Thrillers are a genre that many people can't get enough of. Building tension and keeping people turning pages are essential for successfully crafting these types of stories. As with any specific type of writing, even those with a natural talent will need some pointers. While "thriller" is not, strictly speaking, a format, a few tips can go a long way in giving your audience -- and your editor -- what they are looking for in your writing.
Writing Breakout Thrillers
You don't want just another mass-market paperback on the shelf. You want your thriller to stand out from the pack. Getting tips on what makes a good thriller from the professionals will help you to make your dream a reality, especially if this is your first novel in the genre.
Similarities and Differences
Before you sit down to write, it is worth considering what a thriller is and what a thriller isn't. Specifically, knowing how a thriller is different from other, similar genres will help you avoid writing something that is more on the other side of the fence. Some things that thrillers have in common with similar genres include:
- Thrillers are similar to suspense and mystery novels in that they are page turners designed to engage a reader's interest.
- All three contain an element of mystery, as the genres often rely upon uncovering a truth that is hidden.
- All three will contain some degree of danger for the protagonist that she is constantly, and often barely, avoiding.
However, thrillers are different from mystery and suspense novels in that:
- Mysteries center around uncovering the truth about something, generally a murder, though sometimes other crimes.
- Suspense novels can center around any kind of danger, usually with a running clock, such as a ticking time bomb.
- When the mystery novel protagonist is in danger it is usually only moderate and increases the closer that she gets to uncovering the truth.
- In a suspense novel the reader usually knows things that the protagonist doesn't, particularly regarding a dangerous situation.
- Thrillers have a protagonist in peril from page one and the plot is often driven by measures taken to avoid and eliminate this danger.
Top Five Thriller Novel Tips
Knowing how to keep your thriller novel squarely rooted in the "thriller" idiom is only the most basic part of the battle for a truly great novel. There is also more to writing a great thriller than general tips for all novelists, such as outlining. Here are some additional tips, including some from Robert Ludlum, a titan in the field of the thriller novel, and from websites designed to help writers become better.
Robert Ludlum recommends carefully observing people as a means to make your characters more three dimensional. Watching people and getting inside their heads is an excellent way to come up for character ideas. Remember that you don't have to be totally accurate in your assessments of strangers. Your flights of fancy based on their mannerisms is a good starting point for letting your imagination soar. Even the smallest detail of a person's life can make a compelling character trait or action.
In a sense, the thriller is all about timing. Setting a time limit on your story -- again, the ticking time bomb, or an innocent man about to be put to death unless the real killer is caught -- creates a natural sort of tension. Knowing when to end a scene is also important, as the cliffhanger is an integral a part of the thriller novelist's tool kit. This is what will keep the reader turning pages and skipping sleep to keep reading.
While there are a number of thriller novelists who can be considered artists as well as craftswomen, such as Patricia Highsmith, the thriller is primarily about entertaining the reader. Focus on the basic elements of storytelling and the craft of writing. The art will come later, but for the reader is far less important than a tightly written story.
Make the Old New
There are several stock plots that occur over and over again in a thriller novel. These include uncovering an evil conspiracy, a legal battle against powerful forces, a secret villain who plays psychological games or a crime that only your protagonist can stop. It's not that there's anything wrong with these plots. It's just that it's up to you, the writer, to make them fresh all over again.
Whether you are crafting scenery or characters it is important to be specific. You can lend a great deal of credibility to your stories with little details, including little-known facts that impress the reader. Similarly, crafting small details for even the most minor characters can go a long way toward making your characters more believable and realistic. Even if you end up throwing out a lot of it in the final draft, making a list of character attributes can help you to bring a touch of realism.
The Great American Thriller
While you want to be innovative, writing the perfect thriller isn't a matter of reinventing the wheel. Rather, it's a question of knowing what the thriller audience expects and the degree to which you can defy those expectations to give them a new experience. Even if you have completed your thriller novel you can go back and use these tips to punch up your prose. Soon you will have a thriller novel that is worthy of mention alongside the masters.