Editors Blog

The 10 Commandments of How to Write a Thriller

The 10 Commandments of How to Write a ThrillerEvery week, I spelunk into the Writer’s Digest archives to find the wisest, funniest, or downright strangest moments from our 92 years of publication.

About 10 years ago, lawyer-turned-novelist John Grisham spilled the beans in Newsweek that a 1973 Writer’s Digest article paved the way for him to write his bestseller The Firm.

Naturally, we’ve been geeking out about this since we first heard it, and see it referenced every so often in relation to Grisham books, but I’d never actually read the piece. So I dug it up today—it’s by author Brian Garfield, and was originally titled “10 Rules for Suspense Fiction.”

In case the next Grisham is out there reading this, I’ll include Garfield’s 10 points below, and will also link to the full article (which is reproduced over at the International Thriller Writers website).

Happy Friday!

The 10 Commandments of How to Write a Thriller

  1. Start with action; explain it later.
  2. Make it tough for your protagonist.
  3. Plant it early; pay it off later.
  4. Give the protagonist the initiative.
  5. Give the protagonist a personal stake.
  6. Give the protagonist a tight time limit, and then shorten it.
  7. Choose your character according to your own capacities, as well as his.
  8. Know your destination before you set out.
  9. Don’t rush in where angels fear to tread.
  10. Don’t write anything you wouldn’t want to read.

For the full piece, “10 Rules for Suspense Fiction” by Brian Garfield, click here.


Zachary Petit is an award-winning journalist, the managing editor of Writer’s Digest magazine, and the co-author of A Year of Writing Prompts: 366 Story Ideas for Honing Your Craft and Eliminating Writer’s Block.

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2 thoughts on “The 10 Commandments of How to Write a Thriller

  1. Jaybo

    I have found that it is most difficult to remember that all my characters are still human, and think like humans. Admittedly, even the most intelligent evil person makes mistakes and this is often the best parts of a thriller. According to the Honorable A.C. Doyle, G.K. Chesterton, and Mr. Chandler: that the protagonist simply waits until that mistake is made and the antagonists is caught. Keeping the suspense up for this to show up in print is my Achillese Heel. Thanks for the tips and support! Top Notch stuff as usual.

  2. Clayton

    Remember too it’s also important to make things hard for the antagonist as well as the protagonist. Both are at odds working to foil one another’s plans. The protagonist’s job should be the more difficult of the two, but the antagonist shouldn’t have it too easy either.

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