Completing a thriller is a tremendous accomplishment. It’s not easy to keep the excitement, action and tension going throughout the whole book.
As writers, we spend a great deal of time trying to make everything just right. We fix this and alter that, move this paragraph around. Then when we finish we usually think, hey I did a pretty good job.
But, and I don’t believe that I’m alone here, we always have a little bit of doubt about our manuscript.
We think, is everything really right? Is there something I need to improve?
So I developed a series of questions I ask myself after I’ve completed the first draft. These questions make sure that I’ve nailed the important elements of a thriller. Of course you can also use these questions while you’re writing your book.
1) Did I jump into the Story?
Some novels read like the equivalent of a teacup ride at an amusement park. You sit in the teacup and it takes you on a pleasant, leisurely journey.
Thrillers, on the other hand, should read more like roller coasters. You’re strapped in, and immediately thrust into an adrenaline-infused adventure,
While this beginning can involve car chases, buildings blowing up or spies shooting at one another, it doesn’t have to include those elements. It can, just be simple dialogue that’s intriguing.
Take this opening from The Blonde, by Duane Swierczynski.
“I poisoned your drink.”
“You heard me.”
“Um, I don’t think I did.”
The blonde lifted her cosmopolitan. “Cheers.”
Right away, we’re into the excitement. Did the blonde really poison his drink and what will happen if she did? We have to read on to discover the answers.
I often find that the beginning chapter of a first draft has too much information and slows down the story. So I usually eliminate it and start the manuscript with the second chapter. This often gives it the “kick” it needs.
2) Have I kept the action going?
Some thrillers, even those by top writers often begin with a bang, but a short time later, the excitement has faded.
I don’t understand why once they have the reader gripped tightly by their opening, they then loosen their grasp on the tension. Don’t do this. Thrillers are one genre where there must be action all the way to the end.
3) Do I have too much action?
Okay, I know I just said that you have to keep the action going. And that is true. However, sometimes, writers incorporate too much action into their thrillers. They make one exciting thing happen right after another. There is so much activity that it takes away from the characters and their believability.
In between the faster-paced scenes, you need to incorporate some that are slower-paced. You might have the protagonist get involved in a relationship with a female/male or perhaps, he or she could simply go to a coffee shop. However, there should still be some tension in these scenes.
4) Did I incorporate too much research into my story?
Many writers love researching. After all, you can discover so much interesting information. Some of that will elevate the quality of your book. However, you need to resist the urge to put it all into your story.
You may have loved reading about the air traffic control industry, but too much technical information about how the ATC monitor the altitude of aircraft, even if it’s compelling, will slow your story down.
5) Did I use active verbs?
Thrillers should have a fast-paced forward movement. So we need to make sure our words support this.
One common issue is using a verb with a ‘helper word’ instead of using one verb that says the same thing. For example, you might have-
He secretly listened to the man hiding behind the tree.
There’s nothing wrong with this, but notice how we made the line a little faster in the example below.
He eavesdropped on the man hiding behind the tree.
Take this line—
He walked right up to the FBI agent.
Again, this sounds fine, but you can see below how we’ve increased the speed.
He marched up to the FBI agent.
You might be saying, ‘these changes are so small, how does that make a difference?’ My answer is, even if you only made one sentence on each page move a little faster, that would increase the dynamic nature and speed of your thriller a lot!
In short, choose your verbs wisely.
6) Is my hero too perfect?
The protagonist in a thriller is often a hero. He is usually shown at the beginning of the story to be very confident, and a man or woman who does everything well.
Readers love heroes so this is a good strategy. As the story moves along, however, we begin to see the hero’s flaws. The flaws make him more believable, and create more interest in him or her.
For example, Superman has all these great powers, but he also has the flaw of being taken down by kryptonite. He’s from another planet, but still, his weakness humanizes him, and makes him more real. Jack Reacher in the novels by Lee Child is very strong and has amazing deductive powers. However, he sometimes has problems in relationships.
There are, of course, also thrillers where the hero is an underdog. In these cases, we see his flaws at the beginning, and it takes the adventure to bring out his heroic nature.
7) Does my protagonist have it too easy?
The reader enjoys your novel most when bad things are happening to your main character. That’s what keeps your reader hooked on your book. So put your character in increasingly rough situations.
Perhaps your protagonist is in disguise and it looks like someone who wants to do him harm, recognizes him. Maybe he has to jump from one mountain top to another some distance apart, and they are separated by a lake filled with crocodiles.
Readers get so caught up in these kinds of scenes that they won’t be able to stop reading wondering what’s going to happen.
So ask yourself if you have put your protagonist in the worst possible scenarios.
8) Is my villain three dimensional?
Villains that are portrayed as totally evil are less interesting than villains that are more complex.
You should indicate why your villain does what he does. This helps us understand him better. Perhaps as a child he was abused in some way. Maybe he was rejected by a love interest. This increases the tension and excitement in the scenes when the hero and villain must battle one another.
9) Does each of your scenes reveal something new?
Often what keeps a thriller going strong is revealing new information in each scene. It might be a big thing like a character who’s dead suddenly turning out to be alive, or a small element like a newspaper clipping that gives the protagonist a lead on a case.
These events are often shown near the end of a chapter as cliffhangers, making the reader immediately want to read the next chapter.
I hope you find the above questions useful in working on your thriller. If you’d like to learn more about writing this exciting genre, than please join me for my workshop, “Writing the Thriller.” Starts Monday!