Thriller Writing: The Dos, The Don’ts, and The Don’t Even Think About Its (and a Free Book Giveaway!)

When I decided to write The Shadow War, my first step was to overcome a serious handicap: a Ph.D. in English. I’d been through both MA and PhD programs in Creative Writing, and taught at universities for many years, so I was fully indoctrinated into the “There’s Literature and Then There’s Everything Else” school of fiction.


Guest column by Glen Scott Allen. who has taught
at Reed College, the University of Utah, and Towson
University. He’s traveled in Russia to do research for
The Shadow War (Nov. 2010), and lived briefly in The
Netherlands. He is also the author of the nonfiction
book, Master Mechanics & Evil Wizards, as well as
numerous short stories and essays. He currently
lives in Maryland. His website is
(Glen is giving away two free copies of his book to
random commenters! Comment within one week.)


Yet all my life I’ve been a huge fan of spy novels. I knew that some of the greatest “serious” writers of all timeJoseph Conrad, Herman Melville, Henry Jameshad written books that today one could find on the “Thriller” shelf at a bookstore; and I knew that good suspense writing created fictional worlds as compelling as anything to be found in the Great Works.

So Do #1: Don’t let all those years you’ve spent in workshops be an impediment. Use those “literary” skills. Good writing is good writing, regardless the label they’ll put on it in the library.

Which brings us to Do#2: Just like they told you in Writing 101, good fiction springs from good characters, not necessarily good ideas. It’s the characters that will carry your reader through plots and conspiracies, and just because the novel is “plot driven” doesn’t mean they can be shallow or mere stereotypes. Your characters need to be living, breathing actors, with pasts, quirks, and conflicts, not cardboard cutout mouthpieces for Good and Evil. Only then will readers get attached to them and want to tag along on their adventures.

Do#3: Believe in what you’re writing. I remember in grad school an editor from a big publishing house told us that the writers on his Commercial list were every bit as convinced they were writing great fiction as those on the Literary list. “Jackie Suzanne (Valley of the Dolls) believed she was right up there with Shakespeare,” he said. And his point wasn’t that Suzanne was delusional, but that her stuff worked because she believed in it. The moment you try to “write down” to your reader, you’ve lost them.

Don’t #1: There are, however, some important differences between writing a thriller and writing other kinds of fiction. I always counseled my students that, if they knew the ending of the story before they began, they were bound to strangle a story’s own creative development. With thrillers, the process is different. They’re more like putting together a puzzle, and it’s important to have all the pieces before you begin assembly, or you’re likely to near the end and discover something vital is missing. So don’t just jump into a thriller with no idea where it’s headed; map it out thoroughly before you start writing.

Don’t #2 is related. Don’t think of thrillers as “all play, no work.” Do your homework. Much of The Shadow War required historical research both here and in Russia, and there were many late nights in musty libraries when I thought, is this worth it? Isn’t writing one of these supposed to be fun? But think of writing a good thriller like hosting a great party: You do lots of hard work ahead of time so your guests can relax and enjoy it. Good research not only makes your book more solid, it also often turns up unexpected and very useful tidbits.

Which brings me to my first Don’t Even Think About It
DETAI #1: Don’t even think about writing to the latest trend. For one thing, by the time your book is out (1-2 years from the time you finish it), that trend will no longer be trendy. For another thing, unless that trend is something you already know a lot about, there are dozens of people ahead of you. “Write what you know” is just as true in thrillers as literary fiction; look for the odd or secret or bizarre side of your current interests and you’ll find your “MacGuffin” (as Hitchcock called it), as well as your sustaining passion.

If there’s a DETAI #2 it would have to be, Don’t even think about quitting. As many know, The Da Vinci Code was Brown’s fourth novel, not his first; he had to keep trying until he got the right combination of topic and times. The thriller market is tough on the new guy (believe me, I know), but it is always looking for something fresh and original, a new voice. Maybe that new voice is you.

(Glen is giving away two free copies of his book to random commenters! Comment within one week.)


Perhaps you’re writing a mystery? Then
check out expert advice with Writing and
Selling Your Mystery Novel.


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27 thoughts on “Thriller Writing: The Dos, The Don’ts, and The Don’t Even Think About Its (and a Free Book Giveaway!)

  1. DJ

    Great advice, Glen, but I would caution that many writers may use homework or thorough research as a means to procrastination. Sometimes you just have to stop researching and start writing or the novel will never be complete. If the need arises, go back to research more later.

