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When it comes to writing a great thriller, Story structure is important. The various components of a story’s structure help you introduce your characters and conflict, determine the pace and sequence for how action unfolds, and help you guide the story to its ultimate conclusion.

The story’s structure also helps your readers, who are accustomed to reading stories in the thriller genre, to become engaged and follow along. In the next several posts we will review the various components of a story. This article will focus on a very important one: the setup.

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.

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The Four Plot Elements of a Thriller

Nearly every thriller’s structure will have a plot consisting of four basic elements.

First, there is the setup, or exposition. During a thriller’s setup, the writer will introduce the story’s major characters, the nature of the conflict that the story revolves around, and help readers understand the story’s setting.

Following the setup, the next plot element is the complication. The complication is where the majority of action/conflict in the thriller will take place. Here, the protagonist will confront the key problem, likely meeting loss or failure at various points along the way. Most of the character and plot development will occur during the complication. 

The story’s climax is the emotional high point and turning point for the story. Here, the conflict will either be resolved, or the story’s ultimate outcome will be apparent to the reader.  Following the climax, the denouement, or resolution, will conclude the story. Here, readers will understand the impact of the conflict’s resolution, and how it changed the protagonist.

Now that we’ve briefly reviewed the four key plot elements, let’s take a closer look at the setup.

What Takes Place During the Thriller Setup?

During the setup, two critical things must occur. First, the writer must introduce the key elements of the story, including the characters, the conflict, and the setting. Next, the thriller’s setup must have some sort of hook that captures readers’ attention, gets them engaged, and keeps them turning the pages. As a rule, the setup should comprise no more than 20-25 percent of a story. Thus, a 350-page thriller should have the setup complete before the reader turns page 70.

The Thriller Setup, Distilled

As you begin to plot out your story, here are some things that you should consider including in your setup.

The Story’s Tone

Your thriller’s setup should establish the tone of the story up front. At the conclusion of the setup, readers should understand the general attitude you as a writer are taking towards the story’s subject material; they should know the story is a thriller, for example.

The Key Characters

During the setup, you should also introduce the key characters the story is centered upon. Readers should know who the protagonist is, and that character’s motivations. They should also understand the protagonist’s weaknesses, or other personality aspects that are going to figure in the conflict, which we’ll cover next.

The Conflict

During the thriller’s setup, you should also introduce the conflict that drives the story. Readers should understand the problem or struggle the character is going to grapple with throughout the rest of the story. Readers should also understand the stakes involved for the character in terms of the conflict, and have an understanding of how that conflict is going to grow until the story’s climax.

The Setting

At the conclusion of your thriller’s setup, readers should also have a good understanding of the setting. They should understand how it affects the story’s actions, and its impact on the major characters. The setting itself, if interesting, may help to draw readers in and make for a major compelling thriller.

The Hook

Last, but not least, comes the hook. A good thriller’s setup will not just introduce the story; it will also get readers engaged, so they keep on reading.  The hook is the literary tool that helps readers become and stay engaged with the story. It can consist of many things – a foreshadowing of an interesting event to come later in the story, an exciting or unique plot element, the depiction of a key event early on – among other things. Within the story’s setup, the hook should occur as early as possible; some of the most memorable thrillers hook readers with the very first sentence. 

Closing Thoughts

The setup is a critical component of a thriller’s plot. The story’s setup will introduce the key elements of the story you are trying to tell. It will also be the part of the story that draws your audience into the story, and keeps them reading until the very last page. As you develop and flesh out your thriller’s premise, pay careful attention to the components of a good thriller setup. If you address them as you put pen to paper and write your story, you’ll be on track to deliver a compelling thriller.

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