Skip to main content

6 Rules for Writing a Medical Thriller

So you’ve decided to write a medical thriller. Your hopes are high. If Robin Cook, Michael Palmer, and Tess Gerritsen could do it, why can’t you? The answer is: you can. Medical thrillers appeal to a wide audience, and many literary agents and editors are looking for the next fresh voice in the genre. So go for it! See if you’ve got what it takes. But first, here are six helpful rules to keep in mind... GIVEAWAY: John is excited to give away 2 free copies of his novel to random commenters. 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: carolee1968 won.)

So you’ve decided to write a medical thriller. Your hopes are high. If Robin Cook, Michael Palmer, and Tess Gerritsen could do it, why can’t you? The answer is: you can. Medical thrillers appeal to a wide audience, and many literary agents and editors are looking for the next fresh voice in the genre. So go for it! See if you’ve got what it takes. But first, here are six helpful rules to keep in mind.

GIVEAWAY: John is excited to give away 2 free copies of his novel to random commenters. 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: carolee1968 won.)

john-burley-writer-author
absence-of-mercy-novel-cover-burley

Column by John Burley, who worked as a paramedic and firefighter before
attending medical school in Chicago and completing an emergency medicine
residency at University of Maryland Medical Center and Shock Trauma in
Baltimore. His debut novel, THE ABSENCE OF MERCY (William Morrow,
Nov 2013), received the National Black Ribbon Award, which recognizes
a novelist who brings a fresh voice to suspense writing. Connect with him on Twitter.

1) Know what you’re talking about. The three hugely successful authors listed above have at least one thing in common: they were all doctors. Robin Cook was a surgeon and ophthalmologist. Michael Palmer and Tess Gerritsen were internists. They knew about the world of medicine—not just the technical aspects, but the training, culture, and politics—before they became authors. Such first-hand experience gives their stories credibility and makes them both believable and compelling. Writing a medical thriller when you don’t know anything about medicine is like teaching a cooking class when the only thing you know how to make is a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. It just doesn’t work. Do you have to be a doctor? No. But it does help to have some medical knowledge. You need to know what you’re talking about.

2) Understand your audience. Some of the people reading your book will be from the medical profession, but most will have little or no medical background. Why is this important? Because you don’t want to talk over their heads. Tell them what they need to know about the medical aspects of your story without telling them more than they need to know. Don’t get so technical that your reader’s eyes begin to gloss over. Remember: you’re writing a medical thriller, not giving a lecture to a bunch of medical students. Resist the urge to over-explain beyond what is necessary for the story.

(Query letter pet peeves -- Agents Tell All.)

3) Keep the story moving. There’s nothing worse than a thriller that fails to thrill. The story should be fast-paced and gripping. If you lose your reader by Chapter 4, it doesn’t matter if Chapter 10 is amazing. You’ve got to pull them in and keep them riveted from beginning to end. Every time the story starts to slow down or gets boring, you’re at risk of having your reader close the book and move on to something else.

4) Populate your story with characters the reader will care about. Even the fastest-paced thriller becomes boring if you don’t care about the characters. Give your characters some texture, some background, some qualities that make them likeable (or despicable). Your reader should become emotionally involved in the fates of the people in your book. If a likeable character dies, the reader should feel a sense of grief. If someone triumphs, they should want to cheer. Every story is enhanced by great characters, and the ability to bring your characters to life will make your book worth reading.

5) Explore uncharted territory. The world of medicine is a continuous frontier. Many of today’s commonplace treatments were unfathomable eighty years ago. Cloning, stem cell research, and genetic diagnosis and manipulation are all areas of medicine whose applications and consequences are only now coming to light. A medical thriller is a great venue to explore the what-ifs in medicine. Pick something interesting and run with it. It’ll keep your audience thinking and talking about your book long after the final page is devoured.

(11 Frequently Asked Questions About Book Royalties, Advances and Money.)

6) Have fun. Writing is great fun. It’s the only reason why most writers continue to do what they do. If you’re focused mostly on landing a book deal or receiving a literary award, then a career in writing may not be the best choice for you. Those things can and do happen—at least for some writers—but the only way to sustain the vast amount of time and energy required for the creation of a novel is to have fun doing it. Ask yourself: If the only thing that comes of this endeavor is that I have a great time and I feel a sense of accomplishment at the end, is that enough? If the answer is yes, then you’ve come to the craft for the right reasons and you’re more likely to be successful. If you find the process tedious and you just want to sell a bunch of books so you can retire on an island in the South Pacific, then you’re in for a lot of disappointment. So, have fun. Be creative. Write with reckless abandon and lose yourself in the story. Take joy in bringing something to life. Your novel will be that much better because of it.

GIVEAWAY: John is excited to give away 2 free copies of his novel to random commenters. 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: carolee1968 won.)

Image placeholder title

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

Other writing/publishing articles & links for you:

Image placeholder title

Want to build your visibility and sell more books?
Create Your Writer Platform shows you how to
promote yourself and your books through social
media, public speaking, article writing, branding,
and more.
Order the book from WD at a discount.

Writing Mistakes Writers Make: Not Having an Online Presence

Writing Mistakes Writers Make: Not Having an Online Presence

The Writer's Digest team has witnessed many writing mistakes over the years, so we started this series to help identify them for other writers (along with correction strategies). This week's writing mistake is not having an online presence.

Shirlene Obuobi: On Writing From Experience

Shirlene Obuobi: On Writing From Experience

Physician, cartoonist, and author Shirlene Obuobi discusses the writerly advice that led to writing her new coming-of-age novel, On Rotation.

WD Poetic Form Challenge

WD Poetic Form Challenge: Kimo Winner

Learn the winner and Top 10 list for the Writer’s Digest Poetic Form Challenge for the kimo.

8 Things Writers Should Know About Tattoos

8 Things Writers Should Know About Tattoos

Tattoos and their artists can reveal interesting details about your characters and offer historical context. Here, author June Gervais shares 8 things writers should know about tattoos.

Tyler Moss | Reporting Through Lens of Social Justice

Writing Through the Lens of Social Justice

WD Editor-at-Large Tyler Moss makes the case for reporting on issues of social justice in freelance writing—no matter the topic in this article from the July/August 2021 issue of Writer's Digest.

Plot Twist Story Prompts: Intentional Trail

Plot Twist Story Prompts: Intentional Trail

Every good story needs a nice (or not so nice) turn or two to keep it interesting. This week, have a character leave clues for people to find them.

Sharon Maas: On Books Finding the Right Time

Sharon Maas: On Books Finding the Right Time

Author Sharon Maas discusses the 20-year process of writing and publishing her new historical fiction novel, The Girl from Jonestown.

6 Steps to Becoming a Good Literary Citizen

6 Steps to Becoming a Good Literary Citizen

While the writing process may be an independent venture, the literary community at large is full of writers who need and want your support as much as you need and want theirs. Here, author Aileen Weintraub shares 6 steps in becoming a good literary citizen.

Daniel Paisner: On the Pursuit of a Creative Life

Daniel Paisner: On the Pursuit of a Creative Life

Journalist and author Daniel Paisner discusses the process of writing his new literary fiction novel, Balloon Dog.