Thursday, September 12, 2013

The Basic Ingredients of a Killer Thriller

by Jodie Renner, editor, author, speaker


Want to write a bestselling suspense novel? Who doesn’t? So what are the essential components of a riveting thriller? 

To compete in today’s competitive publishing marketplace, your thriller needs a charismatic, complex hero; a nasty, clever, determined villain; clever plotting, with lots of conflict, tension, and suspense; and a few twists and surprises, especially at the end. You need some gripping, heart-pounding scenes, each connected to the next and the story as a whole, with lots of direct cause and effect. And for maximum intrigue and reader satisfaction, it’s important to drop little tantalizing details and hints along the way, which all make sense at the end. 

For these reasons, it’s best to try to sketch out some kind of overall plan or plot list in advance; otherwise, you could get bogged down and drive yourself crazy climbing out of plot holes and rewriting scenes where your story goes off on tangents or just meanders or sputters to a halt. 

Your thriller plot should have a solid foundation you can build on, or the whole story could collapse around you in a muddled-up heap. Unless you have at least a major story question/problem in mind, if you just start writing to see where it takes you, you may end up with a lot of “and then...and then...and then...” scenes, with no real point or connection. Not to mention clues that end up going nowhere. This would leave your readers confused and irritated and could sink your reputation as a thriller writer. Even a rough road map will help you stay focused as you’re writing.
First, what are the basic ingredients of a riveting thriller?
James N. Frey sums it up: “To create a damn good thriller, you need to create a clever hero and send him or her on an ‘impossible’ mission to foil evil for the benefit of others.”

Here’s another definition of thrillers, from good old Wikipedia: “A broad genre of literature, film, and television programming that uses suspense, tension and excitement as the main elements. Thrillers heavily stimulate the reader’s or viewer’s moods, giving them a high level of anticipation, ultra-heightened expectation, uncertainty, surprise, anxiety, and/or terror. Thriller films tend to be adrenaline-rushing, gritty, rousing, and fast-paced. 

“A thriller provides the sudden rush of emotions, excitement, and exhilaration that drive the narrative, sometimes subtly with peaks and lulls, sometimes at a constant, breakneck pace with thrills. It keeps the audience cliff-hanging at the ‘edge of their seats’ as the plot builds towards a climax. Literary devices such as red herrings, plot twists, and cliffhangers are used extensively. A thriller is usually a villain-driven plot, whereby he or she presents obstacles that the protagonist must overcome.”
Ian Irvine describes a thriller plot succinctly:
“At its simplest, a story consists of a character (the hero) who wants something badly, and an adversary who is trying equally hard to prevent the hero from getting what he wants. In each scene, the hero attacks his problem in a new way, the adversary fights back, and the hero either fails or his initial success leads to a bigger problem.”
Or, in my opinion, you could approach it a different way and say that the villain drives the story and threatens peace and security, and the hero spends the whole story reacting to the threats and trying to stop the villain before he reaches his ultimate goal(s) and commits the most horrifying, devastating acts.
Either way you look at it, you need to get the readers emotionally involved from the very first sentence. Here’s how to do it, according to Jessica Page Morrell: “Involvement begins when you create a realistic world, implant an issue that demands to be resolved, and introduce a character or group of characters who are intensely interesting to readers.”
What’s the premise of your story?
What’s your story basically about? What’s your main story problem or question? Can you state it in three or four sentences? Fill this in before you start writing, so you have a clear picture in your mind of your hero’s main challenge to guide you as you go along:

(Protagonist’s name) is a ___________ who ________. But (first big encounter/conflict/problem).

Now (action sentence). Will (big dilemma, question)?

Your plot needs:
~ A clever, resourceful, likeable but complex protagonist with some baggage
~ A conniving, frightening, determined villain
~ An overriding, preferably high-concept problem
~ Other related conflicts
~ Interesting, unique supporting characters, usually on both sides
~ Plenty of intrigue, suspense, and tension
~ Some subtle foreshadowing sprinkled in here and there to incite reader curiosity
~ Some surprises or reversals
~ A final big, very close battle
~ A satisfying resolution, with a final twist or surprise, and all the major story questions answered.

Also, set your thriller in an interesting locale. And give your protagonist a character arc. He is usually not the same person at the end as he was at the beginning. The challenges and trials of the story have deeply affected her and changed her forever. Series characters tend to have a much less noticeable character arc.
James N. Frey, How to Write a Damn Good Thriller
Ian Irvine, 41 Ways to Create and Heighten Suspense,
Jessica Page Morrell, Between the Lines
What are some other essential components of a thriller that sells? Share your ideas in the comments below.
For more tips on how to write a thriller readers can’t put down, see my popular book, Writing a Killer Thriller – An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction, available as an e-book or in trade paperback.
Jodie Renner, a freelance fiction editor specializing in thrillers and other fast-paced fiction, has published two books to date in her series, An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction:
WRITING A KILLER THRILLER and STYLE THAT SIZZLES & PACING FOR POWER, both available in e-book and trade paperback.
For more info, please visit Jodie’s author website or editor website, or find her on Facebook or Twitter.


Jodie Renner said...

Thanks for inviting me back to The Thrill Begins, Donna! It's great to be here today!

Catherine Stine said...

Great, informative post. I like Jodie's way of describing the thriller--as a tale where the villain drives the story. BTW, Donna, it'll be fun to see you at P2P!