How to Write a Thriller

Authored by Dan Brown


People think that suspense and high stakes are the only things necessary to write a thriller, but those elements exist in every story. According to Dan Brown, thrillers are about much more, and he has other advice on how to write your own gripping page-turner.

Part 1 of 12

Start with a world—and a question—that excites you

Thrillers don’t always have to be high stakes; they can just as easily take place in the world of winemaking. As long as you’re interested in this world and excited about it, it’s a good choice for your story.

Did you know?

Don’t be limited by the adage “Write what you know.” It’s more important to “Write what you want to know about,” since you’ll spend hours researching this world. Pick something you’re enthusiastically curious about.

Part 2 of 12

Decide the dramatic question of your novel

This world will have a single dramatic question that’s simple and easy to follow, such as “Will Robert Langdon find the virus and save the world?” or “Will the hero save their family’s vineyard?” This dramatic question sums up your novel.

Part 3 of 12

Create your villain

It may seem counterintuitive to work on your villain before your hero, but the villain represents the world, and their actions define the hero. Give your villain a morally gray perspective to add complexity, but make sure their actions are clearly villainous.

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Choose a hero that fits this world

Thrillers often put ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances, so your main character doesn’t have to be particularly “heroic.” However, they should have some expertise within this world.

Did you know?

Adding some flaws to your hero not only makes them more relatable but also gives you opportunities to put them in peril.

Part 5 of 12

Check for the Three C’s: Contract, Clock, and Crucible

The contract is the promise you’re making to the reader—that this will be a thriller, that the hero has a dire situation, and that the hero will solve the dramatic question you’ve posed. The clock is the ticking clock in the background of the story. Suspense must have the pressure of time. The crucible means the hero can’t run away or escape from this situation. They must face the villain. It will be miserable for them but exciting for the reader.

Part 6 of 12

Introduce everything right away

Writing that first chapter seems daunting, but you already know what you need to share: the world, the hero, the villain, the conflict, and the stakes. The sooner you get to this, the better and more exciting your novel.

Part 7 of 12

Skip to the finale

You already know certain things about the finale due to your contract with the reader: The hero will defeat the villain in an exciting and surprising way. You’ll come up with the details later, but realize that’s how this novel will end.

Part 8 of 12

Use locations to muddle through the middle

The middle is often the hardest part to write, but if you keep your world in mind, you can use important locations for must-have scenes. For example, a thriller about winemaking could have a chase scene through the grapevines or a sequence around the grape-smashing machine.

Part 9 of 12

Develop supporting characters

Your hero interacts with supporting characters who have a different skill set and bring something new to the equation. There’s an added bonus if they can provide some sort of tension, whether it’s character-driven, emotional, or romantic.

Part 10 of 12

Add more peril with obstacles

Keep it thrilling! If your story starts with legal problems, heighten to physical danger. Turn up the tension with secret backstories that make things more personal or dangerous. Increase the conflict with obstacles—facing big obstacles is what makes a character heroic. Have them discover the unexpected, and as they find bits of the puzzle, add more questions to the story.

Did you know?

Cliffhangers are great for adding suspense. You can easily create cliffhangers by ending the chapter with a twist, a revelation, or a reaction from the character but not revealing the cause until the next chapter. This is called withholding.

Part 11 of 12

Don’t just follow the hero, follow the villain

The villain adds suspense as they commit more and more villainous acts and get closer to victory. These parallel plots also remind the reader of the stakes and the moral ambiguity of your world.

Part 12 of 12

Wrap up your story with an exciting “how.”

The hero uses their unique skills to win in an unexpected way. The villain’s punishment fits the crime, so if there was murder, they can die, but if it was a stolen wine recipe, killing them is going overboard. Make sure your moral foundation is upheld to the end and the reader will be satisfied that your story was fair and fit the world you’ve established.

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MSCHF Drop #27
is MSCHF Drop #27