Thursday, October 6, 2011

20 Essential Elements of a Bestselling Thriller, by Jodie Renner

20 Essential Elements of a Bestselling Thriller

We all want the same thing, right? No, not *that* thing. What we suspense writers and fans of the genre want is a book that leaves us draped over the edge of our seats, hanging on the author's every next word. While no one can guarantee a seat-of-the-pants ride--there's a certain ineffable magic that takes place on the page between writer and reader--in this week's blog post Jodie Renner comes close. Follow these tips, breathe them in and internalize them, and you will have done the thing we're all here for. You'll have written a thriller.

If you want your thriller or romantic suspense to be a compelling page-turner, make sure you’ve included most or all of these twenty elements:

    1. A protagonist who’s both ordinary and heroic.

    Rather than having a “Superman” invincible-type hero, it’s more satisfying to the readers if you use a regular person who’s thrown into stressful, then increasingly harrowing situations, and must summon all of his courage, strength and inner resources to overcome the odds, save himself and other innocent people, and defeat evil.

    2. A likeable, sympathetic protagonist

    The readers need to be able to warm up to your main character quickly, to start identifying with her; otherwise they won’t really care what happens to her.So no cold, selfish, arrogant characters for heroes or heroines!

    3. A worthy adversary for the protagonist

    Your antagonist needs to be as clever, strong, resourceful and determined as your protagonist, but also truly nasty, immoral and frightening.

    4. An interesting setting

    Readers like to find out about places they haven’t been, whether it’s the seedy side of Chicago, glitzy Hollywood, rural Kentucky, the mountains of Colorado, or the bayous of Louisiana — or more distant, exotic locations. And milk your setting for all it’s worth.

    5. A story that fits the protagonist and vice-versa

    If it doesn’t, change your protagonist — or your story line. You can always use your present one in another novel.

    6. An inciting incident

    What happens to the main character to set the story events in action? Make it tense and compelling.

    7. A great plot, with ongoing conflict and tension

    You need a big story question and plenty of intrigue. And every scene should contain tension and conflict of some kind. If it doesn’t, delete it.

    8. Lots of suspense

    Keep the readers on the edge of their seats, turning the pages to find out what’s going to happen next. See my blog post, “Heightening the Suspense,” Sept. 26, at

    9. Multiple viewpoints

    Narrating the story from various points of view, including that of the villain, will add interest, complexity and suspense to your novel. But don’t head-hop within a scene! Wait for a new scene or chapter to change viewpoints.

    10. A tight, generally fast-paced writing style

    Streamline your writing to improve flow and pacing. Go through and take out all unnecessary words, sentences, and paragraphs, and any repetitive phrases, events or ideas. Thrillers are not the genre to wax eloquent.

    11. Increasing danger

    Keep putting your hero in deeper and deeper trouble, to stretch his courage, determination, physical abilities and inner resources to the maximum — and increase the reader’s admiration and emotional investment in him!

    12. Troubles that hit home

    Endanger the protagonist or someone close to her, to add a personal dimension and more stress to the threats and conflicts.

    13. Internal struggling of the protagonist

    Give her a moral dilemma; show his inner conflict. Make them complex and fascinating; never perfect, complacent, or overly confident.

    14. Critical turning points

    Present your hero with life-or-death decisions and show his anxiety, tension, and indecision.

    15. Obstacles in the way

    Your heroine runs out of gas on a lonely road; your hero’s weapon falls into the river far below; he is wounded and can’t run; her cell phone battery is dead; whatever can go wrong does, and more.

    16. Enough clues

    Be fair. Use foreshadowing and layer in clues and info as you go along, to slowly reveal the plot points and character backstory and motivation to the reader.

    17. Twists and surprises

    Write in a few unexpected plot twists, but make sure that, in retrospect, they make sense to the readers.

    18. A compelling climax

    Put the protagonist at a disadvantage in the final conflict with the antagonist, to heighten the stakes. Pile on the adversity the hero has to overcome at the end.

    19. A satisfying ending

    Leave the unhappy or unresolved endings for literary fiction. Let the good guy overcome the bad guy — by a hair.

    20. Psychological growth and change in the hero/heroine

    Adversity has made him or her stronger, braver, wiser, a better person.

Copyright ©Jodie Renner, September 2011

Jodie Renner is a freelance manuscript editor, specializing in thrillers, romantic suspense, mysteries, and other crime fiction. Her services range from developmental and substantive editing to final copyediting and proofreading, as well as manuscript critiques and plot outline analyses. Check out Jodie’s website at and her blog, dedicated to advice and resources for fiction writers, at, as well as Crime Fiction Collective, of which she is a founding member.

