How to Write a Thriller: Definition, Examples, and Instructions

Thrillers are one of my absolute favorite genres to read. There's nothing better than that feeling of not being able to put a book down because you're desperate to find out what happens next, which is something that thrillers excel at.

Over the years, I've devoured thrillers by authors like Gillian Flynn, Stephen King, John Grisham, James Patterson, Paula Hawkins and many more. At some point, I plan to write my own thriller one day (although maybe I'll try a fantasy/thriller mashup, as fantasy is my first love). But after studying many thrillers, as well as advice from their authors, I feel ready to give it a shot.

In this article, you will learn:
  1. What defines a thriller and how it differs from mystery and suspense
  2. The different subgenres within thriller writing
  3. Tips and techniques I've learned for thriller writing

Writing a thriller takes dedication and an understanding of what makes this genre tick. By the end of this article, you'll have the knowledge to craft your own electrifying thriller story.

What is a Thriller?

Simply put, a thriller is a novel that thrills the reader. Boom.

Unlike mysteries or horror stories, thrillers use suspense, tension and excitement to drive the plot and give readers an adrenaline rush. Thrillers grab you right from the start and maintain a breakneck pace throughout.

Thrillers are dark, gritty stories that explore the dangerous side of human nature. The stakes are always high, with characters facing threats to their lives, their loved ones, or even entire cities or countries. A thriller plunges the protagonist into a high-pressure situation that intensifies as the story unfolds. The hero ultimately faces off against an evil adversary in an epic climax.

While thrillers often involve murder, crimes or conspiracies, the central focus is on generating emotion and excitement through fast-paced action.

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The Difference Between Thriller, Mystery and Suspense Books

Thrillers are sometimes confused with mysteries and suspense novels, since they share some key traits. But there are a few important distinctions between these genres:

Mysteries revolve around solving a puzzling crime or event, with the protagonist investigating clues and interviewing suspects. The fun is in the reader trying to figure out “whodunnit” before the big reveal at the end.

Suspense novels focus on developing an atmosphere of anxiety and uncertainty. They move slowly, emphasizing the inner lives of the characters rather than action. Suspense derives more from psychological tension than physical thrills.

Thrillers rely on breakneck speed, danger, twists and escalating stakes to create excitement. The emphasis is on making the reader feel adrenaline, shock and exhilaration. Action takes center stage rather than careful detection or slow-building tension.

Types of Thrillers

Beyond general themes, thrillers can be divided into more specific subgenres. If you're planning to write a thriller, consider which style best matches your story ideas:

Psychological Thriller

These thrillers focus primarily on the unstable emotional states of characters. The tension is driven by internal conflicts, demons, obsessions, and the blurred line between reality and imagination. Psychological thrillers often feature unreliable narrators.

Crime Thriller

Crime lies at the center of these stories, whether it's a murder mystery, drug cartel, robbery, or other offense. Often the protagonist is a detective seeking justice and order. Courtroom dramas also fall under this category.

Political Thriller

These thrillers take place among powerful figures in government, with global consequences at stake. Hidden agendas, assassination attempts, and military conflicts fuel the action.

Here the drama plays out in the legal system as attorneys, criminals, and judges become entangled in high-profile cases. Courtroom proceedings drive the story forward.

Spy Thriller

Stealth, subterfuge, and surveillance are central elements, with spies or assassins as lead characters. The story focuses on secret missions within government agencies.

Techno Thriller

Technology takes center stage, whether it’s rogue computer systems, military weapons, corporate espionage, or scientific experiments gone wrong. The technology angle allows for spectacular action scenes.

Supernatural Thriller

Here otherworldly or paranormal forces collide with reality, letting authors blend elements of horror and fantasy. The unknown creates unease.

Medical thriller

A medical thriller explores unethical medical experiments, deadly disease outbreaks or dangerous surgeries. These have grown much more popular in recent years, especially since the COVID-19 pandemic.

These categories sometimes overlap, with many stories incorporating more than one style. A techno thriller might rely heavily on spycraft and politics. A supernatural tale could delve deep into psychology. Classifying your story helps guide narrative and structural choices.

