5 Keys on Writing a Great Thriller

1. You (the writer) should know what really happens from the start.

That doesn’t mean you have to know everything that’ll take place in the novel, but the writer should be able to answer three basic questions before they begin:

  1. Who committed the crime?
  2. Why?
  3. How?


summer-of-dead-toys-novel         antonio-hill-writer-author

Guest column by Antonio Hill, who lives in Barcelona. He is a
professional translator of English-language fiction into Spanish and
speaks fluent English. His thriller, THE SUMMER OF DEAD TOYS
(June 2012, Crown) was called ““Penetrating, atmospheric” by
Kirkus and “Entertaining” by The London Times. Hill’s next Héctor
Salgado novel, THE GOOD SUICIDES, will be published in June 2014.



You see, it becomes almost impossible to conceal things if you’re not even sure what you’re trying to hide. So, the first key to a good thriller is encasing those three elements within several layers of misleading clues. Concerning the main plot, try to forget the writing approach in which characters grow and act in ways you (the author) had not otherwise planned. Your antagonist has a reason to do what he or she does, and a way of behaving afterwards, per their personality. Their actions and reactions should be suitably deceptive to readers; a result of your ability to keep their secret at bay. By the end of the book, when the reader finally learns the truth, it must be consistent with the novel as a whole, while of course keeping true to the genre’s requisite element of surprise.

(Chapter 1 cliches and overused beginnings — see them all here.)

2. Suspects are the main characters.

Not everyone will agree with this idea, but for me it’s quite important. Usually crime novels have a hero– a main character in charge of the investigation (like a policeman, a journalist, a lawyer or an anonymous person interested in solving the mystery). That hero will probably have their own problems, weaknesses and strengths. But what we call secondary characters—the ones who have a relationship with the victim, the ones who may have committed the murder—must be portrayed as complex human beings. In other words, in real life they would not be secondary characters so give them your attention. Additionally, we lie both in real life and in fiction, so keep that in mind when writing dialogue. Lies can be meaningful for suspense-building, After all, nobody tells the complete truth. Never.

3. The victim must be interesting for readers.

If the victim wasn’t a person with secrets, the whole investigation loses strength. He or she had to have done something at some point that threatens the bad guy. Understanding this can lead to understanding the killer, and makes for a solid plot.

Need help crafting an awesome plot for your
story? Check out the new acclaimed resource
by Ronald Tobias, 20 Master Plots.

4. First a novel, then a thriller.

It’s all about pace and structure. When you decide you’re going to write fiction, you start with an idea. For instance, when I wrote The Summer of Dead Toys, I knew I wanted to deal with the unexpected consequences of hidden truths. So I designed a criminal plot to convey that.

Of course we all want to read rave reviews, but don’t forget the literary aspects of a story. Characters are not aware they are living in a thriller, so they must behave as normal, human people. That said though, never forget the core criminal plot. It must be ever-present, reappearing in the most unexpected moments to keep the reader engaged.

(Do writers need an outside edit before querying agents?)

5. (Specifically for authors on their first project:) Finish it!

Writing a thriller is hard work. It’s a long and complex process, and halfway through one could lose motivation: we think of better plots, get bored of our characters, and feel the work lacks quality and intrigue. Thinking that no one will like it is a typical and tempting argument for giving it up, but that sensation can be due only to the fact that you, as the author, know everything that’s going to happen already.

Trust me when I say that carrying on until the end and tying up your loose ends will give you an unexpected confidence. I have seen so many aspiring writers constantly leave their works incomplete. Don’t do that. It’s like running a marathon: keep your strength going all the way to the end. It’s always rewarding to reach the end goal.

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One thought on “5 Keys on Writing a Great Thriller

  1. CVenzon

    I think these points are relevant to any piece of fiction. Every work is a mystery or thriller in some way: Will the couple be reconciled? Will the bully change his ways? Knowing your plot, developing your characters, and putting craft above genre are all elements of good writing.


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