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. 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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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.)

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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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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:

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