Examples of Thriller Novels

To immerse yourself in the genre, it helps to read plenty of examples across the different thriller categories. Here are some of the most popular and highly-rated thriller novels:

Crime Thrillers

  • The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins – A voyeuristic peek into three households takes a twisted turn when a woman goes missing.
  • Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn – When his wife disappears, a man becomes the prime suspect in her sudden absence.
  • The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris – An FBI trainee seeks help from an imprisoned serial killer to track another psychopath.

Political Thrillers

  • All the President's Men by Carl Bernstein – Two journalists uncover the Watergate scandal that leads directly to President Nixon.
  • The Day of the Jackal by Frederick Forsyth – A meticulous assassin plots to kill French president Charles de Gaulle in the early 1960s.
  • The Hunt for Red October by Tom Clancy – A Soviet submarine captain defects to the United States, initiating a dangerous game of cat-and-mouse.

Psychological Thrillers

  • Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier – A woman moving into her husband's estate battles the lingering memory of his dead former wife.
  • The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith – Obsession and murder ensue when a man is hired to bring his wealthy acquaintance back home.
  • Gerald's Game by Stephen King – A sex game gone wrong leaves a woman handcuffed to a bed, trapped and alone.

Supernatural Thrillers

  • The Shining by Stephen King – Malevolent spirits haunt a father as he acts as the winter caretaker for an isolated hotel.
  • Dracula by Bram Stoker – A vampire arrives in England, bringing horror and death in his wake.
  • Rosemary's Baby by Ira Levin – A pregnant woman suspects an evil cult wants to take her baby for nefarious purposes.

This variety demonstrates the flexibility of thrillers to incorporate themes of crime, politics, psychology, and the paranormal. It really is a genre that plays well with most action-driven situations.

What Makes a Thriller?

Regardless of specific genre, all thrillers share common ingredients that produce suspenseful page-turners, including (but not limited to) the following:

High Stakes

Give both characters and readers something crucial to lose. The higher the stakes, the more invested the audience will become. Stakes can be public or personal, but should directly impact the characters emotionally and motivationally.

Ask yourself: If the protagonist fails, what terrible things will happen?

Nonstop Action

Keep events moving forward with little down time. Scenes should end on cliffhangers to propel readers into the next chapter. Eliminate excessive backstory and description that slow things down.

Ask yourself: What disaster or surprise can interrupt this calm scene?

Complex Characters

Heroes with dark impulses and villains with relatable motives make for compelling conflicts. Give characters depth through backstory wounds, tough choices, psychological trauma, or moral ambiguity.

Ask yourself: Where are my protagonist's weaknesses and hidden flaws?

Twists and Reversals

Surprise readers by upending their expectations. Lead them one way then pull the rug out from under their feet. Layer in secrets, flashbacks, revelations, red herrings, and other storytelling feints.

Ask yourself: What unexpected turn of events would challenge readers' assumptions?

Menacing Villain

A formidable foe provides the necessary counterbalance to the protagonist. Give villains intimate connections to heroes and make their lethal skills believable.

Ask yourself: What makes my villain terrifying enough to create real dread?

Suspenseful Tone

Thrillers contain a lot of tension from the very first line, immersing readers in an uncertain mood. Use language, metaphors, and chapter breaks strategically to reflect escalating threats.

Ask yourself: Have I conveyed a sense of apprehension from page one?

How to Write a Thriller: 11 Tips

Now that you understand the hallmarks of a riveting thriller, let's discuss techniques for crafting one yourself. Here are 11 tips to get you started:

1. Do Your Research First

Since most thrillers revolve around crimes, special ops, cutting-edge technology or unique locations, solid research is a must. Pick a setting or central plot element that fascinates you, then immerse yourself in learning all about it.

Master all the pertinent facts, terminology and relevant real-life events. Historical research is crucial for period thrillers. Go on location scouting trips for contemporary settings. This legwork will lend your novel authenticity.

