How to Write a Thriller
This page talks about how to write a thriller. It is just one of many creative lessons on this website with tips for writing a novel or a short story. At the bottom of the page, you'll find links more pages on how to write fiction, plus the chance to take a free creative writing course.
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How to write a thriller - what's a thriller
Signs that you're reading a thriller:
- racing pulse
- sweaty palms
- staying up all night
- missing your subway stop
- compulsive reading in inappropriate places (in class, under the conference table at a business meeting)
- crashing your car because you were trying to read behind the wheel.
Yes, thrillers are written to give readers a thrilling ride. 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.
So what are thrillers about? There are a lot of subcategories - spy thrillers, political thrillers, psychological thrillers. Many, but not all thrillers are about violent crime, but they are different from mysteries because of the angle they take. A mystery is about solving a crime that has already happened. The killer's identity is hidden until the end because otherwise, there would be no mystery -- right? A thriller is about a crime (or another type of disaster) that is about to happen ... unless the hero can stop it. The reader often knows who the villain is from the very beginning -- even watches over the villain's shoulder as evil is being committed.
How to write a thriller - thrilling characters
Unlike other types of fiction, thrillers often divide characters clearly along lines of good and evil. There is a hero(ine) or a team of hero(ine)s, and there is a villain or a team of them.
But this doesn't excuse you, the writer, from doing your character development homework. The more real you can make both the hero and the villain to readers, the more interesting your book will be. Read more about character development here.
How to write a thriller - thrilling plots
When it comes to thrillers, take everything you've learned about plot development, and multiply it by ten (if you haven't studied plot development, you can do it here). Turn up the heat! Add time pressure if that works with your storyline, to make things even more tense. Keep raising the stakes. Pile on the trouble until your poor hero looks like a goner.
But make sure your hero has enough strengths that there can be a real fight. Otherwise, the story will seem to be over before it's begun. And if you decide to have a happy ending, it's more satisfying if this comes from the hero's actions and strengths, not as a gift dropped out of the sky.
One way of building excitement is to keep shifting the advantage from one side to another. First, it looks like the hero's a goner, but then there is a ray of hope. But the ray of hope turns out to be an illusion. The enemy grows. But then the hero gets an ally...
Plan your thriller so that the story gets more and more exciting until it reaches a peak, which is called the story climax. The climax should happen right before the end of the book. While in a mystery, the climax is when the hero discovers the killer's identity, in a thriller, the climax is when the hero stops the enemy (or is conquered by the enemy if you are not after a happy ending).
How to write a thriller - ideas for thrillers:
- Your hero discovers a secret conspiracy of enemies (for example, a secret political or criminal organization).
- The villain has discovered the hero's point of psychological weakness and is playing mind games with the hero. The hero will have to overcome this psychological weakness in order to stop the villain from committing a crime.
- A crime is about to happen. Or a crime has happened and is about to be repeated as a larger crime. The hero alone can stop it. For example, there are many thrillers about serial killers, who kill at least once at the beginning of the book and who, if not stopped, will commit more and even worse crimes.
- The hero is trying to stop a disaster (medical, nuclear, environmental, political) that has spread out of control.
- The hero is involved in a dramatic court case that has drastic consequences outside of the courtroom.
How to write a thriller - tricks of the trade:
- Cliffhangers - You can create suspense by ending chapters or sections of the novel at a moment of suspense, so that the reader keeps going to find out what happens.
- Ticking clock - Thrillers often include a race against time; for example, a bomb that will go off in 12 hours, 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.
- Show evil over the evildoer's shoulder - It often adds to the excitement if the reader can actually watch the villain in action and see the crimes taking place.
- Make it personal and specific - This is a very important point. If your thriller is about the risk of a bomb going off, introduce the reader to Sue and John, the nice couple in Missouri, who will be blown to bits when it happens.
If your thriller is about a terrible disease that is taking over the Earth, introduce the reader to Jenny Jones, engaged to be married and daydreaming about her honeymoon... when green bile starts to spurt out of her nose and ears; poor Jenny writhes in agony, then collapses dead over her stack of wedding invitations. That makes the disease real for the reader.
Sure, everyone knows that nuclear holocaust and alien attack are bad things. But they are just ideas until you bring the reader into the lives of the characters who will be affected.
- Great characters and sharp writing that "shows" instead of only telling. I feel like I've been writing this on every page of the website, but it's worth repeating.
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How to write a thriller - next steps
Choose one of the links below:
Click here for ideas about how to write a thriller outline.
Click here for a list of CWN pages on how to write a novel.
Click here to find out about CWN's free course on how to write fiction.
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