Monday, May 23, 2011

Writing a Killer Thriller, Part I

by Jodie Renner
(a small section of Jodie's bookcase above)
- Some key techniques for writing a compelling suspense-thriller…or any other page-turner. 
To unwind, I love reading thrillers, romantic suspense, suspense-mysteries, and other crime fiction, as they provide just the escape I’m looking for after a long day of ... editing crime fiction! Here are some tips I’ve gleaned from writing gurus and my own editing experience on writing a suspense-thriller—or any other story—that will keep your readers up until the wee hours.
First, what’s a thriller, anyway?

See my article on Thrillers vs. Mysteries. In a nutshell, as James N. Frey says, “the main ingredient of a thriller is pulse-pounding suspense.” The time-honored formula for successful thrillers is, according to Frey: “A clever hero has an ‘impossible’ mission to foil evil. The hero is brave; he or she is in terrible trouble; the mission is urgent; the stakes are high; and it’s best if the hero is self-sacrificing for others.”

So what makes a compelling suspense-thriller, the kind you can’t put down?

Most thriller writers and readers would agree that some of the essential ingredients for a thriller that sizzles are:
  • An opening that grabs you by the collar and drags you in
  • A likeable, resourceful hero
  • A ruthless, cunning villain (or more than one)
  • A riveting plot with a powerful story question and lots of intrigue
  • Plenty of tension and conflict
  • Fast pacing, with tight, to-the-point writing
  • An unexpected, satisfying conclusion   
But how do we achieve all that and more? In this post and two more to follow, we’ll discuss some techniques that can help you create a page-turning, adrenalin-inducing thriller. 
To start with, As Frey, says, “To write a damn good thriller, you need a killer attitude.”  For Part I, we’ll just touch on your opening (first page), characters, and point of view.

~ Write an opening that hooks ‘em in.
Put your protagonist on stage right away, in media res – in the middle of things. As James Scott Bell says, “Give us a character in motion. Something happening to a person from line one. Make that a disturbing thing, or have it presage something disturbing.” Start with a powerful story question, and get that inciting incident, the first threat, in there quickly. Don’t open with a description of the setting or weather, or with interior monologue. A dialogue with tension and some action is much more dynamic.
But don’t stress over getting the perfect opening for your first draft – just get your story down, then come back at a later date to revise and spice up your first paragraph and page. For more on writing compelling openings, click on my article “Act First, Explain Later.”  
~ Create complex, compelling characters.
Your lead character, according to James Scott Bell, needs “grit, wit and it,” so make him or her gutsy, smart, witty and charismatic. Your hero should be strong, resourceful and likeable, but not perfect. As Bell says, "Leads, to be realistic, must also have flaws and foibles.”
         According to Jessica Page Morrell, “Your characters can be neurotic or despicable, vain or shallow, but they must always be vivid, fascinating, and believable, and their actions, decisions, and motives must propel the story to an inevitable conclusion.”
James N. Frey takes it a step further: “All damn good dramatic characters are larger than life, theatrical, determined to overcome the obstacles that are put in their path. They are an extreme of type, larger than life, and they have a ruling passion that defines who they are.” This applies to both the hero and the villain.
Frey advises us to create characters that, “in addition to being multifaceted, are interesting in the way real people are interesting. They’ve done things, they’ve been places, and they have unusual views. In other words, they’ve ‘lived.’ Such characters have an individuality that stamps them as fresh.” And give your characters internal conflict, moral dilemmas, and tough decisions and choices to make, as these help develop and define them.
And make your antagonist a nasty but believable villain, powerful, cunning, relentless, unpredictable, selfish, and cold-hearted. But not 100% evil – give him depth and complexity by showing us how he explains and justifies his actions.
For more on this topic, check out my blog post, “Creating Compelling Characters.”
~ Zoom in on your hero.
Limited viewpoint, where we experience the story from the point of view of the protagonist(s),  gets us “up close and personal” with the main character, so we start to identify with him right away, and get emotionally engaged fast, which is critical for effective fiction.
As Maass says, when discussing the weaker manuscripts his agency rejects, “Too many manuscripts begin at a distance from their protagonists, as if opening with a long shot like a movie. That’s a shame. Why keep readers at arm’s length?
“Novels are unique among art forms in their intimacy. They can take us inside a character’s heart and mind right away. And that is where your readers want to be. Go there immediately. And when you do, show us what your hero is made of. If you accomplish that, then the job of winning us over is done.”
And as David Morrell points out, “Modern readers have a mania about credibility. To the extent that the omniscient narrator intrudes with godlike information, the illusion of actuality is broken.” Steve Berry says, “Don’t let you, the author, enter the story.”
So for more impact and to draw your reader in more to your story world, get us into the head and heart of your protagonist right away. Then express each scene, including the setting, from your viewpoint character’s point of view. Colour the description with their feelings, attitude, reactions, etc., rather than stepping back and describing the scene from a more impartial, distant authorial stance.
Also, see Part II and Part III of this article (plot, suspense, conflict, dialogue, tension, pacing, style) and Jodie's book, Writing a Killer Thriller.   

