Genre tips / writers tips

11 Tips on Writing Thrillers

book_coverI write thrillers, so I should be good at this entry in my Genre Tips. But, I’m not sure. None of my novels have been published (one has been close for over a year–does that count?). Lee Child hasn’t asked for advice on his next Jack Reacher novel, nor has Ben Coes of Dewey Andreas fame (love this character), so I decided to reach out to a man who has been published and is oft-quoted for his brilliant understanding of this topic: James Frey.

In How to Write a D*** Good Thriller (St. Martin’s Press 2010), Frey differentiates ‘thrillers’ from other types of writing. For example, plotting (characters always in danger; one ends and another pops out of the scenery), characters (moral, bigger-than-life but flawed), crises (each gets the main character into worse trouble) and pace (constant, never take a breath). Compare those 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.

Here’s another factoid I didn’t know: 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 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 the importance of a villain in 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.

Here are eleven more tips that will change your approach to writing thrillers:

  1. Commit yourself to creating strong conflicts in every line of every scene
  2. Have fresh, snappy dialogue and not a single line of conversation
  3. Write quickly when drafting.
  4. Have production quotas of at least a thousand words every day. three-four thousand is better
  5. Have no bland, colorless characters
  6. Trick your readers
  7. Dump your characters into terrible trouble from page one
  8. Have powerful story questions at all times
  9. Have a hook at the end of each chapter
  10. Be fresh in your writing
  11. Keep the clock ticking and the excitement mounting

Do you have any to add?

More on thrillers:

5 Great Websites for Thriller Writers

Like Military Thrillers? You’ll Like Jeff Edwards

10 Basic Ingredients (Plus 8 More) of a Successful Thriller

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Jacqui Murray is the author of the popular Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy. She is webmaster for six blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer, a columnist for and TeachHUB, Editorial Review Board member for Journal for Computing TeachersCisco guest blog, and a monthly contributor to Today’s Author. In her free time, she is  editor of a K-8 technology curriculum and technology training books for how to integrate technology in education. Currently, she’s editing a thriller that should be out to publishers next summer. Contact Jacqui at her writing office or her tech lab, Ask a Tech Teacher.

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31 thoughts on “11 Tips on Writing Thrillers

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  14. Speaking of Thrillers, the movie “Gravity” blew my mind last night. I kept thinking of your list…it had it all, escalating tension, a hero, a powerful story…
    Jacqui if your novel isn’t getting published I’m going to lose hope. Finger’s crossed, because I want to read it!!

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Thanks Jacqui…great tips. It seems to me that more TV thrillers are composed of a complementary team, instead of one superhero, out to save the world. I’m thinking of Criminal Minds, CSI, Mentalist, etc. where no one person has all the traits necessary to save the world, but together they provide the possibility. The reader will have their favorite, but it’s also realistic enough that they can insert themselves in the story, as part of the team. More realistic to me.


  16. The Play is a murder mystery thriller where a famous theater group in Kolkata is ravaged when the members of the group gets killed one by one in a span of one night. Only three of the members survive. The task of finding out the truth falls on one member, but the answers the member was looking for are not the answers the member will get. Will the truth kill the member or just make the member even stronger. Find out as The Play begins.


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