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Writing

How to Write a Spy Thriller: 6 Tips

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Feb 12, 2020 • 5 min read

If you’re interested in crafting a fast-paced, action-packed, page-turner, consider writing a spy novel. Here’s what you need—and the books you should read—to get started.

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What Is a Spy Thriller?

The spy thriller is a genre of literature that centers around a storyline with secret agents and espionage. Part action-adventure and part thriller, spy stories often follow a government agent racing against the clock to thwart a big attack or uncover an enemy’s plans in order to save lives—sometimes even the world.

6 Examples of Spy Thrillers

Often based on real-life scenarios and actual international relations, stories in the spy genre are often set during the Civil War, World War I, World War II, the Vietnam War, and the Cold War between the United States and Russia. Some of the the best spy novels to read include:

  1. Eye of the Needle by Ken Follett (1978): Set during WWII, this novel follows a German spy nicknamed “the Needle” who lives in London in order to figure out Britain’s plans for invading Normandy. He is in radio communication with Berlin where he sends his updates—until two Brits discover his whereabouts and an epic chase begins.
  2. American Spy 6 Examples of Spy Thrillers : Wilkinson’s first novel follows Marie Mitchell, an FBI agent sent on an undercover mission to Burkina Faso to take down the president.
  3. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John le Carré (1974): One of the most famous spy novelists in literature, John le Carré is the author of many stories of espionage, like his 1963 book The Spy Who Came in From the Cold and his 2019 book Agent Running in the Field. In Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, the character George Smiley works for Britain's Secret Intelligence Service and must root out Soviet spies sent from a fictional Moscow organization based on the KGB.
  4. Our Man in Havana by Graham Greene (1958): Set in Havana, Greene’s story is a somewhat comedic look at espionage, as a vacuum cleaner salesman is recruited by the British to be an undercover informant. In need of money, the informant accepts the position. But with a lack of real details to report, he begins fabricating enemy movements and information to send back to London.
  5. The Day of the Jackal by Frederick Forsyth (1971): Forsyth’s famous novel follows an unknown English assassin—simply known as “the Jackal”—who is hired by a French paramilitary group to kill French president Charles de Gaulle.
  6. At Risk by Stella Rimington (2004): Author Stella Rimington is the former director general of the British intelligence agency MI5. Upon retiring, she became an author of espionage stories. Her first novel, At Risk, follows Liz Carlyle, an intelligence officer out to stop a planned terrorist attack in London.
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How to Write a Spy Thriller in 6 Steps

If you’re ready to write a spy story with international intrigue and non-stop action, follow this step-by-step guide:

  1. Think of a killer concept. There are a lot of spy novels out there, so you need to come up with a story that has a new and unique angle. If you’re a history buff and have a specific area of interest—like Russian operatives, Nazi Germany during WWII, or American soldiers in the Middle East—go with where your passion lies. Come up with a fresh idea that people won’t feel like they’ve read before. Do some research. Find inspiration in real-life spy stories to tell yours.
  2. Get familiar with spy tools. From spy cameras to surveillance equipment, the cool tools and gadgets of espionage fiction are part of what makes the genre fun. Get to know spycraft and tradecraft—the technology and techniques real spies use to track the enemy. Read news stories to see how espionage works today or in the time period you’re writing about. While espionage can also be incorporated into another genre, like science fiction, for the most part, spy novels emerge from actual events. That doesn’t mean you need to just use real tools of the trade. Create your own spy tech for your story.
  3. Create an incredible protagonist. From Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan, a CIA agent first introduced in The Hunt for Red October, to Ian Fleming’s most famous secret agent, James Bond, the protagonists of spy stories have long been ingrained in popular culture. Create a main character who readers will root for and who will persevere no matter what obstacle you throw in their way.
  4. Send your character on a world-saving mission. Think about James Bond. His heart-pounding missions crossed international boundaries, and they always involved more than just taking down a bad guy: He always had to stop a massive attack that would kill innocent people. You need to justify the intense action by making the consequences big. To do this, start by coming up with your antagonist. Who are they and where are they from? What is their goal in the story? Once you know that, you’ll have your protagonist’s quest that will propel your plot.
  5. Write highly visual action scenes. Red Sparrow and The Bourne Identity are action-packed films based on bestselling espionage novels. Spy books make great movies because the action translates well to the screen. When you sit down to start your story, think in pictures. Readers are expecting action so you need to lead with a dramatic scene that shows your protagonist at work in a perilous situation. You’ll need a few of these big scenes throughout your story—not to mention the climax which has to be big, suspenseful and, yes, visual. Use descriptive words to get the reader into the middle of the pulse-racing scene.
  6. Use page-turning literary devices. Plot twists, cliffhangers, dramatic irony, foreshadowing, red herrings: When you write a spy novel, you’ll get to employ literary devices you might not have used before. To write a real page-turning story of espionage, make sure you take advantage of the tools that literature has to offer for maximum suspense.

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