Think INTO The Box by CJ Lyons

Think INTO The Box

 by CJ Lyons

Want to know a secret about writing great thrillers? It’s not “think out of the box” but rather “think inside the box.” Many thrillers are big, bold, anything-can-happen rushes of adrenaline. The key words being: anything can happen. That’s an open system. There are no boundaries. Anything can happen. Once the audience believes that, they’ll no longer be surprised by what you throw at them. So, the thriller writer is forced to go big just to get a reaction—even if that reaction is a simple startle.

They’ll pile on twists and turns and explosions and car chases and surprise endings but no, that’s not really the ending, try this…and it becomes sensory overload. Yes, there’s a release of adrenaline. But no release of endorphins, those chemicals that create a bond between the audience and the story. A reader might enjoy the thrill ride while it lasts, just like they would a two-minute rollercoaster, but it won’t stand out as unique.

But, consider great thrillers. A great thriller doesn’t rely on bigger, badder any-things happening. They aren’t created in a world that is an open system where anything can happen. No. They’re built in worlds where nothing can happen. And then the writer makes something happen. Something bad, very, very bad. Bad beyond the character’s wildest expectations, because they live in a world where nothing like that can happen.

In these thrillers, the writer creates a closed system. A glass box if you will, where nothing bad can get inside and the people living there are like the folks you see on vacation, darting out in traffic without looking because they’re on vacation and when you’re on vacation nothing bad can happen.

(A lot of great comedy also works this way, only, in the end, the BAD thing ends up being a GOOD thing.)

Think Jaws. Idyllic seafront small town where nothing ever happens. Great place to raise your kid. In fact, the burnt-out big city cop moves his family to work there precisely because nothing ever happens. The town’s budget depends on nothing ever happening. Their very existence relies on that.

And then…well, you know the rest.

Hitchcock was a master of this. Yes, he played with tons of great twists and turns but what makes them memorable was that they took place in closed systems, the worlds he meticulously crafted, where nothing like that could ever happen.

Most people will think of Psycho as a prime example of this, but my favorite Hitchcock movies where he takes this to an extreme are North by Northwest, Rear Window, and Shadow of Doubt.

I consciously have done the same in my Lucy Guardino Thrillers. I take Pittsburgh, one of the most livable cities in America, a sleepy former steel town bounded by three rivers and mountains and tunnels and bridges (geography that makes it a physically closed system in addition to being an emotional one) and then I turn the entire city into a killing zone, rife with murder and mayhem.

But wait, this is Pittsburgh. That could NEVER happen, right?

That’s the point. Take a look at your own thrillers and see if you might not be better served by using a closed box for your world where “nothing can happen.”

Then go make SOMETHING happen and have fun with it!

New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of over forty novels, former pediatric ER doctor CJ Lyons has lived the life she writes about in her cutting edge Thrillers with Heart. 

CJ has been called a “master within the genre” (Pittsburgh Magazine) and her work has been praised as “breathtakingly fast-paced” and “riveting” (Publishers Weekly) with “characters with beating hearts and three dimensions” (Newsday).

Her novels have twice won the International Thriller Writers’ prestigious Thriller Award, the RT Reviewers’ Choice Award, the Readers’ Choice Award, the RT Seal of Excellence, and the Daphne du Maurier Award for Excellence in Mystery and Suspense.

Her latest thriller, THE COLOR OF LIES, releases from Harper-Collins in November. Learn more about CJ’s Thrillers with Heart at