backward in the story from those possibilities.

When you’re coming up to a major scene or a turning point in the story, ask yourself: What’s the most obvious next step for the story to take?

Do the opposite.

Or if you have a scene, sequence, or act that develops in a straight line from beginning to end, redesign it. Deliberately build in a minefield for your characters. Turn that straight line into a physical, emotional, or moral assault course.

Use twists to reveal something about character. Go deep. Dig into the characters’ needs and desires. Play on your characters’ strengths, wants, fears, and flaws. And on their pasts. Their lies. Their relationships. Use twists to expose and affect your characters, and thereby to shift the course of the story.

Any twist should ideally do more than shock. Slapping readers with a huge surprise won’t be enough, on its own, to get them to love the sudden turn the plot takes. A twist should deepen and enrich the characters and the story.

The best twists are surprising yet inevitable. They create moments when readers gasp and mutter, No way . . . but, on reflection, think, Yeah, of course. And those moments arise out of character and conflict. Those twists lead to stories with emotionally rich, satisfying conclusions.

9. A Breaking Point

In thrillers, there often comes a point where:

  • the magnitude of the challenges the protagonist faces drives her toward taking a dark turn—not to break bad, but to jump some fence and plunge across a border. The line can be moral, physical, or emotional: breaking the law; abandoning a personal code; surrendering to an obsession . . .
  • the hero has his back against the wall. Out of ammo, out of allies, out of room to run. At the mercy of the antagonist. It’s John McClane—bloody, beaten, hands up, seemingly defeated— facing Hans Gruber at the end of Die Hard. Your job as a writer is to push the character up against that metaphorical wall, then figure out: How does your protagonist find the ingenuity, strength, and courage to overcome seemingly hopeless odds and triumph? (Or die trying…)

Either scenario can happen, or both. Your job as a writer is to drive the story to this point. Or, to put it another way: Raise the stakes and make it hurt. In a thriller, this point has to involve a defining physical and moral trial. What turn of events would really test your characters? How can you ratchet up the conflict and present your protagonist with a challenge that will make or break them?

Of course, taking your protagonist to the edge—smashing apart their world and forcing them to face wrenching dilemmas while staring down the threat of annihilation—is easier to design in a standalone novel than in a series. But in every thriller, ideally someone finds themselves on such a precipice. And by the climax, the protagonist should have developed a personal stake in that character’s success and survival, and be crucially involved in the showdown with the antagonist. That’s the delicious challenge for a writer.

With every item on this list, I keep coming back to one thing: character. The story grows from characters who desperately want something and who, to get it, face off against each other in deadly conflict. Start, continue, and end with that, and you’ll be on the right track. And you’ll keep readers coming back for more.

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Excerpted from How to Write a Mystery: A Handbook from Mystery Writers of America edited by Lee Child with Laurie R. King. Copyright © 2021 by Mystery Writers of America, Inc. with permission by Scribner, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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Michael Neff
Algonkian Producer
New York Pitch Director
Author, Development Exec, Editor

We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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