How to Write a Thriller That Will Grip Your Readers

Doug Landsborough
October 20, 2022

What do you get when you combine a healthy dose of action, a heaping spoonful of mystery, and a sprinkling of horror into one story? Only the most gripping, heart-pounding literary genre out there: thriller.

But I don’t need to preach how awesome thriller stories are, right? You’re here because you already know thrillers rock. Heck, you probably have an awesome idea for one buzzing around your head. 

So you’re here to bring that thriller to life.

That’s exactly what we’re going to do. In this article, we’ll be talking about:

  • What makes a thriller
  • How to structure your thriller novel
  • The tips and tricks you need to know to write a thriller

And there won’t even be any twists in this advice (except for advice about twists). Let’s go.

What Makes a Thriller?

We already covered that a thriller story is the combination of the action, mystery, and horror genres. This doesn’t mean this genre isn’t capable of standing on its own—far from it! While it borrows certain elements from these other genres, there are some things that make the thriller category unique.

Primarily, thrillers are marked by a level of excitement and tension that can rarely be matched by other books. These are the kind of stories that feature a conniving, powerful villain, red herrings, plot twists, and a level of suspense that keeps you turning the page until you run out of pages to turn.

Unlike some other genres, every scene in a thriller is meant to push the plot forward, either by demonstrating the high stakes of failure or through challenging our protagonist in some way. Every. Single. Scene.

And unlike mysteries, thrillers aren’t driven by Hercule Poirot or some other super sleuth finding clues and piecing together a puzzle. Rather, thriller plots are propelled by events outside of the protagonist’s control, which just ups the ante even more.

Let’s get into the weeds a little on what thriller novels contain. The next section will cover the scenes and beats of thriller novels, but first we need to understand the core elements and must-haves of the genre, as well as the different subgenres you might consider for your story.

The Core Elements of a Thriller

There are three core elements your thriller should include: a core need, a core value, and a core emotion. These three things come together to make a true thriller novel.

The Core Need: Safety - Within the subtext  of every thriller story is our shared core need for safety. No matter what the situation, any thriller capitalizes on this need, placing the characters and—through your work—the reader in a place where safety is uncertain. In your story, threaten this core need  right off the bat.

The Core Value: A Fate Worse Than Death - Listen, death is bad. Your character doesn’t want to die, usually, but thrillers up the stakes by presenting a possible fate worse than death. Later in this article we’ll talk about the villain making the crime personal to the protagonist, but it’s this action that changes the danger from “just” death to something worse.

The Core Emotion: Excitement - Thrillers are some of the most exciting stories out there. Your pace and tone come together to make readers devour your book. But thrillers excite readers in another way, too. By showing how the hero and villain bring their own unique traits to the conflict, you remind the reader how their own individuality can lead to exciting things.

Those might all seem a little philosophical right now, but keep them in mind as we go through the rest of the article and everything will fall into place.

Thriller Must-Haves

Next up are the must-haves in any good thriller. These are not individual scenes or beats, which we talk about under the structure of a thriller, but simply elements that you have to include in your story to satisfy thriller readers. Don’t worry, there’s only four.

The Villain’s MacGuffin - A MacGuffin is a plot device that solely exists to set events in motion. In thrillers, the villain has their own MacGuffin: an item, event, idea, or goal that sets them on their path. Usually, this is a goal, also known as their ultimate desire, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be. 

Red Herrings - Don’t ask me why we love to be fooled, we just do. Red herrings are clues or hints that lead the protagonist down the wrong path, ultimately complicating things or wasting valuable time.

Make it Personal - Like I mentioned in the core value, there has to come a time during the story when the villain’s actions make things personal for the protagonist. We’ll chat about this more when talking about structure, but know that this must happen.

A Ticking Clock - Time is of the essence in thrillers. This is one of the reasons the genre is so gripping and fast-paced; if the protagonists wait around for something to happen or if they’re reactive, bad things will happen. They should constantly be working forward.

Start thinking about the story you have in mind and how these must-haves fit into your plot. They’re universal across great thrillers, no matter the subgenre… which is what we’re going to quickly cover next.

Thriller Subgenres

While all thrillers share some common threads, there is still a wide range of subgenres you might find yourself working within. We won’t dilly-dally here, but it’s good to know what your options are.

  • Action (Jack Reacher series)
  • Crime (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo)
  • Domestic (The Girl on the Train)
  • Historical (Heresy)
  • Legal (A Time to Kill)
  • Medical (The Andromeda Strain)
  • Military (The Hunt for Red October)
  • Political (House of Cards)
  • Psychological (Gone Girl)
  • Romantic (Verity)
  • Science fiction/supernatural (Stranger Things)
  • Spy/espionage (James Bond)

“BuT dOUg!” you shout, about to protest that Gone Girl could be domestic and Jack Reacher could be military.

Chill. Thriller subgenres have some of the most blurred boundaries of any categories out there. Many books will fit into multiple subgenres, but I wanted to give you a look at the different options and some famous books within them.

Before you get mad at me, let’s talk about structuring your thriller novel.

How to Structure a Thriller

Being artsy folks, sometimes we cringe at words like “structure,” but you can’t avoid it. Every story has a structure, but it’s the way we craft unique characters, plots, and themes within those structures that make our stories our own.

I strongly recommend you embrace and understand story structure (and this article here can help!) so you can write a strong story your readers will love.

Enough lecturing, though. When it comes to thrillers, you generally want to go with something that isn’t cyclical. The three-act structure is a classic, and the Fichtean curve plays well with the fast paced, dynamic nature of a thriller. 

While I’d suggest those two, the choice is up to you. For thrillers specifically, I want to talk about two things:

  1. The two most important scenes in your story
  2. The five story beats every thriller needs

No matter which structure you choose, you’ll want to incorporate these two ideas.

