How to write a thriller


11 April 2024
Top tips on how to write a thrilling novel from the author of the acclaimed, fast-paced thriller Coyote Fork, James Wilson. Discover how you can get the reader hooked, create dramatic scenes for your characters, and make your novel into the ultimate page-turner.

Thriller is, of course, a huge category, which includes a whole range of sub-genres: whodunnit, psychological mystery, spy story, and more. What they all share is a powerful element of suspense: will the protagonist escape his or her pursuers, thwart the enemy’s plot, uncover the family secret, identify the murderer?

All my novels have some kind of mystery at their heart, but Coyote Fork is the only one to use a specific thriller format: the detective quest, as exemplified by the work of Raymond Chandler and – especially – Ross MacDonald. (One of the reviews of the book that most pleased me, indeed, called it “a Ross MacDonald for the 21st Century”.)

So that’s the form I’ll be concentrating on.

But many of my tips would apply to other thriller forms – and, in fact, to any fiction.

Consider for a moment just what a strange thing reading actually is. We look at a sheet of paper criss-crossed with different combinations of twenty-six characters, plus a variety of punctuation marks. Out of that process, our brains magically create a virtual world that we can, for a while – if we choose – enter and explore. But if it fails to grab us in the first page or two, we’ll almost certainly give up and close the book.

So any novel is a contract between writer and reader. Our part, as authors, is to capture and hold our readers’ attention for as long as it takes them to finish the story – and to try to make sure that, when they do, they don’t feel we’ve wasted their time!

So how do we do that?

Establish a strong voice

At the start of a novel, you are essentially saying, Come with me on this journey. The reader is much more likely to do so if the narrator has a strong individual voice and offers a distinctive view of the world.

Some writers achieve this through third-person narration, but in my view – especially with a thriller – a first-person voice tends to be more immediate and effective. It gives readers direct access to the protagonist’s character and feelings and ensures that – at any given moment – they only know as much or as little as he or she does. (See Don’t Cheat below.)

Content continues after advertisements

Give the reader an emotional investment

It isn’t essential for the reader to like the central character, but they must care what happens to him/her (even if, in some cases, that might mean hoping that he/she gets punished!). So he/she must be a three-dimensional human being, with recognizable flaws and contradictions as well as strengths. And the effect will be more powerful if s/he has more riding on the outcome than simply escaping danger or solving the mystery.

Make it believable

If the virtual world doesn’t seem credible, the reader won’t stay with it. For a thriller – unlike, say, a fantasy novel – the psychological and physical ground rules for reality will generally be pretty much the same as they are in everyday life.  
Once you’ve established those rules, you have to stick to them scrupulously. An impression of anything goes is dangerous: no one will care whether the hero gets away from the guy with the gun if they suspect – say – that you’re going to have an alien suddenly appear out of nowhere and whisk him off to a spaceship.

Do your research

Get as much specific detail as you can about the world(s) in which the story is set. It will make your descriptions (a) more authoritative, and (b) more vivid: It was the size of a jumbo jet gives the reader a much clearer picture than It was very big.

Continuity is crucial

This may seem elementary, but it’s surprisingly easy for inconsistencies of tone or detail to slip through the net. (At least part of the reason, I think, is that it takes so much longer to write a chapter than to read it: three days ago, when you were describing Stephanie going into the house, you gave her a blue top and a Pomeranian; but today, when she’s coming out again, you’ve forgotten about the dog and her top is red. For the reader, the going-in and the coming-out are only ten minutes apart, and the mistake is glaringly obvious.) This can be a particular problem with a detective thriller, which depends on placing exactly the right clues at the right time.

The journey matters as much as the destination

To quote Raymond Chandler, the novel “must have a sound story value apart from the mystery element: i.e., the investigation itself must be an adventure worth reading.” In other words, no matter how spectacular the dénouement, no one will ever get that far unless they find the way there really engrossing.

That means character

One of the key ways of keeping the reader’s interest is to have a diverse range of engaging, believable characters – recognizable individuals with their own stories, which collide and intersect with the main narrative.
And establishing character depends crucially on dialogue. It is all too easy – especially in a thriller, in which you have to convey a good deal of information – to treat dialogue merely as a kind of generic fact-dispenser. (“Where were you at 6.30 on 9th?” “I was visiting my sister Rachel, who hasn’t been well since she had an accident on her bike.”)

But the effect of that kind of writing is deadening. Convincing dialogue must a) be in the particular voice of the character who’s speaking (I often read lines out loud to myself, tweaking them until they sound right); and b) be true to what that character wants or needs at that specific moment. Is s/he frightened? Angry? Defensive? Trying to cover something up? Impatient to get away to meet a lover? The answer will determine his/her choice of words – even if those words don’t explicitly express what s/he is feeling.

Don’t cheat

If you are writing a mystery, it’s important that the reader should discover information at the same rate as the narrator (or, in a third-person narrative, the protagonist). If the solution turns out to depend on a detail that the narrator/protagonist knew but didn’t share with the reader, the reader will – understandably – feel cheated.

Cliché is the enemy

This is true of any writing. But it’s particularly the case with the thriller, where it is essential that the reader should feel as intensely as possible what the protagonist is experiencing – fear, love, anguish, bafflement, guilt. And hand-me-down phrases like “It was the work of an instant” or “panic clutched his throat” have the opposite effect: they push the reader away from the experience, make it less immediate.

To avoid the lure of cliché, I often imagine myself in the character’s situation, and then – out loud – describe exactly what he/she is feeling, as if I were relating it to someone in a pub.

There needs to be a resolution

And, again, I can’t do better than quote Raymond Chandler:

“It must have enough essential simplicity to be explained easily when the time comes. It must baffle a reasonably intelligent reader. The solution must seem inevitable once revealed.”

Thank you, Ray.

And for all you aspiring thriller-writers out there, good luck!

Coyote Fork by James Wilson is published by Slant Books

What if you're considering writing a thriller with a co-author? Read what the experience was like for Ben Creed.