book reviews / writing

Book Review: How to Write a D*** Good Thriller

How to Write a Damn Good Thriller: A Step-by-Step Guide for Novelists and ScreenwritersHow to Write a Damn Good Thriller

by James N. Frey

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

View all my reviews

I have studied a lot about writing, read umpteen books on it, but never specifically to my genre. When James Frey’s book How to Write a D*** Good Thriller (St. Martin’s Press 2010) came out, I grabbed it. What’s the first thing I learned? I have been making a lot of mistakes. The next thing I learned was how to fix them. Thankfully, he promised that doing this was ‘not brain surgery’.

In this book, Frey reviews first novel writing in general, then thriller in detail. The way thrillers are plotted (characters always in danger; one ends and another pops out of the scenery), their characters developed (moral, bigger-than-life but flawed), crises handled (each gets the main character into worse trouble) and the pace of action (constant, never take a breath) is why readers pick them. Compare those characteristics to literary fiction, where characters get time to smell the roses while they introspectively muse over life. If my WIP’s characters consider the quirkiness of their existence, it better be while they’re fleeing for their life.

I didn’t know that when I started Frey’s book, and that’s just one of the ‘rules’ I missed when I set out to write thrillers. Here’s another. Mysteries and thrillers are often confused,but consider this:

In a mystery, the hero has a mission to find a killer.

In a thriller, the hero has a mission to foil evil–and it must be an impossible mission.

That’s a big difference.

There’s also  big difference in audience–people who choose thrillers rather than mysteries, literary fiction, biographies, etc. Thriller readers like their main characters to be heroes. They set out to save the world and succeed. Doing their best won’t work. Not in a thriller. Main characters should also be moral, patriotic, believing in the goodness of mankind and tolerant of mistakes. That might sound like a stereotype, but your artistry as a writer will keep it fresh. Consider country-western music. It’s always about dogs, trucks, mama and prison, but there are tens of thousands of songs beloved by millions of fans. How’s that for artistry.

Frey covers the varieties of thrillers from political to the little-known comic. He tells us the importance of a villain to thrillers–so important, the author should consider them a new best friend. Know as much about the villain as you do the hero so both are believable, and when the reader is asked to accept that the villain might stop the hero, it’s a real concern. Frey discusses voice–I didn’t know that 99% of thrillers are written either in first person past tense or third person past tense.

Luckily, my WIP falls into the latter so I don’t have to start a complete rewrite.

Another issue he discusses is where to start the novel. That’s more difficult than it sounds. Often, as I’m editing my mss, I find the more I cut at the beginning of a chapter, the better it reads. Thrillers have to be action-action-action. That stuff we-all include that isn’t, must be cut. Every sentence must be action. Every paragraph. If it isn’t, change it. The gist of a thriller is a well-motivated character overcoming increasingly difficult obstacles in pursuit of a worthy and impossible goal. When you ‘hang your character out on the horns of a dilemma’, you have the audience gripped. Where does that leave room for an involved discussion on the garden outside the house or the landlady’s dog?

Not unexpectedly for a how-to book on writing, Frey discusses plot, characters, scenes, but always the unique characteristics that apply to thrillers. He does this by showing-not-telling, sharing excerpts from great thrillers and explaining how they work.

Spoiler alert: I’m going to share Frey’s rules on making a D*** good climax. Check off with me whether yours accomplishes these goals:

  • In almost all d*** good thrillers, the hero is nearly killed in the climax but manages to kill or capture the villain and to foil his evil plot (check)
  • In the climax of a d*** good thriller, good prevails over evil (check)
  • The climax of a d*** good thriller is not just more of the same old stuff we’ve seen before. (ch-eck, I hope)
  • In the climax of a d*** good thriller, there are surprises (check)
  • Often in the climax, the hero discovers something about himself or gains insight into the human condition (Hmmm… Let me think about this)
  • Sometimes a hero experiences a loss at the climax (check)
  • Sometimes the hero dies in the climax (nope. I’m writing a serial)

If you didn’t check off all of those, buy the book. Frey will tell you how to do it. As a bonus, he asks all thriller writers to take a pledge to writer their novel in the manner of a thriller. Check pg. 247. It’s as much a how-to list as a pledge.

Overall, every thriller writer who’s never read a book on their genre should buy this, read it, and keep it in their reference library. Remind yourself what must be in every chapter to make your story a credible nail-biting experience.

Jacqui Murray is the editor of a technology curriculum for K-fifth grade and creator of two technology training books for middle school. She is the author of Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy midshipman.  She is webmaster for five blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer, a columnist for Examiner.coman Editorial Review Board member for SIGCT, an IMS tech expert, and a weekly contributor to Write Anything and Technology in Education. Currently, she’s working on a techno-thriller that should be ready this summer. Contact Jacqui at her writing office or her tech lab, Ask a Tech Teacher.

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11 thoughts on “Book Review: How to Write a D*** Good Thriller

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  7. Interesting article and I shall definitely check the book out but it’s funny that Frey says the main characters should be “moral, patriotic, believing in the goodness of mankind and tolerant of mistakes.” In his book ‘Writing the Thriller Film: The Terror Within’, Neill Hicks says that the main character in thrillers (films) is often not very nice, usually pretty selfish and can be quite unlikable, at least in the beginning. He cites as an example Robert Redford’s character in ‘Three Days of the Condor’ who only escapes the massacre at his office by sneaking out to get his own coffee so he doesn’t have to get some for everyone else.

    I’ve spent some time looking at this and he’s right, it’s often the case. The main character usually only changes because they meet someone who is unselfish, helps them, and they change as a result of that new attachment. Bourne is a character who does exactly that but any number of detectives, FBI agents, spies etc. all work the same way. They are selfish, often ruthless and not folk you’d hang out with but, once thrown into the situation, end up changing for the better. Just thought you might be interested.


    • I wonder if the ‘unlikeable’ characteristics that Hicks notes are the ‘flaws’ that Frey alludes to. We love our characters moral, patriotic–and flawed so we can relate to them better. No one wants Superman in the thriller genre. Good points. You have me thinking.

      Great website, BTW. Lots of good info on sci-fi. My current WIP wanders into the sci-fi genre, though it’s not my intent, so I enjoyed browsing your articles.


    • Besides, the two sets of characteristics are not mutually exclusive. Someone can be unlikeable and selfish, but still be moral, etc. Like you and Jacqui pointed out: nobody likes a goody-two-shoes (at least that’s how I interpreted what you said). If they were perfect to start with, then they would have nowhere to go but down. Of course, that can be an interesting development, too.


    • I read this when I was just discovering that writing in one genre is a world of difference than another genre. Frey made it so clear. One of my epiphanies, like learning to read without moving my lips.


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