The Two Most Important Scenes

Don’t get me wrong, every scene is important in your story. If it’s not important, why is it in there?

But there are two scenes in each thriller that carry the most weight, two that you need to get right or you’ll lose your readers. So what are these two critical scenes? The opening scene and the climax.

The opening scene is, unsurprisingly, the first scene in your story. While some genres can get away with a slower first scene or a bit of exposition trickling in, that’s not what you want for a thriller. Instead, you want to start off with a bang: an action scene that introduces the stakes and the awful acts of the villain right out the gate. Let the crime or action tell the readers how terrible the villain is, and either include multiple victims or make it clear this victim isn’t the first… or last.

Don’t stress too much about the opening scene right away. Write it the way you want it to be, but understand that you’ll come back and perfect those scenes later.

The climax is probably even more crucial than the opening scene. During the climax, we should see the protagonist falter and be at the mercy of the villain before they use their skills, talent, and everything they’ve learned to overcome the antagonist. An exceptional climax plays on the core values we discussed before: the core need for safety is threatened, the core value of avoiding a fate worse than death is threatened, and the core emotion of excitement is at its absolute peak.

Every story’s climax is arguably the most important scene in the book, but it’s kind of different for thrillers. It’s not just a big battle, lovers reconnecting for a happily ever after, or our protagonist reaching their goal. It is more than that. That’s why some thriller authors write the climax first, then work their way up to it.

Whichever order you decide to write in, remember how important these two scenes are.

The Five Beats Every Thriller Needs

Just like a structure, stories have “beats.” Story beats are pivotal moments in a book that push a story forward. While there are much more than five beats in a thriller, there are five that are specific to this genre.

  1. An inciting incident that demonstrates a larger, very intelligent villain. Include multiple victims, either from the inciting incident or revealed because of the inciting incident. Refer to the info about the opening scene in the previous section.
  2. Praise for the villain issued by someone (an acolyte/follower of the villain, a reporter, a police officer, etc.) who points out how smart or ahead of the game the villain is. This helps establish the villain as someone worse and more powerful than normal folks.
  3. Victimization of the protagonist by the villain. It’s no longer just about solving a crime or helping others. The villain makes it personal for the hero by targeting the protagonist’s family, job, home, etc.
  4. The hero at the mercy of the villain during the climax. Again, refer to the previous section for how freakin’ important this is.
  5. A false ending that throws the reader off. Maybe the cops have surrounded the killer’s hideout and we’re about to wrap up, only for the killer to be knocking on the protagonist’s family’s door. This ups the stakes even more, since the reader can see there are still too many pages left for this to be the real ending.

Not to sound too demanding, but these five beats aren’t optional. Without these, your reader will be disappointed and your book will wander into non-thriller territory.

Tips for Writing a Thriller

Now that all the behind the scenes stuff has been dumped into your brain, let’s go over some important tips that will make your thriller novel fantastic.

Flesh out your characters - Even though the thriller genre is largely about heart-pounding pace and action, at its core it is about your protagonist and antagonist clashing. It’s the conflict between these two characters that will allow you to craft memorable scenes, so spend time to make them the best they can be. And hop on over to all the articles and downloadable resources we have for characters at DabbleU.

Always demonstrate the stakes - We should constantly remind our readers of the stakes and the ticking clock that’s the harbinger of those stakes. Remember, your protagonist isn’t passive in this story. They’re doing their best to keep up with the villain. Then, when it becomes personal, they’re racing against the clock and being proactive in their fight.

Maintain tension throughout - This will naturally happen if you keep the stakes high, the action flowing, and you hit those beats we spoke about. Think about tension when planning out your scenes, though. Are there scenes where the hero has downtime? Why? Remember, there should always be a time limit and the looming consequences of inaction.

Throw in twists and turns - Thrillers are built on plot twists, but you must be really thoughtful with them. It’s easy to make a plot twist bad. So, to layer some tips within tips, here are some things to keep in mind when writing twists and turns:

  • Use foreshadowing effectively. Plot twists don’t come out of left field. A second read of your book should show the hints were subtle enough to be innocuous but telling enough for detective readers.
  • Characters make for good twists. Whether killing off an important character in the first act or revealing that a seemingly unimportant character is more than they appear, make use of the impact your characters can have on your reader.
  • Make them organic. Your reader should never have to wonder why or how a plot twist happened. Rather, they should go, “Wow, I can’t believe I didn’t see that coming!” These hints should be sprinkled throughout all acts of your story, not just one or two scenes.

Write Your Thriller, Drop Some Jaws

One thing I love about the thriller genre is how unique it is: these stories are all about making your reader hold their breath, scream at the pages, and have their jaws hit the floor in shock. 

That’s really cool, right?

But writing a story that has those effects isn’t easy, so I’m glad you came here and learned all about writing your thriller book. The only part left is to actually write.

That’s why we’re offering you two weeks of Dabble’s premium features for free. You don’t even need a credit card to get started.

With Dabble, you get access to a bunch of tools to help you write your thriller: the Plot Grid to map all those scenes and plot lines, Notes and Labels to keep track of your evidence and red herrings, places to keep all your character traits and information that are just a click away from your manuscript. Automatic cloud syncing means the only tension is in the story… not from when you last saved.

All that in an easy to use, modern interface that makes writing easier and more fun.

Start your commitment-free trial today by clicking here and start dropping some jaws.

Doug Landsborough

Doug Landsborough can’t get enough of writing. Whether freelancing as an editor, blog writer, or ghostwriter, Doug is a big fan of the power of words. In his spare time, he writes about monsters, angels, and demons under the name D. William Landsborough. When not obsessing about sympathetic villains and wondrous magic, Doug enjoys board games, horror movies, and spending time with his wife, Sarah.