Creative Writing Mystery And Crime 12 min2023-10-06 00:00

How to Write a Thriller: 6 Steps to Writing a Novel or Screenplay

how to write a thriller

A thriller is one of the most popular genres of novels and films. Many people love thrillers for the way thriller writers weave mystery plots with heightened tension and complex characters.

Thriller stories make us question human desires and often leave us with the feeling that everyone has the potential to kill for what they want most.

How is it possible to pack all of this into one book or film?

This article details how to write a thriller novel or screenplay. You’ll learn the elements of a thriller, how to create a good plot structure, and some helpful tips for writing.

Elements of a Thriller

There are many key elements of a thriller story, and if you want to write a good thriller, you’ll need to familiarize yourself with them. You should be able to identify a thriller novel from the first sentence and a thriller film from the first scene. 

Here are the main elements of thrillers: 

  • Suspense

  • Realistic characters

  • Short narratives

  • Plot twists and cliff-hangers

  • An intense climax scene

A thriller is a genre that creates a physical response in your reader, and suspense is the feeling you want to create with your writing. This will set the tone for your entire novel or script. From the moment the reader steps into the world of your story, we need to be on edge.

Your novel or script needs realistic main characters to ensure readers can empathize with your hero and fear your villain. Your hero needs to be flawed and in over their head. The villain needs to be evil, and you can add a level of concern if the villain is relatable or as though they are someone you might meet walking down the street.

Most thrillers take place over short narrative time frames because they’re all about action and putting the hero under pressure to solve the mystery before more people get hurt. You can include a time pressure or a ticking clock to increase tension for your hero. Villains don’t always give your hero months to defeat them, but if they do in your story, make sure there’s a reason.

Plot twists and cliff-hangers need to be deployed with care and precision to ensure your reader doesn’t feel cheated in some way. If you want to write a plot twist, it needs to be embedded into the story from the beginning to be plausible. Cliff-hangers need to be significant enough to make your reader want to turn the next page.

All thriller stories are about testing your characters, which leads to an intense climax scene that proves to be the ultimate challenge for your hero. In the climax scene, your reader will feel like a back-seat passenger watching the hero and the villain come together, and sometimes, your reader won’t know who to root for.

By including the elements of thrillers, your story should fulfill the expectations of your audience and readers who love a good thriller. 

The elements mentioned so far apply to all subgenres of thriller novels and screenplays. Here is a list of some of the key thriller subgenres you can use these elements in:

  • Psychological thriller

  • Science fiction thriller

  • Crime thriller

  • Spy thriller

  • Action thriller

  • Legal thriller

Thriller novels come in all shapes and sizes, but a lot of books are marketed as thrillers as a way to boost sales, even if the books don’t contain thriller elements. If you write thrillers featuring the elements we’ve detailed, no one will question which genre your books belong in, and your books should fall into the hands of real thriller fans.

elements of a thriller

Thriller Plot Structure

One of the best places to start when planning your thriller is with the plot structure. A tried-and-tested method to plot a thriller is using the seven-point structure, which includes these points: 

  • The hook

  • The first plot point

  • The first pinch point

  • The midpoint

  • The second pinch point

  • The second plot point

  • The resolution

All good thrillers start with a hook. This is the opening scene where you introduce your reader to the hero and their world. A thriller hook might be a shocking event that pulls us into the action, or it could be a simple description of something creepy happening to the hero.

Once you’ve introduced your hero, you’ll get to the first plot point, which includes the inciting incident. An inciting incident is what kicks off the interaction between the hero and the villain. Your hero could discover a dead body, receive a threatening letter, or they could find out the villain has abducted someone they love.

After the inciting incident, give your hero time to react before they give chase and resign themselves to the fight against the villain.

The next significant moment in your plot is the first pinch point, which is a moment when your protagonist feels significant pressure from the antagonist. You can use the first pinch point to reveal the villain’s primary goal and motivations. If your hero feels empathy or relates to the villain’s motivations, you could show the internal conflict the hero is experiencing. 

