The primary purpose of a thriller novel is to keep the reader on the edge of the seat. They should intrigue, shock and keep the reader alert from the beginning to the end. As well as captivate the audience and keep them in suspense.
Thriller readers want to be thrilled. Great thrillers revolve around a hero who falls prey to a villain and has no option but to fight for survival. Thrillers cause readers to have a racing pulse, sweaty palms, and lose sleep reading late into the night.
Unlike other genres or types of fiction that get their names because of what they’re about (romances are about romance, Westerns are about the West, etc.), thrillers get their name because of how they make the reader feel. And everything in a thriller is designed to create this feeling of heart-pounding, white-knuckle suspense.
In this post, we’ll examine 4 tips for how to write a thriller because there are complexities to a thriller like no other genre. To write a great thriller takes experience and these tips will help get you off to a great start.
1. Know the history of the thriller genre
The history of a thriller did not start with Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. Tom Clancy did not create the thriller genre either. There’s no question both have catapulted the genre into the mainstream with each of their many books being made into block buster movies, but the truth is the thriller genre has been around for thousands of years, all the way to the beginning of story telling. Think cave walls officially named parietal art that dates back some 40,000 years according to this article.
Now, you can get yourself a basket full of thriller novels in your local book store (if you still have one of those in your neighborhood) and study up on thrillers from different generations, or you can take a much easier, less time consuming route and purchase Thrillers: 100 Must Reads, by Hank Wagner on Amazon. *This is an affiliate link and if you purchase a book, I will receive a commission.
Inside you’ll find 100 essays from todays best selling thriller authors as they describe thrillers from 1500 b.c. all the way to Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code in 2003. Each author writes 1000 words examining each piece of work that provides writers like us a quick and detailed history of our most beloved genre.
Tip: Purchase the paperback. This is a resource you will come back to time and time again. My copy has notes and highlights and important information circled on nearly every page. When I outline, I often use many of the authors thoughts in this book to help keep me on the path of a true thriller. Of all the steps of how to write a thriller, this one is a no brainer.
The beauty of this book is the broad range of thrillers covered. Inside you’ll find numerous different thriller categories within the genre: the psychological thriller, the legal thriller, the medical thriller, the political thriller, the spy thriller, the high-action thriller, etc.
No matter how you decide to study up on your specific thriller genre of interest, you must do what you can to become an expert. There is nothing worse than spending months or years on a manuscript to find you’re way off base and have written a mystery and not a spy thriller.
2. Do Your Research
You don’t need to be a detective or investigator to write a police procedural thriller, but it would sure help if you’ve been involved in an investigation.
For most of us, we don’t have the luxury of personal experience in our chosen thriller genre, but there are steps you can take to compile the research needed to write a great thriller.
Read: Read non-fiction books about your chosen genre. First hand accounts from investigators and detectives in high profile crimes in history are a great way to get into the mind of a professional. Don’t forget to read books that actually teach you how to write a thriller. You can find several on Amazon.
Interview experts: Request to speak with a detective in your local police department for the simple reason of conducting research for a new book. Stop by a local police hangout (think coffee and donuts) and see if they will answer a few questions.
Some genres are easier to get in touch with experts and some are more difficult. If all else fails, visit upwork.com and search their freelancers for someone who is an expert in your chosen genre. You can find lawyers, doctors, retired investigators, military etc. that are all willing to answer as many questions as you have for a fee. Plus, it’s less time consuming. Simply write out the questions you have and send them to the expert and wait for a return. I have many years experience hiring experts from Upwork and I’ve never paid more than $50 for 10-20 detailed answers from an expert.
Personal Experience: Writing a legal thriller? Visit your local courthouse and sign up to sit in on a criminal trial. Many courthouses allow a certain amount of visitors not involved in a case to sit in and witness the trial.
Ride alongs are another way to have some personal experience for a police procedural. Police departments across the United States allow for civilians to ride inside police cars. You’re likely to pick up on the inside workings of a police call and if you’re lucky witness an actual arrest.
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3. Start with the Hero in a Situation
Where is your character? Is she investigating an injured person in a medical facility … or hemorrhaging inside a coffin buried many feet underground? Whatever the circumstance your hero is in must disclose what is at risk as well as assure the reader what factor placed your character in such a situation will be explained…eventually.
The key is you must drop your hero into a pulse pounding and intense situation while showing her best and worst sides to the reader. The situation must also be authentic to the reader. the rule is you can never go too far, but you do have to be realistic and authentic with every opening.
The goal is to catch your reader off guard and make them start assign themselves, “What is going to happen next?”
Recently, the hit Netflix series Ozark finished it’s second season. In every episode there are no less than three situations where I’m left wondering what the heck is going to happen next, and better yet, how is Marty Byrde played by actor Jason Bateman is going to get himself and family out of the current situation. With each new situation the stakes increase and the hero finds himself against insurmountable odds to the point where as a viewer there is absolutely no way out.
That is great writing and that is what you’re after. Authenticity.
So, by all means, place your hero in difficult situations, but authenticity is, and always will be, the key to making your readers feel the danger themselves.
4. It Must Be Thrilling
When it comes to the thriller genre, take everything you’ve learned about plot development, and multiply it by ten. As we’ve mentioned already, you can never get too crazy. There are several tools to add tension. Cliffhangers, Ticking clock, and making it personal to name a few. Start with these tools to get a solid base to your thriller plot.
- Cliffhangers – You can build on suspense by ending chapters or sections of the novel at a moment of uncertainty, to entice the reader to keep reading.
- Ticking clock – Thrillers often include a race against time; for example, a killer lurking in the dark as someone walks into a darkened area, or a criminal who will be executed in two days if he is not proven innocent. The ticking clock element adds to the reader’s adrenaline rush.
- Make it personal and specific – If your thriller is about the risk of the next victim in a serial killers rampage, introduce the reader to the next victim in the cross hairs of the killer who will be killed when the two meet.
So, at the end of the day … is that all you need to know to learn how to write a thriller? Know your history, do your research, drop the hero into a situation surrounded by an awesome thriller plot?
These are only a few of the basic guidelines required to pass an acceptable thriller to your readership. A lot of what makes a great thriller so successful besides becoming a wordsmith is story structure. You have to know how to structure every element of a thriller and not only how, but where. Get it right and the tough part is over, get it wrong and readers will sniff it out in the first few pages.