Additionally, you should research your genre, including reading a lot of authors in the same sub-genre of thriller that you want to write.

2. Start Right Into the Action

Don't waste time at the beginning on lengthy character introductions or scene-setting descriptions. Hook readers immediately by plunging them into the middle of a tense, high-stakes scenario.

You can fill in backstory and context later after getting the adrenaline pumping. That immediate action will get readers invested in flipping pages to see what happens next.

3. Keep the Stakes High

Continually raise the stakes and create new obstacles to prevent any lulls in tension. Give the protagonist a tight deadline to add urgency. Threaten their closest loved ones. Set events in motion that could destroy a community or shift global power.

The protagonist should struggle to just survive, let alone accomplish their mission. Wallop them with setbacks to make victory seem impossible – then delight readers when they prevail anyway.

4. Ensure Realistic and Relatable Characters

Readers need characters they can connect with and root for. Build relatable protagonists by giving them plenty of flaws and weaknesses balanced with admirable traits and skills.

Villains should have dimension too. Establish their beliefs and motivations clearly, even if reprehensible. Complex villains who gain reader empathy are far more compelling.

5. Increase Suspense

Structure your plot using techniques tailored to maximize suspense. End chapters with cliffhangers or unanswered questions to prod readers on.

Shift between multiple character perspectives to tease information rather than reveal it all at once. Limit what background context you provide to maintain mystery. Isolate characters and remove resources to escalate tension.

6. Build to a Climax

Your thriller should build momentum steadily, saving the most outrageous and adrenaline-spiking events for the final climax. Place that climax in an exotic, dangerous setting.

Unleash a final escalation of nonstop, elaborate action and shocking violence as the protagonist and antagonist collide. Leave readers breathless!

7. Have a Satisfying Ending

After the dust settles, wrap up any remaining loose ends and restore some justice and order. Let the protagonist either triumph or just barely escape with their life and loved ones.

Readers will appreciate a sense of resolution. But leave room for their imaginations too – an ambiguous final scene can provoke thought and debate.

8. Include a Plot Twist

The best thrillers catch readers off guard by defying expectations. Work plot twists in that flip character motivations, reveal deadly betrayals or undermine accepted facts from earlier in the story.

Twists shouldn't just be shocking – they should force the protagonist and readers to completely reassess their understanding of events and the people involved.

9. Have an “All is Lost” Moment

There should be a crisis point where everything goes wrong. Kill off beloved characters, demolish the protagonist mentally or physically, and make it seem like evil has prevailed.

This intensifies the catharsis when the hero overcomes the nightmare scenario. It also positions the climax as their last stand, making it more exciting.

10. Make the Villain Interesting

While your hero should be relatable, remember the villain drives the action. Give them ambition beyond just harming the protagonist. Flesh out their history, quirks and even admirable traits.

Complex villains engaged in a true ideological battle with the hero will give your thriller depth. Their relationship should be rich and multilayered.

11. Increase the Number of Obstacles the Protagonist Faces

Put your protagonist through hell. Never make it easy for them to catch the killer or crack the conspiracy. Psychological obstacles like grief or addiction can complement physical barriers.

External conflicts should also multiply – force them to battle organized crime, secret government agencies, betraying allies, and more simultaneously. Cement their underdog status to keep readers cheering them on.

12. Add ticking clocks.

Impose rigid deadlines that force urgent action. If characters fail to meet the countdown, they forfeit something important. Ticking clocks could involve a lethal virus spreading, a terrorist attack impending, a life hanging in the balance, or an approaching point of no return.

13. Cliffhang each chapter.

End every chapter on a revelation, surprise, reversal, new danger, or ominous moment. Don't provide resolution. Break at a critical juncture that leaves readers hanging in uncertainty. They'll crave answers and keep reading.

14. Make settings ominous.

Reinforce the thriller tone using provocative settings. Research real places that conjure danger such as abandoned buildings, desolate landscapes, stormy weather, dangerous neighborhoods, or institutional facilities that connote menace.