About halfway through act two, you’ll reach the midpoint of your story, which is a crucial moment for your hero. The midpoint can be a perceived victory, but the villain hasn’t been defeated. Alternatively, your midpoint could be a failure that amps up the conflict for your hero, meaning they go into the second half of this act with renewed determination.

Once your hero has recovered from the midpoint, you’ll reach the second pinch point, where you put even more pressure on the hero. Your villain could reveal more of their evil plans, showing more about what drives their actions. 

During the second pinch point, let your hero reach rock bottom with the pressure they’re under and the struggle to solve the mystery. By the end of the second pinch point, your hero might have learned a difficult lesson or gained a new outlook on the situation that renews their confidence or determination to keep going. 

The next part of the plot is the second plot point, which includes the climax scene. The climax is when your protagonist has to face the toughest part of their journey to solving the mystery and potentially beat the villain. 

During the second plot point, the protagonist should use the skills they’ve developed to discover the secrets the antagonist has been hiding. The mystery can be solved, but the villain might not be caught because not all thrillers end with the “bad guy” going to jail. 

The ending scene is the resolution. The resolution of a thriller usually presents a mirror image of the hook, where the hero is either back to their old life or they have found some kind of peace after everything they have been through. Not all thrillers end happily, but a good resolution will give your readers closure on the story, and they should feel satisfied.  

Now you know how to use the seven-point plot structure for your thriller novel, but you can use almost any plot structure template for planning your thriller. Your thriller might also have a subplot, such as a romantic storyline, but that will need to be woven into your main plot.

6 Tips for Writing Thrillers

Here are six fundamental pieces of advice for writing a thriller novel or screenplay.

Tip 1: Suspense Needs to Be Sustained

You know suspense is an element of thrillers, but you need to ensure your entire novel is filled with it. Your reader needs to be wondering what could happen next at all times. It’s what will motivate them to keep reading.

Suspense differs from tension. Tension should be added to your story at key moments to increase your reader’s excitement and make them concerned for your hero. Suspense is a constant unease and looming sense of danger. 

The best way to create suspense is by revealing a problem or raising a question but withholding the solution and answer until your character has the strength and skills to figure it out.

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Tip 2: Challenges Build Your Characters

The more conflict you include in your story, the more we’ll learn about your characters. Therefore, the stakes need to be high. We need to see your protagonist struggle and test their bravery, determination, and strength. Everything must be on the line, including your hero’s life.

If the main character fails, we’ll get even more insight into who they are, and we’ll see their weaknesses. Psychological thrillers often focus on internal conflict, which you can show by exposing your character's weaknesses.

Showing your character’s flaws and relatable characteristics creates a connection between your reader and the protagonist.

It’s your job as a thriller writer to make sure your main character’s deepest fears are realized, and they have to face them to move forward in the story. When they reach the climax, you should have revealed almost everything about them, but it still shouldn’t be clear if they’re going to win or not.

Tip 3: Pacing Is Vital

Thrillers are fast-paced, full of action and moments of conflict. The best thriller writers can control how their readers feel by setting the pace of each scene to suit the actions happening in them.

Your story should advance forward on every page. Thrillers don’t have time for pages of world building and exposition. This means it’s easier to ground your stories in settings that are easy to describe and will feel authentic to readers as you move the story forward.

Thrillers aren’t all action, though. It’s okay to have some slower scenes in your story where your protagonist can rest and regroup. These scenes give your reader a chance to get to know your main character and build up compassion for them.  

Tip 4: You Don’t Need Explicit Violence

Simple descriptions of horrific scenes can be more harrowing for your reader than elaborate detailed descriptions of gore and violent acts. In a thriller, less is often more for blood and wound descriptions. If the conflict is emotional, there doesn’t need to be blood spatter for it to be scary.

Let your reader’s mind work—they’ll create the scariest images because it’ll connect to their own fears. If they care about the main character, you won’t need to work hard to have them thinking the worst is happening in pivotal scenes.

