How to Write A Great Thriller: 5 Pieces of Advice

There are all sorts of guides on how to write a great thriller. I’ve read some. I’ve learned a lot from writing my own novels and I’ve learned a lot from co-writing with James Patterson, someone you have heard of who knows a thing or two about drama. This is by no means an exhaustive list but some observations I’ve made over the years that I don’t necessarily see on the normal lists of writing advice.

Understand, what I’m talking about here is the pulse-pounding, ticking-clock thriller. Not simply a novel of suspense or a mystery. Some of this advice might apply to those novels, too, but the dynamic is different.

GIVEAWAY: David is excited to give away a free copy of his novel to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (Update: blemish won.)





Guest column by author David Ellis, whose most recent novel,
THE WRONG MAN, came out in June 2012 from G.P. Putnam’s Sons.
David won the Edgar Award in 2002 for his first novel, LINE OF VISION
and has most recently co-written GUILTY WIVES with James Patterson.
He is the author of several other highly acclaimed suspense novels as
well as the Jason Kolarich series. A graduate of Northwestern School
of Law, he went on to serve as the House Prosecutor who tried and
impeached Governor Rod Blagojevich before the Illinois Senate.

See his author website here.

1. The protagonist doesn’t have to be a superhero. In fact, some of the most appealing protagonists in thrillers aren’t. The everyday guy who is thrust into an agonizing position is often the best protagonist. But let them screw up. Let them be afraid. Let them have flaws. To me, the most important attribute for the normal-person-turned-hero is that he or she be brave in the face of danger. Scared to death, sure, but ultimately courageous. That’s believable and very appealing to a reader. But mistakes, and sweaty brows and shaky hands—incorporate them into your protagonist.

2. Write yourself into a corner and see what happens. “Writing into a corner,” for my purposes at least, is when we put a protagonist into a position from which he or she can’t emerge. So we usually back the car up and forge a new path. That’s the great thing about writing with a computer. But what I’m saying is, don’t back the car up. Instead, up the ante, put your character into a seemingly (even to you) inescapable bind … and then figure it the hell out. Take a few days if you have to. I did that very thing in one of my last novels, BREACH OF TRUST. I put my character into a spot from which even I didn’t think he could escape. I had no idea how to get him out, but I loved the drama of the scene. So instead of backing the car out of the corner, I put my foot down on the gas. After a few days I came up with something, and it ended up being one of the best scenes I’ve ever written. And it was one of my most exciting experiences as a novelist. When the Chicago Tribune reviewed BREACH, they led off by talking about how much they loved that scene.

(Are you writing middle grade, edgy paranormal, women’s fiction or sci-fi? Read about agents seeking your query NOW.)

3. Humor is a bitch. I’m a smart-ass and my protagonist, Jason Kolarich, is a smart-ass, too. So I love humor in a novel. But it’s tricky, because humor cuts against tension and drama most of the time. You don’t usually laugh when you’re scared or on the edge of your seat. I’ve read novels that were supposed to be ticking-clock, fast-paced novels with characters who were way too funny—meaning it felt unreal to me and dissipated the drama. There’s no magical answer to this problem, but for me, I prefer wisecracks. It’s my protagonist’s specialty and, to me, a good one-liner, even in the face of serious tension, can work without killing the drama. But more developed, nuanced humor—like a quirky character doing quirky, humorous things—be very careful. I love those kinds of characters but not in an edge-of-your-seat thriller.

4. Surprise yourself. Ever written a scene, ready to move on to your next planned chapter, when you suddenly say to yourself, “Wouldn’t it be cool if _______ happened instead?” And then the next thing you think is, “Yeah, it would be cool, but that totally turns my whole plot upside down, so forget it.” I say, don’t forget it. Those spontaneous moments of inspiration usually lead to something cool, even if they upset your outline (assuming you have an outline). Embrace that surprise. Run with it. At least give it a shot to see what happens. You can always go back to your outline if it doesn’t work. If that spur-of-the-moment idea gave you a boost of adrenaline, then it will probably do the same for the reader. Which is a nice segue into my final topic …

(How can writers compose an exciting Chapter 1?)

