The thriller’s core emotion is excitement. A thriller novel is fast-paced and develops around what happens after you’ve established danger. Plan your thriller to keep moving and excite your reader.
Elements of a Thriller
Before you plan your thriller, you should know the basic elements readers expect within the genre. Plan to include these elements as you think through your storyline.
Build suspense by controlling information, eked out in small portions as the story progresses. The story has a central storyline to answer one question—like, will the hero save the world and defeat the antagonist? You control the suspense by managing when and how you release information. Those small bits of information sustain your reader’s interest.
Think of your “hero” as the protagonist. Often, thriller protagonists are not heroic; they are ordinary people overcoming odds stacked against them. They are often an unassuming person, ill-equipped and unprepared, attempting to save the world.
Malicious and cunning, the villain is the force that provokes and aggravates the hero. Introduced with clear intent, the villain’s motivations create the dilemma for the hero. Wise, with their own sense of morality, the villain’s personal morality internally justifies their evil. The villain is intent on their purpose and does not listen to reason.
Fill your thriller with precarious challenges for your hero. Each time your hero thinks they are on the right path, something changes their direction. Twists are the meat of the suspense that keeps readers wondering what will happen next? And then the next thing is worse than the one before.
Put your protagonist under pressure with a dastardly deadline that’s coming soon. A sense of urgency to conquer the evil creates page-turning tension for readers.
Not always, but often, a secondary character supports your protagonist in their quest to overcome evil.
Blessed with an alternate skill set, the sidekick may act as a sounding board, provide emotional support, get themselves into trouble so the hero must rescue them, and provide comic relief.
The sidekick may be a mentor, romantic interest, friend, or helper. They offer the reader insights into the protagonist’s motivations, strengths, and weaknesses.
Build chapter endings around questions about what will happen next. Build cliffhangers by stopping the action of a conflict, before the moment of conclusion. Then switch to another scene. Author James Clavell was master of the cliffhanger.
A Big, Exciting Climax
Thrillers build toward the end and it’s a big one. With just moments to spare, the hero faces their biggest obstacle and the reader learns all of the remaining information that’s been kept a secret.
It feels like the villain will win until at last the hero summons courage and initiative to conquer.
How to Plan Your Novel
Planning your storyline before your write will help you build tension with ever increasing stakes for your hero.
...taking an ordinary man and dropping him in the middle of extraordinary events that will put him in danger, test his mettle and reveal his inner survivor.
The thriller genre contains a number of sub-genres. You have a wide range of choices. Planning software StoryGrid names 12 sub-genre examples:
- Serial Killer: Examples of this story are Red Dragon and Silence of the Lambs
- Medical: Examples of this story are Coma and The Andromeda Strain
- Legal: Examples of this story are And Justice for All, Sleepers, and Mississippi Burning
- Psychological: Examples of this story are Primal Fear, Gone Girl, and Fight Club
- Espionage: Examples of this story are The Bourne Identity, Three Days of Condor, and The Hunt for Red October
- Person in Jeopardy: Examples of this story are The Client, Ransom, and Sleeping With the Enemy
- Erotic: Examples of this story are Basic Instinct, Fatal Attraction, and Twilight
- Military: Examples of this story are Seven Days in May and The Jack Ryan Universe Series
- Political: An example of this story is Marathon Man
- Journalism: Examples of this story are The Scarecrow, The Post, and All the President’s Men
- Financial: Examples of this story are Numbered Account, Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less, and Black Fridays
- Hitchcock: Examples of this story are A Coffin for Dimitrios and North by Northwest
Though a thriller is a plot-driven story, your characters bring the story to life.
Create a character bible where you list all the story characters, create their personal backgrounds, make note of their traits and physical appearance. Use this as a reference so when a character reappears 100 pages later, their traits and appearance are consistent.
Once you have your cast of characters, outline the high points of the story. Then you can create scenes and chapters that lead from one story point to the next.
For this example, we’ll use the three-act structure and a book length of approximately 80,000 words.
Use percentage points to keep you on track with story progression. When I was writing screenplays for a producer, I used percentages to keep on point within the tight constraints of writing a script. Check in with percentage points to produce a balanced story.
Here’s a visual for each percentage point. You can keep this graphic handy for quick reference as you write and edit:
Now you’ve got an overview, let’s get into details.
