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You’ve been an avid fan of thrillers forever, and now you want to write one. Great! However, it isn’t as easy as it looks. If you aspire to be the next Brad Thor or Robert Ludlum, it takes a little bit of planning. If you want to thrill people while they are reading your book, you have to do a little bit of work up front. Here are some tips on how to get ideas for a story.

The Big Concept

The key to developing a great thriller is to begin with a great story concept. Simply put, a concept is “an intriguing story idea that can be stated in a few words and is easily understood by all.”  Writers use concepts to serve as a baseline, or foundation, to further develop all of the other elements of a story.

A true thriller concept is normally straightforward and concise. It typically contains a few critical components: a protagonist, or main character; a conflict, or struggle that forms the basis for the story’s actions. Once a writer develops a story concept, he or she can then use it to brainstorm and develop other critical parts of a story.  

Examples of Great (and Not so Great) Thriller Story Concepts

A good story idea will help guide a writer’s creative process as he or she crafts an effective thriller.

On the other hand, if a writer attempts to write a novel from a less effective concept, it may be difficult to craft a good story. Let’s look at a few examples of both.

A police chief battles a rampaging great white shark that menaces a sleepy seaside resort town. That sentence lays out the entire concept for the novel (and subsequent film)  Jaws. This concept contains the main characters (Chief Brody and the shark), the conflict (the rampage), and the setting (the sleepy seaside resort town). As a concept, and having seen the popular film or having read the book, it is easy to see how author Peter Benchley was able to use that concept to craft a very effective thriller.

Contrast that concept with the film Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. Even the most diehard Star Wars fans find this film to be problematic, and not just because of the excessive and gaudy CGI. It is difficult to pin down the underlying concept , which guided the development of this film’s story; it makes you wonder if there was one at all. As a result, the story is uneven, and does not deliver the thrills that previous Star Wars films did.

Why Thriller Concepts Matter

Establishing an effective concept for a thriller is extremely important. As you flesh out the concept into a premise, and then an actual story draft, you will be able to use the initial concept to keep you on track. As you review drafts, you can measure their effectiveness by determining how much they support the initial concept; those passages which distract from or do not reinforce the underlying concept may need to be revised substantially, or deleted altogether.

If you remain true to your concept throughout the writing process, it will also help your audience.  The conflict and characters will resonate throughout a thriller that remains true to its concept.  Readers will understand, no matter how complex the story gets, the essential struggle contained therein. This will help keep them engaged and turning the pages.


How to Develop a Story Concept

Developing a concept is a critical creative task for thriller writers. There is no one surefire method to capture what is essentially a unique individual talent, to write creatively. However, there there are some techniques writers can use to harness their imaginations and develop effective thriller concepts.

One way to develop a thriller concept is to ask the question what if, and then branch out creatively from there. What if the Nazis won Word War II? If you can imagine a world where something dramatically different and dramatic happened, it may help you develop the concept for an amazing thriller. A man dodges Gestapo agents to expose a global conspiracy in a world where the Nazis won World War II.  That was the concept underlying Robert Harris’s thriller Fatherland. Again, it grew out of the question: what if the Nazis had won World War II?

You can also use the idea of an ordinary person in an extraordinary situation to guide your development of an effective thriller concept. A low level CIA analyst uncovers a global conspiracy, and flees international assassins pursuing him across New York City. That was the concept for Sydney Pollack’s highly effective thriller, Three Days of the Condor

However you choose to develop your thriller concept, ensure that whatever concept you decide upon is something you are excited enough about to develop into an engaging story.

Closing Thoughts

Every great thriller has a great concept as its foundation. As a writer, developing an effective concept can help stimulate your imagination. It will also help focus you, as you develop that concept into premise, and then a full fledged story draft. So, before you put pen to paper, take the time to learn how to develop a story idea. Your future readers will definitely thank you.

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