Obviously every scene doesn't have to have these types of settings, but they can be powerful for use in just the right moment of the book.

Plot Structure for Crafting A Thriller

Beyond sharpening key elements, thrillers succeed through careful plot structure and pacing. Here is a brief guide to what I would include in each act of a thriller:

Act I: Present the Conflict

  • Introduce protagonists and the dangerous scenarios they face right away.
  • Establish motives by revealing high stakes early on.
  • Hint at backstory secrets that will unfold later.
  • Present the initial criminal act, disaster, challenge, or mystery to solve (inciting incident).
  • Explore characters' strengths and flaws that will be tested ahead.
  • End with an inciting incident that kicks the perilous journey into high gear.

Act II: Escalate the Peril

  • Raise the stakes as characters confront obstacles. Have them suffer setbacks that put key objectives at risk.
  • Uncover more about the villain's evil plot, powers, and advantages for greater dread.
  • Allow characters temporary hope then dash it with reversals and betrayals.
  • Turn environments more hostile through claustrophobic settings, lethal traps, or isolation.
  • Pit characters against impossible odds and force them into uncomfortable moral territory.
  • End with heroes backed into a corner as doomsday looms.

Act III: Final Showdown

  • Thrust characters into an epic confrontation with the villain, nightmare creature, or dangerous forces at play.
  • Trim away any backup or resources to isolate the protagonist in a face-off where they can only rely on their wits and skills.
  • Make the ending feel like an exhausting trial where heroes beat impossible odds.
  • Wrap up remaining secrets, show how characters are fundamentally changed, and restore a sense of order.
  • Leave room for sequels by implying lingering threats still in play. The danger hasn't fully passed yet.

Required Scenes

While the structure of a thriller novel can vary based on the specific sub-genre of thriller, there are some common “required” scenes that you might want to use in your thriller:

  1. Introduction & Set-Up:
    • Ordinary World: Introduction to the protagonist's normal life.
    • Inciting Incident: The event that starts the main action and pulls the protagonist into the story.
  2. Initial Investigation:
    • First Clue: The protagonist receives or discovers the first piece of significant information.
    • Decision Point: The protagonist decides to investigate further, often against the advice of others.
  3. First Twist:
    • Surprise Event: Something unexpected happens that changes the protagonist's direction or understanding of the situation.
  4. Deepening Mystery/Complication:
    • Red Herring: A false clue or misleading direction.
    • Dark Moment: The protagonist faces a significant setback or obstacle.
  5. Midpoint:
    • Revelation: A significant piece of the puzzle is revealed.
    • Elevation of Stakes: The danger or risk becomes even more pronounced.
  6. Rising Action:
    • Chase Scene: Often physical, but could be metaphorical or intellectual.
    • Near Misses: The protagonist is close to danger or to finding the truth, but doesn’t quite get there.
    • Internal Conflict: Protagonist battles with their own fears or beliefs.
  7. Major Setback:
    • Betrayal: Someone the protagonist trusts turns out to be untrustworthy.
    • Trap: The protagonist is placed in a situation where escape seems impossible.
  8. Climax:
    • Final Confrontation: The protagonist and antagonist face off.
    • Revelation: The final pieces of the puzzle come together.
    • Hero at the Mercy of the Villain: A scene where it seems the antagonist has won.
  9. Resolution:
    • Aftermath: Show the consequences of the climax.
    • Return to New Normal: The protagonist's life after the main conflict has been resolved.
  10. Optional Scenes/Chapters:
    • Backstory Chapters: Provide background information about key characters or past events.
    • Subplots: These can involve secondary characters or parallel stories.
    • Thematic Scenes: Moments that highlight the deeper message or theme of the story.
    • Ticking Clock: A deadline that adds urgency to the protagonist's mission.

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Final Thoughts

That is literally the best collection of advice I could come up with on this subject, and I hoped it was useful. The thriller structure and required scenes, in particular, was something I knew I wanted to put in this article to help. Mostly because I know it's something I'd like to have for myself.

Which means, it's time to get writing. Good luck writing your thriller.

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