Tip 5: Take Your Hero to a Breaking Point

Thriller authors, such as Meg Gardiner, say that in every thriller, there will come a breaking point where your main character will either take a dark turn or they’ll find themselves with their back against the wall. Either situation can happen in your thriller.

The breaking point reveals something about what it means to be human. Sometimes people will choose to do something morally wrong to defeat the villain. Alternatively, if a person is backed into a corner, do they have the strength to get themselves out of it?

One of the main reasons readers seek thrillers is to learn something new about what drives humans to do horrible things, and how we can be strong if we’re ever in a similar situation. It’s reassuring to know good can defeat evil, even under the most stressful conditions.

Tip 6: Chase Scenes Are Difficult to Master

Chase scenes are a staple of thriller films, as the camera can follow the protagonist and highlight specific details the director wants the audience to focus on. You watch helplessly as the hero is hunted by the villain. A chase scene isn’t easy to write.

You’ll need to ensure your chase scene starts with a goal, and the stakes are detailed. Then you can throw obstacles in the way of your protagonist as they give chase. Ensure the obstacles are realistic and make sense to your reader so they don’t feel like you’re just adding elaborate obstacles for the sake of them. 

A good chase scene has its own climax moment where the stakes are raised and the emotional pressure is increased. It reveals more details about the characters and makes us care about them.

You can use a plot twist at the end of the chase scene to change the direction of the story. Remember to set the plot twist up using subtle clues you have dropped into each of the scenes leading up to the chase. 

How ProWritingAid Can Help You Write a Thriller Novel or Screenplay

You can use ProWritingAid to edit your thriller novel or screenplay once you have finished your first draft. Thrillers are concise. Every sentence needs to add detail and develop the story. You must trim anything else.

When you edit using ProWritingAid, you’ll want to edit one chapter or scene at a time to ensure you can focus on each section completely before moving on to the next one.

To set up ProWritingAid for editing your novel, you’ll need to click on the document type drop-down in the Realtime sidebar and select “Creative,” then “Thriller.” This will ensure you see suggestions specifically designed for thrillers. For scripts, you’ll need to select “Script,” then “General Script.”

There are many reports you can use to edit your writing. For thrillers, we recommend using the pacing check to ensure your fast-paced chapters or scenes don’t contain any slow paragraphs. This check will highlight anywhere you’re slowing your readers down.

Slow pacing isn’t always a bad thing, as it usually means you’re adding introspection and some backstory. However, too many slow paragraphs in a row aren’t good for a thriller novel. You’ll need to add some action and dialogue to improve your slow paragraphs.

Another report that can help thriller writers is the sensory report. The report will underline examples of concrete sensory words it finds in your document. By checking how many underlined examples you have, you can see how much detail is in your chapters. Details create the images in your reader’s mind, so it’s important to have the right amount.

If you’ve written a sentence that doesn’t sound quite right but you’re not sure how to rewrite it, you can use the ProWritingAid’s Rephrase feature. Simply highlight the sentence and click on the Rephrase button to see several suggestions for rewriting. You can select one or use them for inspiration.

ProWritingAid doesn’t just help thriller writers with the editing software. We also run a Crime Writers’ Week event every year. In our weeklong summit, you can hear tips and tricks from some famous writers, editors, and crime-writing specialists.

Thriller writers can network with other thriller writers to bounce ideas off each other, work out plot holes, and share your love for the genre. If you’ve got a burning question preventing you from finishing your novel, this is a great opportunity to find answers.

Conclusion on How to Write a Good Thriller

Thrillers thrill readers with insights into human psychology and relationships. If you include the right elements, follow the plot structure, and keep in mind the tips detailed in this article, you’ll create a truly memorable thriller. 

Remember—once you’ve written your first draft, you can use ProWritingAid to go through your chapters with a fine-toothed comb to ensure it’s tight and clean. You can also learn how to write a thriller at the ProWritingAid Crime Writers’ Week.

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