Skip to main content

8 Tips for Developing a Thrilling Espionage Premise

Maintaining tension and high stakes requires careful attention in the writing process. Ambassador Philip Kaplan offers 8 tips for developing a thrilling espionage premise that helped him in writing his debut book, Night in Tehran.

My 27-year career as a diplomat in the U.S. State Department, and countries around the world, lent itself wonderfully to eventually writing a spy novel. I constantly dealt with foreign policy issues, which tutored me on the ins and outs of intelligence operations. In real life, diplomats in countries big and small, rich and poor, allies and adversaries, are often marked by intellect, skill, courage, and sometimes personal flaws. These officials face high risks and choices marked by moral ambiguity.

(How to Write a Thriller That Delivers)

Ultimately, this gave me both the tools and the liberty to write Night in Tehran. Fiction offers a superb platform to explore themes such as war, diplomacy, and corruption in a detailed way that is both creative and insightful. Though writing fiction was not necessarily easy. However, looking back I realized that I developed eight tips to construct a thrilling espionage novel; They follow below.

Gripping Opening

It’s important to involve the readers by grabbing them right in the beginning. The opening must be strong. This way the reader becomes emotionally attached, and they want to stay with the plot throughout.

Defining Characters

Every good novel is reliant on credible, fully developed characters. Protagonists in espionage novels, however personally flawed, should be strong-willed and believable. They should be in pursuit of an important task that readers can identify with. But they should also be faced with dangerous enemies and obstacles to surmount.

Protagonists can also be evil. It’s compelling to watch your lead faced with the threat of capture. That can elicit sympathy even from readers who detest this protagonist’s values. For example, in The Statement by Brian Moore, a former Nazi collaborator is on the run from the French police with risks to his life coming closer and closer.

Facing Confrontation

Compelling characters face choices that can threaten their careers, family, business success, or their lives. The struggle to survive must be vivid, thus convincing to readers who identify their fears to root for them. How the characters cope with such challenges will reveal their personal integrity.

8 Tips for Developing a Thrilling Espionage Premise

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

Making Moral Choices

Much of life is marked by making hard choices, which are always framed by moral ambiguity. This is especially true in the grisly world of political intrigue, where choices are rarely black and white. There is always something that gives when a protagonist “takes.”

Vivid Sense of Place

Readers need to feel the credibility of the place where events in the novel occur. To that end, details matter. They must be rendered accurately—even though the scene is wholly fictional. This is accomplished through research surrounding the places involved as well as the time and cultural environment when events occurred.

The key is to capture the readers’ eyes and place them in the experience. They should be turning every corner along the dark gray streets.

Tense Drama

Spy novels are propelled forward with tension, risk, and danger. The most common properties are tainted promises, loyalty questioned, and betrayal. All this, however, must be rendered with subtlety, which is part of the spy’s craft. This keeps the reader guessing.

Knowledge of Tradecraft

Sharp attention to detail is key for the espionage novelist. Familiarity with the details of the FBI or CIA can lend credibility, realism, and vitality to the novelist's plots. Spies and diplomats have their own form of basic training.

8 Tips for Developing a Thrilling Espionage Premise

For CIA officers, the training is carried out on “The Farm,” a site not far from Dulles Airport in Virginia. Recruits are taught to memorize codes, read biographies of foreign officials, counter terrorists, recruit foreign agents, develop intel on economic trends, undermine hackers, and learn a host of other tricks of the trade.

For CIA officers, the training is carried out on “The Farm,” a site not far from Dulles Airport in Virginia. Recruits are taught to memorize codes, read biographies of foreign officials, counter terrorists, recruit foreign agents, develop intel on economic trends, undermine hackers, and learn a host of other tricks of the trade.

New diplomats are trained at the Foreign Service Institute just across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C. There they learn to speak fluently in foreign languages and are immersed in the history, politics, and cultures of the more than 200 countries. These details are crucial to a strong spy plot.

Entanglement in Romance

Love relationships, in my opinion, enhance any espionage novel. The hard choices made between romance and politics add a deeper layer to the story line. If done well, the reader will be drawn into the evolution of the relationship, the frustrations, and choices made, and the reader will be rooting for the couple in the end.

(Philip Kaplan: On When the Book Writes Itself)

I found that these eight elements were present throughout each espionage thriller I read, and it held true for my writing, too. I saw that plots are often supercharged with the quest for truth and survival. A truly compelling novel of this genre lives in a more subtle shade of gray, where truth is elusive, and good people often succumb to impulses. When heroes face danger and temptation, but possess the strength to secure successful results that align with national interests as well as their personal values, you create a true masterpiece.

Fearless Writing William Kenower

In this workshop we’ll look at several techniques you can you use to keep yourself in the creative flow and out of the trouble and misery fear always causes.

Click to continue.

Writing Mistakes Writers Make: Not Submitting Your Work

Writing Mistakes Writers Make: Not Submitting Your Work

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 submitting your work.

Making Your Fiction a Place You Want To Be

Making Your Fiction a Place You Want To Be

Author Janet Key shares the feeling of not wanting to revisit the world she was creating and the tools she used to help make her fiction a place she wanted to be.

Plot Twist Story Prompts: Backstory Change

Plot Twist Story Prompts: Backstory Change

Every good story needs a nice (or not so nice) turn or two to keep it interesting. This week, have a character's backstory change.

Writer’s Digest Official Book Club Selection: Portrait of a Thief

Writer’s Digest Official Book Club Selection: Portrait of a Thief

The editors of Writer’s Digest are proud to bring you the first book club pick, Portrait of a Thief, to read along with us.

6 Ways To Fight Your Inner Critics

6 Ways To Fight Your Inner Critics

For many writers, self-critique gets in the way of making much progress. Here, author Julia Crouch shares 6 ways to fight your inner critics.

Writing Allegory: A Convenient Place to Hide

Writing Allegory: A Convenient Place to Hide

Where realistic fiction felt both too restrictive and too revealing for author Susan Speranza’s transition from poetry to fiction, she turned to allegory. Here, she shares examples of famous allegories throughout history and how allegorical writing helped shape her novel, Ice Out.

Instagram: An Underutilized Tool for the Freelance Writer

Instagram: An Underutilized Tool for the Freelance Writer

In this post, author C. Hope Clark shares tips on how freelance writers can use Instagram as a tool to find more freelance writing connections, assignments, and overall success.

Jane Porter: On the Joy of Writing Mature Characters

Jane Porter: On the Joy of Writing Mature Characters

New York Times and USA Today bestselling author Jane Porter discusses celebrating the nature of getting older in her new romance novel, Flirting With Fifty.

Poetry Prompt

Wednesday Poetry Prompts: 610

Every Wednesday, Robert Lee Brewer shares a prompt and an example poem to get things started on the Poetic Asides blog. This week, write a "different way of seeing the world" poem.