Skip to main content

4 Things Every Military/Espionage Thriller Writer Should Know

You don’t need first-hand insider information to write a compelling and believable spy novel. Here, New York Times bestselling author Don Bentley shares 4 things every military/espionage thriller writer should know.

So, you want to write an espionage or military thriller? Fantastic! While many of today’s writers have backgrounds that lend themselves to working in this genre, I’m here to tell you that intelligence or military experience is not necessary to succeed.

For every former special operations officer like New York Times bestselling author Brad Taylor, there’s a Tom Clancy who’s armed with nothing more than curiosity and a library card. To help you on your way, I’ve compiled a list of common mistakes to avoid.

(Using Real-Life Details to Ground Your Thriller Novel)

FBI Agent versus CIA Officer

If I had a dollar for every protagonist I’d seen described as a CIA Agent, I’d be a rich man! CIA employees are generally called intelligence officers while the subset of CIA officers who run and recruit assets are known as case officers or operations officers. To someone from the CIA, the term agent refers to a person who is actively spying or stealing information (more on this in the asset and source section below). Conversely, in the FBI, special agents, or agents for short, are the men and women who carry badges and guns and investigate federal crimes.

While the FBI and CIA are both members of the intelligence community and have overlapping interests, they are two very different entities. The FBI is a law enforcement organization meaning that its employees focus on gathering information through investigations. This information is then reviewed by a US attorney who decides whether to prosecute the investigation’s subject.

Not so with the CIA. Unlike their law enforcement cousins, the information gathered by CIA employees is never intended for court. Instead, the CIA generates intelligence products which aid the national command authority’s decision-making process. For instance, while the CIA and FBI might both be interested in a terrorist cell planning an attack on U.S. soil, the FBI will focus on gathering information in accordance with evidentiary standards so that the work product will stand up in court. The CIA does not have this concern. Instead, CIA officers pay special attention to the way in which the information they gather is disseminated to avoid inadvertently compromising the sources or methods used to obtain it.

FBI Source versus CIA Asset

Source is a term most often used in law enforcement and is usually short for confidential human source. A source is someone who has agreed to provide information to an investigator and/or potentially testify in court. For instance, if an FBI agent has recruited someone with information about a drug cartel, that person will be known as a source. From a CIA officer’s perspective, a person who provides information is called an asset or an agent.

In both the FBI and CIA lexicon, the person who interacts with a source or asset is known as a handler. Handlers build relationships with their sources or assets and direct their intelligence gathering activities through instructions known as taskings.

4 Things Every Military/Espionage Thriller Writer Should Know

IndieBound | Bookshop | Amazon
[WD uses affiliate links.]

Clandestine versus Covert

Like the confusion surrounding CIA officers versus FBI agents, the terms clandestine and covert are often used interchangeably, but they mean very different things. To an espionage pro, clandestine means hidden while covert means deniable or unattributable. Let’s illustrate this important distinction with a scenario.

Your protagonist surreptitiously enters the bad guy’s office to take pictures of a code book which has been conveniently left laying open on the bad guy’s desk. This would be an example of a clandestine operation because if your hero’s actions don’t remain hidden, the bad guy will simply change code books, rendering your protagonist’s hard won intelligence moot. With me so far? Good. Let’s jump to a second scenario.

Now the kid gloves come off. The bad guy in your novel is making chemical weapons and your hero is just the girl to put him out of business. Permanently. The next morning, the bad guy’s car explodes on his drive to work. In this case, the bad guy’s coworkers know that their boss was killed by a car bomb, but they don’t have a clue who planted it. In fact, since the bad guy had a lot of people who wished him ill, his surviving bad guy friends waste precious time trying to determine who killed him, and perhaps more importantly, which of them is next.

Maybe the surviving villains suspect that your heroine had a hand in the bad guy’s untimely death, but they can’t prove it. Planting the bomb was a covert operation because the action was either deniable, unattributable, or both.

Army Special Forces versus Special Operations

Speaking of blowing things up, let’s wrap up this article with a lesson on folks who epitomize the pointy end of the spear. Page through the back cover of half a dozen military thrillers and you’re sure to find a character or two described as “special forces.” While I love a good special forces hero as much as the next writer, these words carry with them a very specific meaning.