Act 1: The Beginning
In the first act you introduce your protagonist and their internal and external goals. And, you introduce the malevolent force your hero must overcome.
You set up the main conflict between the protagonist and the antagonist and create the essential reader question—will the protagonist stop the antagonist before he or she commits any more crimes/hurt more people?
The Hook (approximately 1% or 800 words of the way into your story)
Grab your reader’s attention. Plunge them into the story by introducing your protagonist and getting the reader to care about them. This is a good place to introduce your protagonist’s special skill that seemingly has nothing to do with what lies ahead.
The Inciting Incident (around 12% or 9,500 words in)
Enter, the menace. In a thriller, the crime that indicates there’s a master antagonist appears here. The crime gives rise to your protagonist’s desire to stop the menace.
The First Plot Point (around 25% or 20,000 words in)
Now it’s time for your protagonist to take on the chase. Depending on your subgenre, they may be assigned to capture the menace or take on a personal commitment to conquer the antagonist.
Your protagonist sets goals to overcome the antagonist. They may not be the right goals, but they are the original plan to stop the antagonist. This commitment raises the stakes for your protagonist as they become personally involved.
Act 2: The Middle
The middle of your thriller is filled with challenges, conflicts, and new directions. Your protagonist prepares for the final conflict.
They’ll chase a trail of clues to uncover new information. This is how you control the release of information for the reader to build suspense. Your protagonist may learn new skills, get leads, find false clues, and ultimately make a plan to stop the antagonist.
The middle is also the place to build any subplots based on your protagonist’s inner needs and goals.
The First Pinch Point (around 37% or 29,500 words in)
Your protagonist and your reader get a view of the antagonist’s threat.
Expand on the threat to the protagonist. Your hero begins to understand the amount of threat in the antagonist’s plan. They feel the threat, and so does your reader.
The Midpoint (around 50% or 40,000 words in)
At the midpoint, your protagonist realizes their original plan isn’t enough. He or she may feel they’re making progress and then discover the antagonist has the upper hand. Or they may feel overwhelmed, tasked with too great a challenge, and unable to fulfill their plan.
Either way, the protagonist has to rethink what they know and change direction with different actions in order to catch the antagonist.
As the story continues from the midpoint, your protagonist’s new plan, based on new information, helps them examine the current situation in a new light. Then they move from the reaction to the sense of failure at the midpoint to creating and taking action on their new plan.
The Second Pinch Point (around 62% or 49,500 words in)
The antagonist’s threat becomes clearer. The protagonist, and your reader, understand the full scope of what lies ahead in order to stop the menace.
You can complicate matters by putting the protagonist’s inner and outer goals in conflict. Once again, you’re raising the stakes of what could happen if your protagonist fails.
The Second Plot Point (around 75% or 60,000 words in)
The stakes are at an all-time high, and your protagonist is losing. The villain has the upper hand, and there seems to be no way out. It appears your protagonist will never succeed.
Also, your protagonist can battle inner doubts, fears, and false beliefs. Your protagonist is in direct confrontation with the villain and it’s all around bad for your hero.
Act 3: The End
Your protagonist and antagonist have their final showdown. As you’ve dripped information slowly through your story, now your protagonist will find the last missing piece.
The Crisis (around 88% or 70,000 words in)
Your protagonist must choose between succumbing to fear and allowing the antagonist to win or find the courage to meet the antagonist in a final showdown.
They comprehend what they must do to conquer the antagonist, and overcome internal fears. They arrive at the solution and learn a life lesson at the same time.
The Climax (around 90% or 72,000 words in)
The protagonist and antagonist face off.
Create a moment where if feels as though the antagonist will win. Cliffs, caves, burning buildings, dark basements, secret labs—these are the settings often brought into play here as the antagonist has their way with your hero.
Now the protagonist must use his or her combined skills to not just survive, but defeat the antagonist.
You finally answer the question—will the protagonist stop the antagonist before he or she commits any more crimes/hurt more people? And the answer is: yes they will.
The Resolution (around 98% or 78,000 words)
Show the reader what life is like now that the threat is removed. Your protagonist has come to terms with their inner struggle. Show the reader how he lives with his newfound inner strength.
Keep Your Reader in Suspense
A thriller holds your reader in suspense until the climax. Your imagination, attention to detail, and adherence to reader expectations will result in a novel that keeps readers on the edge of their seats.