How to Construct a Thriller

In thrillers action is critical. That’s what readers are looking for. True, you do need to develop your characters. The more you flesh them out, the more you’ll engage your readers. Stick figures don’t win much sympathy. But it’s action that drives the story.

Because literary novels are driven by character, a literary novelist can start with just a germ of an idea and create a brilliant novel. But a thriller novelist who starts without a roadmap is likely to drive his novel over a cliff. So, how do you write your thriller? Answer: invest a lot of time up front developing your plot. Hours spent at the computer trying to wring ideas out of an unwilling brain can be frustrating. But it will pay off big time when you actually start writing your text. Here are some key considerations:

1. Most thrillers are built around serious crime. So what kind of crime do you have in mind? The newspapers and TV news programs are full of suggestions. Bernie Madoff is not the only Ponzi schemer. There are plenty of financial tricksters, along with crooked businessmen, sleazy politicians, professional criminals, terrorists, sexual predators, etc.

2. Great villains make great thrillers. Once you’ve figured out the crime or other violent action at the core of the story, flesh out your villain.

3. Thrillers build to a climax. So work on your pacing. The pace should quicken as the novel nears its climax.

4. The hero or heroine does not have to be superhuman. An ordinary man or woman confronted by extraordinary circumstances can create empathy. Such protagonists have to rely on brain more than brawn.

5. Make it tough on the hero or heroine. Give the protagonist a personal stake in the outcome and keep upping the ante.

6. Work out a slam-bang finale and make sure the action leads up to it. Don’t pull a switcheroo at the end by introducing some secondary character as the real villain. And don’t clutter your story with a bunch of red herrings.

7. Finally, write the book you’d love to read, something new and exciting, something that gives you chills just thinking about it.


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