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The History of Thrillers in Writing
“Thriller” is a modern term, but thrillers have existed throughout history. The first thrillers were works of literature including Greek poet Homer’s Odyssey (725 BCE), German academics’ the Brothers Grimm’s Little Red Writing Hood (1967), and French Writer Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo (1844).
The Anatomy of a Thriller
Every thriller has three C’s: the contract, the clock, and the crucible.
- The contract: an implied promise you make to the reader about what will be delivered by the end of the book. It’s crucial to keep every single promise you make, no matter how trivial.
- The clock: the fact that adding time pressure to any character’s struggle will create higher stakes and more interest for the reader. The goal of this element is not to be stunningly original but to add pressure that will prompt conflicts and intense responses from your characters.
- The crucible: a box that constrains your characters, offers them no escape, and forces them to act. Your story should present an increasingly difficult series of tasks and situations for the hero that will funnel them into the most severe trial of all. You must make sure that each successive task is harder than the previous one and that, for the hero, there is no escape. If readers begin to sense that the journey is becoming easier, they’ll lose interest.
8 Things Every Thriller Should Include
The essential plot elements of a thriller are:
- The element of suspense: Writing suspense is a matter of controlling information—how much you reveal, and when and how you reveal it. While every thriller novel will have a central, overarching storyline that seeks to answer a sole dramatic question, that question is built on smaller moments that carry the reader through and sustain their interest along the way.
- A hero: The main character the reader is rooting for. Despite the term “hero,” they don’t have to be a perfect specimen of bravery or strength; great heroes emerge from the trials they encounter.
- A sidekick: A secondary character that helps the reader understand the hero’s strengths and motivations. Usually a mentor, friend, helper, or romantic interest, they assist the hero with an alternate skill set, act as a sounding board, provide emotional support, get themselves into trouble so the hero must rescue them, and provide comic relief.
- A villain: The defining force that antagonizes your hero. The villain’s motivations create the crisis for the hero. They’re usually introduced with a bang, sending the reader a clear message that they’re malicious. However, they still need to be a thoughtful character with their own sense of morality and believable reasons for being evil.
- Plot twists: You don’t want to go out of your way to mislead the reader or outright lie to them, but you do want to keep them on their toes. Unexpected plot twists will take them by surprise and reinvigorate their interest in the story.
- Red herrings: Hint at explanations that may not be true and get the reader to believe a false conclusion about the plot. When done well, they’ll feel surprised by the truth and will enjoy the misdirection, having learned something useful about the setting or the characters along the way.
- Cliffhangers: Pose a big question at the end of a chapter. Typically, a cliffhanger stops during a climactic event midway through the action instead of its natural conclusion. Take the reader to the moment before fulfillment, stop there, and switch to another scene. They’ll want to know how it plays out.
- An exciting climax: Thrillers built toward one exciting moment. This is when the hero faces their biggest obstacle and the reader learns all of the remaining information that’s been kept a secret.
7 Tips for Writing a Thriller
The following tips will improve your thriller novel:
- Choose locations that intrigue and excite you. The right location can provide inspiration, shape the course of your story, and provide answers to plotting problems. Treat a location as you would treat a character, allowing it to convey mood and letting it reveal more of itself over time.
- Make promises to the reader. A promise tells the reader, “I know something you don’t know. But I promise I’ll tell you if you keep reading.” Make promises early in the book and deliver on them quickly. In particular, introduce the sole dramatic question up front. Then, spend the rest of the novel slowly parsing out information that leads to the final answer.
- Introduce parallel plot lines. Subplots for villains and secondary characters create more places for suspense and raise questions in the reader’s mind about how the various stories might be related.
- Give characters complicated histories. Withhold information and keep the reader guessing about the dark secrets in someone’s past and how they might affect that character’s behavior today.
- Compress the timeline. A shortened timeline puts the characters under more pressure. The effect on your characters can be immense, and the resulting tension can jump-start a struggling story.
- Practice pacing. Constantly gauge an imaginary reader’s reaction to your pacing. Will they be bored because you’ve gone off on a tangent? Frustrated that you’re not revealing enough? Let down because you gave too much away too quickly?
- Read a lot of thrillers. From Russian spy thrillers to British crime thrillers, pay attention to the way your favorite thrillers are put together. Study how other thriller writers practice the craft, find the things that excite you, and learn from the things that don’t. The more you immerse yourself in the thriller genre, the more inspired you’ll be to write one.
Learn more about writing thrillers in Dan Brown’s MasterClass.