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TIPS FOR WRITING THRILLERS: PART 2

A year ago, I posted on my website blog 10 tips for writing a thriller. If you missed it, you can scroll down through my blog archives to find it, or simply copy and paste this link http://www.matthewdunnbooks.com/writing-a-thriller-novel-10-tips/

Since that post, I’ve written the fourth novel in my Spycatcher series (DARK SPIES, published by HarperCollins in October 2014) and the process or writing the book has taught me more about the art and science of creating a thriller novel. In tandem to Part 1, I hope you find the below Part 2 tips useful.

1. PLOT, PLOT, PLOT

Some novels can be based around a loose idea and do not need a tight plot outline prior to being written (literary, character-driven, books spring to mind). Not so thrillers. The stories in thrillers must be logical, urgent, hopefully contain twists and turns, have good guys, bad guys, characters whose allegiances are less easily definable, and very often will contain secrets that are not revealed to the reader until the end of the book. Juggling all of these requirements in your head, or simply making the story up as you go along, is not only a huge ask, it’s also an unnecessary additional burden on the already challenging and complex process of writing a thriller.

Having a plot in place before you start writing will enable you to worry less about essential developments in your story, and spend more time on some of the other key requirements for thrillers. It will also test your story. Are there plot holes that need plugging? Does the story make sense? Are there areas where the book might get bogged down or certain developments that might prove problematic to write?

I don’t write long plot outlines. Usually 3 or 4 pages of bullet point notes are all I need. Other writers prefer to write far longer plot outlines. Jeffery Deaver, for example, writes upwards of 150 pages of single spaced notes before he starts writing. That wouldn’t work for me, but it does for him. Play around with different styles and lengths of plot outlines and you’ll quickly discover what works for you.

My use of bullet points is apt for me, because I think of them as bullets. Each of them must be fired into my story. But it’s only when I’m writing the story that I decide how and when each bullet is fired.

2. THE BAD GUY IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN THE GOOD GUY

The antagonist (baddie) should drive your thriller far more so than your hero/protagonist. After all a hero isn’t particularly interesting if he or she has nothing to do, and nor is s/he interesting if s/he is set to work but deals with the problem with ease. So, we need to address that by getting the baddie to not only give your hero or heroine a vital task, but also to do so in such a way that make your readers constantly worry that the protagonist will fail.

Thinking about the jeopardy in your story should be your starting point when constructing a plot. It’s a very similar process to the way scriptwriters are permitted only a few seconds to pitch their stories to movie makers. An example:

“A serial killer is operating in New York State and leaves cryptic clues at the site of each kill which deciphered and combined can identify him. A brilliant, but quadriplegic, detective is assigned the case and must solve the riddle of the clues before the criminal kills again.”

That’s the hook for Jeffery Deaver’s novel “The Bone Collector”. In just 2 sentences we are given abhorrent crimes, a race against the clock, an evocative location, a riddle, and a hero who has severe physical limitations. The hook could have just been that a serial killer’s on the prowl and a fully fit cop is tasked to track him down. That’s still a pretty good hook, but think about – as Deaver did – making it better.

Thrillers are all about stopping bad guys and events. If they’re not interesting, your story’s fallen at the first hurdle.

3. WRONG FOOT YOUR READERS

Thriller writers should be puppeteers. We hold the strings to our characters, their situations, developments in the story, and vital information that we have but the reader doesn’t yet have. However, we shouldn’t be predictable puppeteers. When crafting your plot outline and subsequently writing your book, constantly ask yourself, “Is this next development going to be anticipated by my readers?” If it is, you’re in danger of churning out a predictable and boring story.

That’s not to say that every sentence on every page needs to be unexpected. If writers attempted that, they’d end up with a jumble of gibberish. Instead, think about key moments when you can insert something into your story that makes readers think, “Wow, I didn’t see that coming”.

On a macro level, combine the puppeteer analogy with that of being a magician – you’re leading Puppet A down one path, making readers think that they’re seeing the truth. Then, abracadabra, you pull off a trick that leaves your readers astonished yet satisfied – Puppet A was in fact Puppet B; and while we were watching Puppet B, Puppet A has been able to sneak up behind a good guy and shoot him in the head. Very often, thriller writers apply this technique to produce a big end of book twist, or a dramatic midway change of direction, or something about a character that makes us think of that character in a completely new light.

You can also weave in misdirection and the unexpected at a micro level. If you’re writing dialogue between two characters, of course try to keep the language realistic, but also think about ways in which it can keep your characters and readers on their toes. An example:

“John, I’ve got something to confess to you. I’ve been sleeping with your wife.”

