The 10 Commandments of How to Write a Thriller

I love a good thriller. To me novels are meant to, first and foremost, entertain. Some flowery prose may be interesting, the relationships and settings may be fascinating, but if there isn’t any imminent danger to life, limb and puppies, then I’m likely to be throwing the book away.

Mystery, crime and thriller genres are often lumped together or confused for one another. This is kinda like cars, some people don’t know the difference between cars and will just go by colour. While it’s true that they often overlap, there’s a distinct difference: in a mystery there is a puzzle to solve, in a crime there is a crime to solve after it has occurred (although there may be others committed later in the story), whilst a thriller is all about knowing that a crime is going to be committed and the story details the prevention of it.

In an article on Writer’s Digest, Zachary Petit put forward a list by Brian Garfield. He called this the 10 Commandments of thriller writing, because you can’t have a thriller if someone isn’t breaking some rules.

The 10 Commandments of How to Write a Thriller

Start with action; explain it later. TA: I especially agree with this point. I’m sick of “thrillers” that take the first half of the book to set up the action.
Make it tough for your protagonist.
Plant it early; pay it off later.
Give the protagonist the initiative.
Give the protagonist a personal stake.
Give the protagonist a tight time limit, and then shorten it.
Choose your character according to your own capacities, as well as his/hers.
Know your destination before you set out.
Don’t rush in where angels fear to tread.
Don’t write anything you wouldn’t want to read. TA: You know, like street directions and descriptions of flowers and home renovations.
For the full piece, “10 Rules for Suspense Fiction” by Brian Garfield, click here.

At the 2008 Maui Writers Conference, bestselling thriller writer Gary Braver (Skin Deep) said that dread drives thrillers. You know who the good guys and bad guys are. Dull moments will lose an audience, and writers can’t afford to lose an audience, even for one page. To captivate an audience (and agents and publishers), Braver offers these 10 essential ingredients for a successful thriller.

1. You need to have a good story. Thrillers want to be thrilled. A common element in thrillers is that the protagonist will fall victim to someone else’s scheme and get stuck in a moment of dread. There are only three themes in all of literature: death and rebirth (Stephen King’s Misery); the hero slaying a dragon to restore the world to normalcy (James Bond, Indiana Jones); and the quest to make life better (The Da Vinci Code). Know which theme fits your story.

2. Write about the underdog. Tell your thriller from the point of view of the person with the most to lose. The protagonist gives the story character. Give him baggage and emotional complexity.

3. Multiple points of view can give you great range in a thriller. They allow you inside the heads of many characters, which can build more dramatic tension and irony.

4. Open your book with an action scene. Don’t put biographical information or exposition in Chapter 1 (do that later). Introduce the crime—which tells you the stakes—and introduce the hero and villain, and even some obstacles the protagonist may face.

Don’t sacrifice style—use metaphors and good language—but stick with action.

5. Early on, make clear what your protagonist wants and what he fears. You should know what the protagonist wants and how he would end the novel if he were writing it.
There are two quests: Stopping the bad stuff from happening (In The Silence of the Lambs, it’s to stop Buffalo Bill from killing) and dealing with the character’s baggage (for Clarice to be a good, professional FBI agent in a [then] male-dominated profession).

Think Cinderella: Her main quest is to get to the ball. It’s about liberation. When she gets to the ball she finds freedom.

6. Make your characters miserable. Ask what the worst thing is that could happen to your protagonist and make it worse. Give them grief, false hope, heartaches, anxiety and near-death experiences. We don’t want our protagonist to win until the end.

7. Your main characters have to change. It has to be an emotional change that shows growth and victory over some of his baggage. In The Silence of the Lambs, Clarice is stronger and tougher at the end and she gets a good night’s sleep.

8. Pacing must be high: Strong Narrative Thrust. Each scene should reveal something new, no matter how slight it is. Don’t tell us about stuff that has nothing to do with the story. The villain has a ticking clock, so there’s no time to waste on pages with useless information. Short paragraphs and white space are good. Consider using cliffhangers at the end of every chapter, albeit a sudden surprise or provocative announcement.

9. Show—don’t tell. Avoid the passive voice. Use action verbs (He heard the screams in his bedroom). Avoid adverbs—they are cheesy and cheap ways of telling instead of showing. Don’t start sentences with –ing words (“He stared” vs. “Staring at the …”). Make the subject and verb close and up front in the sentence.

10. Teach us something. Make sure your audience has learned about something—an animal, medical treatment, social issue—so we walk away with more knowledge.

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Top 10 Rules for Mystery Writing

 

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  1. In mystery writing, plot is everything. Because readers are playing a kind of game when they read a detective novel, plot has to come first, above everything else. Make sure each plot point is plausible, and keep the action moving. Don’t get bogged down in back story or go off on tangents.
  2. Introduce both the detective and the culprit early on. As the main character, your detective must obviously appear early in the book. As for the culprit, your reader will feel cheated if the antagonist, or villain, enters too late in the book to be a viable suspect in their minds.
  3. Introduce the crime within the first three chapters of your mystery novel. The crime and the ensuing questions are what hook your reader. As with any fiction, you want to do that as soon as possible.
  4. The crime should be sufficiently violent — preferably a murder. For many readers, only murder really justifies the effort of reading a 300-page book while suitably testing your detective’s powers. However, also note that some types of violence are still taboo including rape, child molestation, and cruelty to animals.
  5. The crime should be believable. While the details of the murder — how, where, and why it’s done, as well as how the crime is discovered — are your main opportunities to introduce variety, make sure the crime is plausible. Your reader will feel cheated if the crime is not something that could really happen.
  6. The detective should solve the case using only rational and scientific methods. Consider this part of the oath written by G.K. Chesterton for the British Detection Club: “Do you promise that your detectives shall well and truly detect the crimes presented to them using those wits which it may please you to bestow on them and not placing reliance on nor making use of Divine Revelation, Feminine Intuition, Mumbo Jumbo, Jiggery-Pokery, Coincidence, or Act of God?”
  7. The culprit must be capable of committing the crime. Your reader must believe your villain’s motivation and the villain must be capable of the crime, both physically and emotionally.
  8. In mystery writing, don’t try to fool your reader. Again, it takes the fun out. Don’t use improbable disguises, twins, accidental solutions, or supernatural solutions. The detective should not commit the crime. All clues should be revealed to the reader as the detective finds them.
  9. Do your research. “Readers have to feel you know what you’re talking about,” says author Margaret Murphy. She has a good relationship with the police in her area, and has spent time with the police forensic team. Get all essential details right. Mystery readers will have read a lot of books like yours; regard them as a pretty savvy bunch.
  10. Wait as long as possible to reveal the culprit. They’re reading to find out, or figure out, whodunit. If you answer this too early in the book, the reader will have no reason to continue reading.

by Ginny Wiehardt

Source for Image

From Writers Write Blog.