  2. Jacqueline Seewald

    I appreciate your excellent advice. Thrillers do require
    expert plotting. I agree that it’s a mistake to write
    to current trends since they change so rapidly. Best of luck
    with what sounds like an excellent book.

    Jacqueline Seewald

  3. Mark Mitchell

    Of every writing tip I’ve ever heard or read, DETAI #2 is the one to pay attention to. It’s the tip that will teach you the most regardless of whether or not you ignore all of the others or not.

  4. Christy Weber

    I love characters and this was great advice! I appreciate the specific tips. There is something fun about the possibility of being a random commenter.

  5. Theresa Hawkins

    Congratulations on the publication of your novel and thanks for the sage advice. As a writer, I am grateful for the words of encouragement. As a reader, I am hopeful that many more will heed your advice and turn out even more well written thrillers to be enjoyed. For me there is nothing better than a riveting, action packed plot, carried by memorable characters, and wrapped up in excellent writing.

  6. kmblove

    Thanks for the advice, Glen! Great point about not writing to current trends – it’s a good reminder not to get caught up in what everyone else is writing at any given time.

  7. Prem Rao

    I was greatly encouraged to hear you say that characters are so crucial for a thriller. In my debut novel "It Can’t Be You" I have chosen to use the first person narrative to get into the minds of the characters to think and speak the way I think they would.

    I am convinced that the best of plots would fail without strength in your characters.

  8. L Mad Hildebrandt

    I’m writing a thriller/mystery. I’ve got a cast of characters I love, and am reworking plot. It’s a tough job, but someone’s got to do it… Thanks for the wonderful tips, they help me feel like I’m on the right track.

  9. Rochelle Levy

    I’m writing a thriller now and it’s my first time writing this genre but I’m insanely drawn to it. Sometimes I get so caught up in the research aspect that the actual writing suffers. Your post helped me realize what I should focus on and what I can simply let flow. Great advice and encouragement.

  10. Chris Bailey

    Thanks for the encouragement! When I started writing fiction, I though it would be so much easier than non-fiction because you don’t have to research the facts or remain objective. Was I ever wrong! Not only do you have to research to get the details right–you also have to MAKE UP all the facts behind the story AND convey all the emotion your characters experience. Looking forward to reading The Shadow War.

  11. Jason Davis

    Don’t quit. That’s oft times easier said than done. Such a simple two words. Not simply done. Sometimes the vast landscape of books already out there is overwhelming. What if I spend the next two years of my life on this project…But no, it’s NOT all for naught! This is what we do! It makes us stronger at our skill. Thank you Glen, for giving us some strength to push through. FORGE ON BROTHERS!

  12. Ray Juracek

    Thanks for the do and don’t advice. I practice don’t 1 and detail 1 and 2 all the time. Your advice on the 3 do’s and don’t 2 make sense. I’ll give my best effort to write better than Edgar Allen.

  13. Lee Mandel

    This information wasn’t just wonderful for thriller/mystery writers; a lot of this is sound advice for writers of any genre. I originally read this article with the intent on forwarding it to a friend who writes thriller, but I’ve decided to copy and paste it to the (ever-growing) collection of advice articles I have stored in my hard drive. There are some very good pieces of advice for all types of writing here. Thank you for sharing and helping me to be a better writer.

    Lee Mandel
    Author of "Frog Burgers" (MG fiction)

  14. Robert Lewis

    Great info. My desire is to write a thriller/mystery and I have already started to journey. I’m from the USA but live in Southern Germany and am using this area as a spring board for my book. Lots of history here. Thanks again for the info!

  15. Stevie Godson

    Oooh, ouch! That hit home – but in a good way. I’m a lover of ‘literary’ fiction (hear the pompous tone creeping in already?), so everything I write, from my column to a letter to my aunt, ends up tainted by it. Seems like there’s always someone peeking over my shoulder to check that I don’t let the side down.
    So while it’s all great advice, I think I should get ‘Do #3’ tattooed on my skin (well, burned into my mind, anyway).

  16. C. N. Nevets

    Great advice there. Particularly, the reminder that writing a thriller is a lot of work. Mistakes in continuity and errors of fact can be really jarring and ruin both suspense and momentum in a thriller.

    Also, love that you point out the need to know the end when you’re writing a thriller. That’s part of what makes it so much work! Getting all the ducks the lineup so that the line ends where you need it to!

  17. Jule

    Thanks for the great advice, Glen. You’re right, writing a thriller is a tremendous amount of work. Researching, creating the characters, and working out a complex plot fraught with twists and surprises also is great fun! I’m close to finishing my second manuscript, which I plan to begin submitting to agents soon! Thanks for the extra inspiration!


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