  • James Scott Bell, Revision and Self-Editing
  • Steve Berry’s 8 Rules of Writing, Writer’s Digest, September 2008
  • James N. Frey, How to Write a Damn Good Thriller
  • Donald Maass, The Fire in Fiction
  • David Morrell, The Successful Novelist
  • Jessica Page Morrell, Thanks, But This Isn’t for Us

Jodie Renner, a freelance fiction editor specializing in thrillers and other fast-paced fiction, has published two books to date in her series, An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: WRITING A KILLER THRILLER and STYLE THAT SIZZLES & PACING FOR POWER (Silver Medalist in the FAPA Book Awards, 2013). Both titles are available in e-book and paperback. For more info, please visit Jodie’s author website or editor website, or find her on Facebook or Twitter.


  1. Excellent advice! I've printed this piece and will keep it handy. Although, I would add that some antagonists can be quietly cunning and dangerous rather than theatrical.

  2. Yes, I definitely agree with you about antagonists, LJ. In the interests of keeping the word count down, I don't always specify ways in which I disagree with the writers I'm quoting.

  3. Great post, Jodie! I'm printing it out as well because it doesn't hurt to be reminded of these critical points. AND, it's terrific to get som many of the great writing coaches in one spot!

  4. Way back when, I was trying to find definitions that would distinguish between suspense and thriller. Then, the definition of thriller was that the stakes were of global proportions. Thus, to me, Barry Eisler's John Rain series are what I'd call suspense, while his more recent series fall closer into the thriller realm for me.

    Nowadays, publishers seem to tack that handle on just about any suspense. I didn't set out to write 'thriller' by any means, yet I've seen that term applied to what I considered 'action-adventure mysteries' in reviews.

    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

  5. Great post! These are very critical points and something thriller writers need to be diligent about if they have any hope of becoming successful.


  6. Thanks all. Stay tuned for more tips on writing an effective thriller in Part II and Part III here, every second Monday.

  7. Great post! As an unpubbed suspense/thriller writer, I garnered a lot of necessary reminders. Like everyone else, I'm printing this off!

  8. All very good points, Jodie, on what makes up a good thriller. As authors, we only have a limited amount of time to engage the reader in our story and get them turning the pages as if their lives depend on it. Anything that bumps them out of the story can prevent this from happening.

  9. Yes, unfortunately, that is very true, Drew. Today's readers are busier than ever before, and deluged with more reading of every type and form, so writers really have to grab them right at the beginning and do everything they can to keep them reading, especially in the first few chapters. And with so many more high-quality, compelling novels out there, and the lower prices of e-books, we can buy more and not feel badly about not finishing every one, so readers are pickier and more discerning. All of this presents ever-increasing challenges to writers!

  10. I am fighting a constant battle between character development and keeping the story at an interesting pace. I think I'm going to end up cutting a lot of development to keep pace up.

  11. All very good points, Jodie, on what makes up a good thriller. As authors, we only have a limited amount of time to engage the reader in our story and get them turning the pages as if their lives depend on it. Anything that bumps them out of the story can prevent this from happening.

  12. Thanks! Check out my book on Amazon, Writing a Killer Thriller. It's chock-full of great info for thriller writers, and a real deal at only $2.99!

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