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How to Write a Thriller: 5 Tips for Writing a Gripping Thriller

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Mar 8, 2021 • 3 min read

A few key tips can unlock the secrets of thriller writing—and the suspense, tension, and plot twists that keep readers on the edge of their seats.



From Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl to Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, thrillers are jam-packed with tension, suspense, and plot twists. If you want to write a bestseller in the thriller genre, you’ll need a relatable protagonist, a compelling villain, and plenty of action.

What Is a Thriller?

Thriller is a genre of literature. Thrillers are dark, high stakes, and suspenseful plot-driven stories. The thriller genre often includes unexpected plot twists, a wicked bad guy, and page-turning tension. Any novel can generate excitement, suspense, interest, and exhilaration, but because these are the primary goals of the thriller genre, thriller writers have laser-focused expertise in keeping a reader interested.

8 Types of Thrillers

The subgenres of thriller writing include:

  1. Psychological thriller
  2. Action thriller
  3. Crime novel/crime fiction
  4. Political thriller
  5. Mystery thriller/mystery novels
  6. Spy thriller
  7. Legal thriller
  8. Science fiction thriller

5 Tips for Writing a Thriller

Though every thriller is unique, most thrillers contain similar elements that make them effective. Here are some tips to help you write your very own thriller:

  1. Make your main character compelling. In the thriller genre—just like in real life—a conflict is rarely as simple as “good guy vs. bad guy.” Good thrillers often feature protagonists that are flawed and complex. On the one hand, your protagonist should be strong or skilled enough to overcome the obstacles they’ll inevitably face. On the other hand, readers relate to imperfect heroes, and having a main character with flaws will increase the tension and stakes of your story. Before writing, brainstorm elements of your protagonist’s backstory. What exceptional abilities do they have? What are their weaknesses and defects? Having a deep, three-dimensional main character is an essential ingredient of a successful thriller.
  2. Make sure your opening scene has plenty of action. When writing thrillers, the opening scene is particularly important. Readers should be on the edge of their seats from the very first page. The opening scene of a thriller novel should introduce the crime, conflict, or stakes as quickly as possible. Don’t worry about character backstory or exposition just yet. The best thrillers hook their readers with instant action, then fill in the necessary character and storyline information later.
  3. Create an interesting villain. In the same way that your protagonist should be flawed and complex, your central villain should not simply be pure evil. Even if their actions are unforgivable, their motivations should be rooted in a relatable desire or emotion. In other words, they should be motivated by their own twisted, internal logic. In The Silence of the Lambs its subsequent sequels, readers learn through flashbacks that Dr. Hannibal Lecter witnessed the murder of his sister when he was young. Therefore, Dr. Lecter is more than just a psychopathic serial killer—he is a person whose evil actions stem from a heartbreaking trauma. Readers are more likely to be engaged in your villain’s story and character development if they can recognize seeds of themselves in your antagonist.
  4. Build obstacles for your protagonist. If there’s one thing that all bestselling authors of thrillers are good at, it’s putting their characters in harm’s way. Your main character should experience heartbreak, trauma, and anxiety throughout the book. Sometimes, the most effective obstacle is a ticking clock or strict time limit to complete their task. This will ensure that readers are constantly rooting for your protagonist and will continue to flip the pages to see how the hero wriggles out of danger. Obstacles will also increase the narrative satisfaction of the end of the book, when your protagonist finally overcomes the hurdles and triumphs over adversity.
  5. Add plenty of plot twists and turning points. More so than any other genre, thriller novel writing requires the story to contain an abundance of plot twists, turning points, and cliffhangers. If you’re experiencing writer’s block when writing a scene, ask yourself what a reader might expect to happen next. How can you subvert those expectations? If a scene feels uneventful, think about what plot element or character you can introduce to raise the stakes or create a dilemma for your protagonist. Plot twists will ensure that your thriller is a page-turner and make it impossible for your reader to put it down.

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