A predictable response to this could be as follows:

John shook his head in disbelief, his voice trembling as he muttered, “You…you bastard.”

A less predictable response might be:

John smiled. “I’m guessing she hasn’t told you that she’s HIV positive?”

4. YOUR OPENING LINE IS CRUCIAL

It’s essential that the first line in your book grabs a reader’s attention, making it probably the most crucial sentence in the whole book. It should excite the reader, but it should also make them quizzical.

The opening line of SLINGSHOT, the third novel in my Spycatcher series, is:

“Each step through the abandoned Soviet military barracks took the Russian intelligence officer closer to the room where men were planning genocide.”

You be the judge as to whether I succeeded or not, but my objective was to lay out the jeopardy straight away and make readers ask questions. Why is the meeting in abandoned barracks? Who’s the Russian? What’s his back story? Is he a good guy or bad guy? Genocide against whom?

As John le Carré once said, “The cat sat on the mat” isn’t the start of a story. But, “The cat sat on the dog’s mat” most certainly is.

5. IT’S A THRILLER; TURN UP THE DIAL

Having had four spy novels published throughout the English speaking world, and having worked with my agent on numerous different drafts of Book 1 before I got signed up by HarperCollins (U.S.) and Orion (U.K.), you might think I know most of the tricks of the thriller trade. I don’t. Maybe when I’ve written ten to fifteen books I might feel I’m in more of a position to qualify as an “expert”, but right now I feel I’m still on a steep learning curve. I continue to get things wrong and my editor still needs to get me to correct those wrongs prior to publication.

I recently had lunch with my U.S. editor wherein we discussed my first draft of DARK SPIES. In the story, my protagonist Will Cochrane is on the run from rogue elements within the CIA. Midway through the book, I’d written a scene where Cochrane breaks into a house in the States, steals some clothes, eats a meal, leaves cash on the kitchen table to compensate the absent home owner for the theft, but instead of leaving decides instead to give into temptation and have a long hot bath. My intention here was to not only give my hero a wash (he’d been on the run for a week!), but also give my readers time out from a relentless manhunt. I said as much to my editor who smiled and said, “Never give your readers a break.”

He was right. The final version of that chapter is a considerably shorter “wash and run”.

“Turning up the dial” doesn’t have to translate into constant high speed car chases, gun battles, and death and carnage. There are some excellent thrillers that don’t contain a single drop of blood or screech of tyres. But, regardless as to styles and content, all of the best thrillers have a relentless sense of urgency. That urgency is aided significantly by laying out major jeopardy early on in the book. However, jeopardy may be able to launch a thriller but it needs a lot of help to keep it flying.

A good way to instil urgency is to pose vital questions in the book that you don’t answer until later e.g. in DARK SPIES my hero knows from the outset that he’s on the run because he’s disobeyed orders that relate to a mysterious CIA operation called Project Ferryman. But I don’t tell my hero, or the reader, what Ferryman is until the end of the book. Snappy dialogue, cuts to new scenes, new perspectives, and making the jeopardy a ticking time bomb or similar are all great ways to maintain pace.

But ultimately there’s one crucial test on this requirement. If your characters don’t feel an overwhelming sense of urgency, and if you the writer feel the same way, then sure as eggs are eggs your readers will share that lack of urgency.

I hope you found this blog entry useful. Like me, all writers make mistakes and trip over. It’s part of the deal. The challenge, however, is to pick yourself up, learn from the experience, move on, and finish writing your book. Best of fortune!

Matthew Dunn
April 2014





Comments on this post:

Hi Matthew,
I found your blog on plots(2) great. I write fact led historical fiction, but your suggestions/tips apply. Thanks a million.
Good wishes,
Patricia O’R

Thank for you for this very helpful information Matthew. Is there a way to file it away in PDF form or some such, for later reference?

    admin on said:

    Hi. If you highlight the text, right click and copy, it can then be pasted onto a word doc. Not sure about PDF. Glad you enjoyed the post. Matthew.

Thanks Matthew! My Mac was giving me a bit of trouble with it at first, but I’ve got it figured out. And now I’m going to pass your blog along to some writing friends!

ashish joy kabir on said:

Hi Matthew, your humble attitude coupled with these gems of advice that you have picked over a course of time and are willing to share with wannabe authors in thriller writing is rarely witnessed. Could you please enlighten how to go ahead with writing a thriller based on a well known event that took place some time back i.e. Mixing facts n fiction in a palatable way. Hope to see more such advice in future.

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