Key Elements to Writing Thrillers
by Lee Matthew Goldberg
When people ask what kind of books I write, I usually say that I write thrillers but the truth is that all great books have key thriller elements. The main thing that thrillers need are strong suspense and tension. Usually that involves life or death scenarios, but even non-thriller books would do well to incorporate some keys elements that thriller writers use. Here’s a few to keep in mind.
Moving Plot Forward
Thrillers are not inert and the characters are often propelled by the plot. That means the novel should always be accelerating. If you’re bored writing it, the reader will be bored too. And because a thriller is rarely just about ideas, you need a plot with a strong hook that can carry for three hundred or so pages. In coming up with an idea, I like to think of it in movie terms. This meets that. A successful thriller is also one that could be pitched succinctly. My second novel, The Mentor, was marketed as Cape Fear meets Wonder Boys. This also helps for any adaptation aspirations. A studio will be more interested if they can sum it up easily.
What keeps a reader turning the page? I read an interview with Stephen King which said that he likes to ramp up the suspense as you get to the bottom of the page so you want to turn to the next one. Having a strong plot helps, but you also need characters the reader will care about. They have to be living and breathing so that we want them to survive whatever peril they encounter. Twists and turns are also good to add. The worst thing in a thriller is when a reader can telegraph exactly what will happens. How can you as a writer keep them on their toes?
Tension becomes a big part in ramping up the suspense. In my newest novel, The Ancestor, the main character wakes up in the Alaskan wilderness with amnesia. The tension becomes discovering more about him as the novel progresses, especially some terrible things that he did which he may not want to remember. But it’s not enough to just add tension, you want to make sure it’s believable. Too many thrillers are so far-fetched it becomes hard to get on board. You have to find a way to ground your tale in reality.
I like to make my writing as visual as possible so the reader has to do limited work. The words need to leap off of the page and become a film in their minds. I’m often most influenced by films as well as books. Depending on the project, I tend to read and watch similar things. For The Ancestor, I read a lot of books and films set in arctic conditions, and it was written during the winter so I could mimic the feel of my protagonist. If you find that you’re stuck, read a great author’s work and see how they handle plot and the moments they ratchet up the suspense.
For any type of novel, it helps to have a routine. I write most days in Central Park because I find nature to be the best inspiration. Discover a writing space that can work for you. I like to edit in the mornings, take a break, and then write in the afternoons. Some days the inspiration isn’t as strong, but if you have a routine set, it helps to keep you committed.
Rejection is a big part of any writing career. You will always be rejected, even once you’ve “made it.” You have to learn to be like Teflon and not let it get to you. The thriller community has so many amazing writers that it can be tough to break out. Be active on social media. Write short fiction to get you in magazines. Go to conferences and network with other writers. Go to readings and be a part of the community. If you really believe in your work, don’t take no for an answer. You only need one yes to get your career moving forward.
Think of Your Book as More Than Just a Book
These days writers should be thinking bigger than just having a novel out there. Your book could be a film or a TV show, it could be adapted into a play, it could sell in multiple countries, it could be a podcast. Don’t limit yourself. Thrillers work because they are a great form of escapism. Try interacting with others in adjacent fields.
Lastly, Promote, Promote, Promote
Promotion is tough these days because there’s so many books out there and so many distractions. In COVID times, do as many virtual tours as you can, do podcasts, do readings and promote them on social media platforms. If you can pay for it, hire a publicist, even if your publisher already has one for you. You can never do too promotion. Likely you haven’t done enough.
Lee Matthew Goldberg is the author of the novels THE DESIRE CARD, THE MENTOR, and SLOW DOWN. He has been published in multiple languages and nominated for the 2018 Prix du Polar. His Alaskan Gold Rush novel THE ANCESTOR is forthcoming in 2020. He is the editor-in-chief and co-founder of Fringe, dedicated to publishing fiction that’s outside-of-the-box. His pilots and screenplays have been finalists in Script Pipeline, Book Pipeline, Stage 32, We Screenplay, the New York Screenplay, Screencraft, and the Hollywood Screenplay contests. After graduating with an MFA from the New School, his writing has also appeared in the anthology DIRTY BOULEVARD, The Millions, Cagibi, The Montreal Review, The Adirondack Review, The New Plains Review, Underwood Press, Monologging and others. He is the co-curator of The Guerrilla Lit Reading Series and lives in New York City. Follow him at leematthewgoldberg.com