4 Things Every Military/Espionage Thriller Writer Should Know

The greater special operations community, also known as special operations forces, includes everyone from Navy SEALS, to Army Rangers, to Marine Raiders, to Air Force Combat Controllers. The special operations community is a diverse one and fertile ground for many a barrel-chested protagonist. However, the title Special Forces is conferred on only one group of people—Army Green Berets.

In addition to their distinctive green head covers, Green Berets are easily recognizable by a tab worn on their left shoulder emblazoned with the words Special Forces. In army parlance, this is known as the long tab and Green Berets are sometimes called Long Tabbers. This is different from the Ranger Tab worn by men, and the one hundred or so women, who have graduated from the Army’s grueling Ranger School and are now considered Ranger Qualified.

Besides their head gear and uniforms, Green Berets stand unique in several other ways. Every Green Beret learns a language as part of their initial training and receives one of the eight 18 series skills designations. For instance, a special forces sergeant who specializes in communication is designated as an 18E, or Echo, while a special forces medic is an 18D or Delta.

Also, unlike say Army Rangers who concentrate on direct action missions, Green Berets are masters of unconventional warfare. This is a fancy way of saying that Green Berets specialize in training and fighting alongside indigenous armies. This was why it was Green Berets, not Army Rangers or Navy SEALs, who embedded with the Northern Alliance during the early days of the Afghanistan invasion and famously called in airstrikes from horseback.

Okay, now that you’ve got the basics, the rest is up to you. Get cracking on that novel! If you enjoyed this article, I think you’d like my protagonist, Matt Drake, who just so happens to be a former Army Ranger and current Defense Intelligence Agency officer. You can see him in my newest book, Hostile Intent, which dropped earlier this week. Either way, I’d love to hear how things are going for you. Stop by my website at or drop me a line at

Best of luck!

Outlining Your Novel course

Writers often look upon outlines with fear and trembling. But when properly understood and correctly used, the outline is one of the most powerful weapons in a writer's arsenal. With the help of the book Outlining Your Novel: Map Your Way to Success by K.M. Weiland, you will learn how to write an outline as you explore what type of outline is right for you, brainstorm plot ideas, and discover your characters.

Click to continue.

Chanel Cleeton: On Reader Enthusiasm Conjuring Novel Ideas

Chanel Cleeton: On Reader Enthusiasm Conjuring Novel Ideas

Author Chanel Cleeton discusses how reader curiosity led her to write her new historical fiction novel, Our Last Days in Barcelona.

Writer's Digest Interview | Marlon James Quote

The Writer's Digest Interview: Marlon James

Booker Prize–winning author Marlon James talks about mythology and world-building in his character-driven epic Moon Witch, Spider King, the second book in his Dark Star Trilogy in this interview from the March/April 2022 issue of Writer's Digest.

writer's digest wd presents

WD Presents: New Podcast Episode, a Chance at Publication, and More!

This week, we're excited to announce our newest podcast episode, your chance to be published, and more!

David Adams Cleveland: On Truth Revealing Itself in Historical Fiction

David Adams Cleveland: On Truth Revealing Itself in Historical Fiction

Award-winning novelist David Adams Cleveland discusses the timeliness of his new novel, Gods of Deception.

Lisa Jewell | Writer's Digest Interview Quote

The WD Interview: Lisa Jewell

The New York Times-bestselling British author discusses creating thrilling plot twists and developing characters in her 19th novel, The Night She Disappeared, in this interview from the Jan/Feb 2022 issue of Writer's Digest.

5 Tips for Successfully Pitching Literary Agents in Person (That Worked for Me at the Writer’s Digest Annual Conference)

5 Tips for Successfully Pitching Literary Agents in Person (That Worked for Me at the Writer’s Digest Annual Conference)

Author Anat Deracine found her agent at Writer’s Digest Annual Conference. Now she’s sharing what she’s learned to help other writers become authors. Here are her 5 tips for successfully pitching literary agents in person.

Tips for Reading Poetry in Front of an Audience

8 Tips for Reading Your Poetry in Front of an Audience

Poet's Market editor and published poet Robert Lee Brewer shares eight tips for reading your poetry in front of an audience.

Plot Twist Story Prompts: Strength Lost

Plot Twist Story Prompts: Strength Lost

Every good story needs a nice (or not so nice) turn or two to keep it interesting. This week, let a character lose their powers.

Sharon Short | Point of View Quote 1

Managing Point of View: Mythbusting

In the first of this three-part series, novelist and WD columnist Sharon Short breaks down 7 of the most common myths about choosing which POV is right for your story.