Recipe for Writing a Great Thriller: Ten Key Ingredients
1) Start with the big “what if.” Any great story starts with that simple “what if” question. What if a series of high-profile executives in the managed care
industry are serially murdered? (Michael Palmer’s The Society) What if a multimillion dollar stallion dies suddenly
under very mysterious circumstances on a supposedly secure farm in Kentucky?
(Dean DeLuke’s Shedrow)
2) Put a MacGuffin to work in your story. Popularized by Alfred Hitchcock, the MacGuffin is that essential plot element that drives virtually all characters in the
story. So in Shedrow, the MacGuffin
would be: how did the stallion actually die?
3) Pacing is critical. Plot out the timeline of emotional highs and lows in a story. It should look like a rolling pattern of highs and lows that crescendo upward to
the ultimate crisis. Take advantage of the fact that following any of those
emotional peaks, you likely have the reader’s undivided attention. That would
be a good time to provide backstory or fill in needed information for the
reader—information that may be critical but perhaps not as exciting as what
4) Torture your protagonists. Just when the reader thinks that the hero is finally home free, throw in another obstacle.
5) Be original, and surprise your readers. Create twists and turns that are totally unexpected, yet believable.
6) As a general rule, consider short sentences and short chapters. This is strictly a personal preference, but who can argue with James Patterson’s short chapters or
with Robert Parker’s short and engaging sentences. Sentence length can be
varied for effect, too, with shorter sentences serving to heighten action or
7) Avoid the passive tense. Your readers want action.
8) Long, drawn-out descriptions of the way characters look, or even setting descriptions are easily overdone in a thriller. Stephen King advises writers to “just say
what they see, then get on with the story.”
9) Assess each chapter ending and determine if the reader has been given enough reason to want to continue reading. Pose a question, end with a minor cliffhanger, or at
least assure that there is enough accumulated tension in the story.
10) Edit aggressively and cut out the fluff. Ernest Hemmingway once confided to F. Scott Fitzgerald, “I write one page of masterpiece to ninety-one pages of shit. I try
to put the shit in the wastebasket.”
Dean M. DeLuke is the author of Shedrow, a new thriller dubbed a cross between Dick Francis and Robin Cook. You can read
excerpts and reviews, view a book trailer and photo gallery, and see details of
upcoming contest offerings at www.shedrow1.com.
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