In fact, the thriller obsession has bled into pop culture like a severed artery, forever changing—for better or worse—the face of television, movies, books, plays, video games, art and graphic novels. The boundaries of what constitutes “thriller” are often up for debate. But regardless of whether you’re into science, horror, mystery or suspense, the key elements of a good thriller can be hard boiled down to these 10 ingredients as presented by award-winning medical thriller writer, Gary Braver.
1. A Strong Story
The driving mechanism of a thriller novel is “dread.” Dread is generally—but not always—accomplished through the quest to find some “elixir” or “cure-all” to prevent disaster. Thriller stories often evolve from real life news. One of the classic thriller novels, Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park, was sparked by a news article about the cloning gene.
Thrillers are about emotions, primarily the feeling of dread. A good thriller continuously ramps up the “dread factor” — beginning with Page 1.
3. The Underdog
The protagonist of your thriller should be the person with the most to lose, the one the reader is most emotionally attached to. This character should have a moral code and a past “hurt.” Throughout the story, your walking wounded hero must overcome these personal demons.
4. Clear Protagonist Goals
Know what your protagonist wants, but don’t give it to him. Your hero must earn the victory for your reader to feel satisfied. The protagonist should go on a professional and personal quest.
5. Multiple Points of View
While there are many exceptions to the rule (ie: Steve Martini), most thrillers are written in third person, shifting point of view. This allows the reader to feel “dread” and see the story from different eyes.
6. Open the Book with Action
Don’t use your opening chapter as a dumping ground for back story. Use action to capture the reader’s attention. Try to keep the first chapter under ten pages (which translates to about five pages in a published book) to really hook the reader.
7. The Main Character Must Change by the End of the Book
This is true of all fiction.
8. Pacing Must be High
Pacing is the rate at which the story moves. Keep description tight, the action moving. If you have a high drama scene, the next scene can slow down a bit, but not too much—thrillers rely on the reader’s desire to turn the page. Avoid adverbs. Aim for active voice. Two great examples of fast-paced thrillers include Stephen King’s Misery and Thomas Harris’ Silence of the Lambs. In fact, if you’re writing a thriller and haven’t read Silence of the Lambs, stop now. Read the book. It’s virtually a textbook on how to write a good thriller.
End your chapters with good cliffhangers—make it impossible for the reader to not turn the page.
10. Teach the Reader Something
A good thriller teaches the reader something. While you don’t want to overload the story with too much research, one of the reasons the Davinci Code did so well was because it was peppered with facts that made the story more believable.
Take a look at your current thriller WIP. What elements are you missing? What thriller “textbooks” are you using? Of course, many of the elements listed above are true or can be adapted for all fiction. How can you incorporate the elements of thriller into your writing?
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