To join the (ITW) International Thriller Writers Debut Author Program, please visit this link:


Unknown said...

Jodie, thanks so much for sharing this. You have great tips that work. :)

Jenny Milchman said...

I love this post by Jodie! So much terrific content--it's like a mini tutorial on suspense. Jodie, I wonder, if asked to choose--is there one element you would isolate as The key factor in crafting a suspenseful story? Thanks for the post!

Carla Buckley said...

Very interesting post, Jodie--thanks for stopping by to lend your expertise!

Terry Odell said...

Excellent points. Of course, I much prefer mystery to suspense, so that multiple POV tip, especially the villain's POV, is a turn off for me, but that's the big difference between mystery and suspense. Most of the other tips will apply to just about any well-written book, so this post can be helpful to writers of just about any genre.

Terry's Place
Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

Jodie Renner said...

Thanks, Miranda, Jenny, Carla and Terry.

Jenny, I guess if I had to pick just one element that readers look for, it would be a good story with lots of problems to overcome!

Terry, I agree that most of these elements will enhance any work of fiction.

Unknown said...

I've been playing around with the idea of a new series where the reader tries to uncover the mystery by viewing two POVs (two detectives in partnership with each other.)

Because I am also a fan of a strong detective lead and we live in her head, as she uncovers the crime. However, I do like the suspense element of the criminal having a point of view in a few scenes sprinkled throughout the novel. Unfortunately, I don't know how to execute that well. :(

L.J. Sellers said...

Excellent post. I've bookmarked it. The only element I might add is emotion, but then, if you've included all 20 of your elements, the story will spark an emotional response.

Jodie Renner said...

Intriguing idea for a mystery, Miranda! And as Terry says, revealing the thoughts of the villain doesn't work so well with mysteries. I can see it working if the identity of the villain and other key plot points remain hidden...

Thanks, LJ. Writing in lots of emotional responses is an excellent point! Without emotion - and sensory descriptions, too - any novel will fall flat, I think.

Unknown said...

right, jodie.

I've read 3rd person POV scenes with the villain in the opening of a book. We still don't know who he is, but he has committed the crime.

I wonder has anyone tried it with 1st Person POV? Would that be creepy more of a horror/suspense hybrid?

I have too many crazy questions. lol

Jodie Renner said...

Miranda,usually the first-person narrator is the protagonist, not the villain. Third-person works best for multiple viewpoints, I think. It would get confusing for the reader if the "I" in first-person was different people in different scenes.

Also, usually the villain gets killed at the end, so how could he relate his story afterward, if he's dead?

Third-person narration in the villain's POV works well for specific scenes and chapters, but I don't think it would be effective to be in his POV for a whole book. Readers want to bond with and root for the protagonist, not the villain, so we want to mainly be in the hero's head.

Also, I generally feel that first-person narration is too limiting and works best for short stories, but some talented authors have made it work for a whole novel.


Excellent points, Jodie, and so critical, every one of them. These are the things that help a story spring from the pages; they make a world of difference between a so-so novel and a brilliant one. Don't be afraid to ratchet up the tension, give your characters seemingly impossible odds, raise those stakes. This is what great storytelling is all about.

Jodie Renner said...

So right, Drew! Thanks for stopping by with your words of wisdom. Can't wait to read your upcoming thriller!

Unknown said...

Jodie, that makes great sense. Perhaps that's why Law & Order Criminal Intent didn't work. It had the villain's POV in the beginning.

Thanks so much for not only sharing this, but taking your day to answer our questions. :)

Jodie Renner said...

My pleasure, Miranda! I hope my tips for thrillers are helpful to aspiring authors -- we'll all reap the benefits when we read their novels!

Anonymous said...

I love this post! So much informaiton in one place. I've printed it out for the files. Character growth is something I always have to revisit to be sure they are progressing in a way that benefits the sotry and seems realistic. Thanks Jodie!!

Jodie Renner said...

You're welcome, "forensics"! I"m glad you found my list helpful.

Anonymous said...

Howwonderful is this post...

Thanks so much for taking the time and trouble to put it together..xx

Jodie Renner said...

Thanks, Rosalind! Glad you find my list helpful!

Jodie Renner said...

Thanks, Rosalind. I hope you find it helpful.

k.l. brady said...

Super helpful! Thank you!