5. If you’re bored, so is the reader. People give all sorts of advice about how much dialogue to include or how much description or atmosphere is too much. But all of that advice is just generic. Sometimes a lot of dialogue is okay, because the dialogue is very real, very dramatic and intense, very snappy and entertaining. And sometimes (not often) a long patch of description serves those same purposes. So what I used to tell people is, be as lean as possible with descriptive passages and don’t include too much dialogue. But after writing nine novels, I’ve come to learn that the better advice is to stop writing when you get bored. If you’re not excited about the passage you’re writing, you can be sure the reader won’t be, either. But if you’re enjoying yourself, writing with enthusiasm, it will usually bleed through and have the same effect on the reader.

GIVEAWAY: David is excited to give away a free copy of his novel to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (Update: blemish won.)


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24 thoughts on “How to Write A Great Thriller: 5 Pieces of Advice

  1. starla80

    Always nice to find great writing advice. I’m liking number 2, I always try to avoid putting myself in a corner but the advice makes perfect sense!

  2. blemish

    Great advice. I especially like 2 (although #4 is a close second) – sometimes I think I give up too soon without giving the idea a chance, or give up immediately afraid I’ll never get out of that corner so why go there in the first place.

  3. sfpsBrendan

    Great tips — they will keep me from going crazy every time an idea pops in my head. I need to mind the humor part especially… life is fun, so I try to use it often. Thanks!

  4. Laura S.

    I will try to put my heroine into a corner as you suggested. I think that will make my story better but also keep it fresh. There are a lot of similar stories out there. Great advice.

  5. writingpurcell

    Experimenting with # 4 right now, and loving where it is going. Thanks for the encouragement to step out of the outline and go for it!

  6. pacanime

    From my expirence, most writers, even expirenced ones, spend too much time with a scene in general. Whether it be in description, dialouge, inner thougts, etc. A lot of times, what they take a chapter to say or describe, could easily be said done in a paragraph or two. That’s why you need an editor who can cross out all the garbage from your story. That being said, Ellis and I tend to think alike on most points. Backing characters into corners, and making them vulnerable is what makes the story interesting. I don’t use the wise cracking element for my main protaganist though. I usually leave that to my secondary or support character. Everyone has their style though and some of the books on the best seller list are books I would never read. In the end, it’s all taste.

  7. shaynnon

    I don’t think I can say which of these hit me harder. I’ve been guilty of all of them!
    Just the other day I had to get up from the computer because I was so bored typing, I dozed off.
    Thank you for the sound advice.

  8. whynot1956

    I like #5 – If you’re bored, so is the reader. I have struggled through many short stories and couldn’t go anywhere and would start over because I was boring myself. LOL!

  9. sgsasaki

    I found these tips at just the right time. I’ve been mulling over a story idea and although its true genre is horror, I don’t believe you can have a horror story that isn’t a thriller. Along with a few others who previously posted, #2 caught my interest the most. All of the points hit home. The world I am creating is one that would typically have a male protagonist; however, mine will be female and it’s definitively a story where she can get backed into some precarious corners. . .I’m curious to see how she’ll get out of them. Thanks for the article.

  10. clindahl

    Trusting that David is secure in his manhood. “David is excited to give away a free copy of her novel to a random commenter.” Great advice! Thanks.

  11. garretwriter

    #2 has been difficult for me. After going to all the trouble of creating a believable, lovable protagonist, it seems so cruel to back the poor guy into a corner and watch him twist. But no corner, no tension; no tension, no book (no book worth reading, anyway). I appreciate the reminder.

    Now, let me count the ways I can make you sweat, dear protagonist. I love you, but it’s time for you to suffer…

    garretwriter at ya who dot comm

  12. Heather Marsten

    Best piece of advice if you’re bored your reader will probably be bored too. I love suspense and mystery novels, especially with ordinary heroes who are backed into corners. Have a blessed day.

    HM at HVC dot RR dot Com

  13. HonoluluSprite

    Hmmm… 6 pieces of advice. So, the 6th one is, “6. Read David’s new Novel” Is that it? Oh, and David Ellis is a she? I’m just pointing this out.

    All that aside, the five items listed are great! I can take all of them to heart. I particularly liked no. 5. If you’re bored, so is the reader. “If you’re not excited about the passage you’re writing, you can be sure the reader won’t be, either.” Good point!

    They were all good. You owe us one more. 🙂


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