Thrillers are about tension and movement, long odds and fighting to overcome them, and a hero so brilliant and determined that they win anyway. They may have to make a big sacrifice, but in the end the hero saves the world.
Thrillers are usually written in third person, specifically, in third person limited. It’s a visceral genre, so first person is good, too, but thrillers often feature complex and/or convoluted plots that need several viewpoint characters to work. For first person, make sure your plot is on the simpler side, the twist demands the reader not know anything that the hero doesn’t know, or that the tension is so raised by having the view narrowed that other POVs would make it less thrilling.
Thrillers tend to focus around one hero or heroine, though there are always supporting characters to help out our hero. And the hero is usually super competent, quick thinking, and decisive. They have to be if they are going to save the world when things look so dire. The supporting cast usually has a specific set of skills, though there are some thrillers where there isn’t much supporting cast (The Jack Reacher books) or where the hero shares the glory a little more with a team.
Thrillers also feature a ticking clock. Something bad is coming, and it is coming soon. The ticking clock is the very heart of a thriller. It doesn’t have to be a specific time that the bad thing will happen, but disaster is always looming on the horizon and headed for your hero.
You’ll need to create some seriously high stakes if you want to keep your reader on the edge of their seat. For epic thrillers, the fate of the world may hang in the balance, but smaller stakes can mean just as much to your hero if written correctly. Is his girlfriend in danger from an ex-lover? Is her husband going to be killed by an assassin? Are a couple’s children at risk? These all work, as long as your character will be devastated if the disaster happens.
A good thriller must also have some intrigue. The reader doesn’t know how the problem will be solved, and they will learn how it happens right along with the hero. In third person, the reader watches the villain over the villain’s shoulder and they watch the hero over the hero’s shoulder. But they still usually discover what is happening at the same time as the hero discovers it, so when you show the machinations of the villain, you must take care not to reveal too much of what they’re doing. It’s a tricky dance to show what the villain is doing and yet not reveal his plot, but when done right, it adds a ton to the intrigue. If you can’t show the villain without revealing his plans, it may be better to go with first person where it won’t be a problem.
You won’t need effervescent or flowery language. A thriller needs hard hitting words that keep the reader in the story and give it that extra punch. The bullets don’t penetrate the hero’s chest, they slam into it like a hammer blow. Refer to your favorite best selling thrillers for ideas about how to give your words power without running on and on about how very fast the big heavy bullet was traveling when it hit the hero’s chest really hard and super-smashed it with great force. Simply saying “The bullets slammed into his chest, cracking ribs and rending flesh” is perfectly good, and “Bullets slammed into him” would also be fine if you are trying to move the action scenes along quickly.
And there will almost certainly be action scenes in your thriller. Learn to write them well, as many thrillers rely on these action set pieces to drive them along.
In many genres, you’ll hear about how your villains must be human and have some positive traits to make them seem real. But with a thriller, this isn’t always true. Your hero can be fighting a purely evil psychopath hell bent on releasing a terrible virus or detonating a nuclear weapon in Manhattan and have no redeeming qualities whatsoever. Just make sure they are evil and formidable. If your brilliant hero is fighting a bumbling fool, the reader will have no doubt about who will win and the tension is be lost.
Tension that is constantly building is the hallmark of a good thriller.
Your opening scene should include some action, as well as hooking your reader by posing questions and promising them answers. Take your five favorite novels from the genre and read the first few pages of each with an eye to those two things. You’ll probably find that they offer an interesting character, put them in jeopardy, and feature an action scene. Set that hook, and then spend the rest of the book delivering on your promise to answer those questions in wild ways.
You’ll also want some plot twists to keep your reader guessing, and some interesting settings. Many thrillers bounce around the globe, but a single county in Missouri can be interesting, too if it is well-conceived. Taking characters out of their comfort zone also helps to make it even tougher for them to solve their problems before the clock strikes midnight.
One of the defining traits of the thriller genre is that your hero is not in control and the action is driven by external forces, often by the villain. If you want your hero to be in control of the situation, you may be simply writing a mystery with a lot of action in it.
And finally, and this is really important, there should be no fluff, no time spent coasting along in neutral. Every scene, every page, every paragraph, should move the story forward. A good thriller does not stop, it keeps the action moving and the pages turning. If most of your readers don’t devour your book in one sitting, you have too much fluff.
A Ticking Clock — A deadline—often a literal dead-line—is such a great way to have rising tension throughout a thriller that it has become a must-have for the genre. The hero(s) must be rushed, must be pushed to act, must need to act, or disaster will strike.
Important Stakes — The stakes don’t need to be global—or in a sci-fi thriller, universal—for them to have impact. That’s why we say important rather than high stakes. But to the hero, the result of them failing must be devastating. Big disasters are the easiest way to have high stakes, but smaller stakes work as well. And if you’re going to do a thriller series (which we absolutely recommend), it’s easier if you’re working with smaller stakes. It’s hard to think of ways to destroy the world in every book. Though Jonathan Maberry does a pretty good job of it.
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