How to Write a Thriller

by WiseFool

Do you want to write a novel or short story with suspense, action, intrigue and realistic drama?

The thriller is one of the most popular genres in fiction. Usually containing exciting plot twists and high drama, coupled with realism and plausible characters, the thriller is also the genre most frequently adapted for the screen.

In short, as readers or viewers, we love fiction that keeps us on the edge of our seats. We lap it up like there is no tomorrow. So, if you’re a writer who has never considered writing one, it’s well worth dipping your toe into the pool of thrillers.

1. Get a Feel For The Kind of Thrillers Already on The Market

In order to write effectively in any genre, you need to have absorbed as much of it as possible

Unsurprisingly, given that thrillers are so popular, there are many of them around. And you might find this intimidating, especially if you’re a fan of a master of the genre. However, it’s helpful to take a look at what’s being done and, conversely, what isn’t being done. Is there a gap in the market that you can fill? For example, if political suspense is hot, do you have a fresh angle? It’s always good to look at what kind of thriller is currently flying of the bookshelves.

However, don’t be afraid to go your own way. If you have an idea that you think will appeal to a readership, trust that instinct. Whatever you do, make sure that you’re excited and comfortable about what you’re writing. Forcing yourself to write something, simply because you think it will appeal to the masses, isn’t going to work. Make sure you’re passionate about what you’re doing.

Some of The Best Selling Thrillers on Amazon

Gone Girl: A Novel
$14.99  $1.52
Stolen Prey
$15.49  $3.99
11th Hour (Women's Murder Club)
$12.74  $5.99
Mission to Paris: A Novel
$12.93  $6.95
The Storm (The Numa Files)
$12.4  $8.01
Istanbul Passage: A Novel
$14.55  $8.01

2. Pacing is Everything

The pacing of a thriller, more than any other genre, is crucial to your story or novel

Getting the pacing of a thriller right is a clever balancing act. The pace, obviously, cannot remain static, so you need to choose when to ratchet up the speed of the action and when to take things at a more leisurely pace.

Although excitement and fast-pace are crucial elements of any thriller, a reader with too much thrown at him or her will fatigue. So, you will, invariably need to give your readers some breathing space and an opportunity to digest information.

In order to track the pace of your novel, you may find it helpful to briefly outline each scene, so you can look at the piece as a whole and follow the rise and fall of tension and intrigue. Some writers even like to storyboard their novels.

3. Dialogue Must be Crisp

Don’t include anything that is not necessary to the progression of the narrative

Again, there is a balancing act to do here. On one hand, it’s vital that your characters ‘sound’ like normal people, they must be believable as real, live human beings. On the other hand, however, when writing a thriller, it is essential to ensure that every piece of dialogue has a purpose. If nothing would be lost by removing a particular line of dialogue, then I would recommend removing it.

More on writing effective dialogue can be found below.

There are many ways that a good story can be ruined, bad dialogue is one of them. So, what are the secrets to writing natural, captivating speech?

4. Keep Raising the Stakes

As the novel moves on, the danger and risk must increase

For the hero or heroine of a thriller, there can be very little rest. Of course, as with pace, you cannot simply bombard your protagonist, there needs to be a little ebb and flow. However, you have to be fairly cruel to him, her or them, because a protagonist must be continuously placed in dangerous situtations and cannot be allowed to relax for too long.

Most importantly, ensure that whatever is at stake at the beginning of the story or novel is not so high that it has nowhere else to go. Obviously, it is likely to be high early on - it wouldn’t be much of a thriller otherwise - but make sure that you’ve left something up your sleeve that will allow you to take it further.

5. Assume Your Readers Are Smart

Don’t patronize your reader by giving too much information

The biggest mistake you can make when writing a thriller is to give away too much. You might feel that facets of the novel need to be explained, in order for future action to make sense. However, it is always best to assume that your readers are intelligent enough to make some leaps of logic on their own.

Exposition is important in a thriller, but even more important is that it is done in a subtle and smooth way that doesn’t seem clunky within the narrative. More on how to write effective exposition can be found below.

Exposition is important, and can even be vital, to your short story, novel or play. However, if handled incorrectly or clumsily, it can verge on painful for your reader.

One More Word of Advice

If you don't find it exciting to write, no one is going to find it exciting to read

Writing can be a lot of fun, but there are times when the process can be less than enjoyable. If there is a passage in your novel or short story that you’re struggling over, ask yourself ‘why?’ Is it simply because you’re finding it difficult to envisage the action or is it because there is nothing in the scene that gets your juices flowing? If you’re finding even the smallest section of your novel boring to write, then imagine how boring it’s going to be to read.

So, try to make sure there is something titillating in each scene, perhaps a little breadcrumb or a red herring that throws your reader down the wrong path. With any work of fiction, it is important to keep the reader absorbed. However, with a thriller this is absolutely crucial.

Updated: 07/28/2012, WiseFool
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WiseFool on 08/11/2012

Hi, Tolovaj. Thank you very much for adding that tip. Short chapters can work very well, especially as the tension is cranked up. Great piece of advice!

Tolovaj on 08/11/2012

I have never wrote a classic thriller but I have my share in detective genre in magazines and on the radio. One advice from my experience it seems working pretty well is setting the pace with a help of chapters.
Move from one location to another can of be great help to enhance the rhythm (every location in its chapter) and making chapters shorter and shorter can add some tension too.

kaazoom on 07/12/2012

Great tips on writing a thriller. I keep thinking I should have a go at writing fiction but I haven't done it yet. I haven't written any fiction since I left school. It seems the older I get the less imagination I have. Your tips are very useful though.

WiseFool on 07/01/2012

Jasmine, I think anybody who can write (and you obviously can write) can do it, it's just a case of knowing the story you want to tell, and a healthy dose of practice. I've been 'seriously' trying to write fiction for three and half years, and I think I'm much better now than I was when I started.

Thanks, Sheila. The bit about writing needing to be fun I learnt the hard way - trying desperately to finish a scene or chapter, then realising that what I'd struggled to trawl through was really not worth all that effort!

sheilamarie on 06/29/2012

Great tips, WiseFool! You've laid out the important information well in constructing a successful thriller. And you're right -- the writing has to be fun if the reading is to be fun. Kudos.

Jasmine on 06/29/2012

You're absolutely right! The elements you've pointed out actually make the base of a thriller novel. Got me wondering whether I'd be capable of capturing readers' attention in such way...

WiseFool on 06/29/2012

Hello Jasmine, you're right, of course, all of those elements are important in every genre of fiction. I think, with a thriller it's even more important to nail them, though, because you have to keep your reader in a heightened state of expectation throughout. Once you lose 'em, the game's over. Glad you found the tips helpful, and thanks again for taking the time to comment.

Jasmine on 06/28/2012

I think that suspense, action, intrigue and realistic drama are important elements for any genre, not just a thriller novel. Great tips - I'll keep them in mind!

WiseFool on 06/25/2012

Thank you very much, Sannel. Really pleased to know that the information is valuable.

Sannel on 06/25/2012

We should not include anything that is not necessary to the progression of the narrative, and we should never give too much information in the story. These advice and many more, are some important tips to new writers that you have covered in this article. Thanks.

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