Writing Thrillers: Lessons Learned From James Rollins

Learning by modelling is a powerful technique, and as avid readers as well as writers we can all learn from our heroes. James Rollins is one of my favourite thriller authors. He writes action/adventure thrillers that have a strong scientific thread similar to Michael Crichton as well as the historical/religious themes that characterize Dan Brown.

I have just read his latest, the excellent “Altar of Eden” and wanted to share some lessons learned from James Rollins:

  • Start with a bang. The books start with something horrific, usually a death that hints at the evil at the centre of the plot. It grabs the reader and makes you want to know why it happened and what will happen next. Thrillers start in the action, no pussy-footing around. Less conversation, more action.
  • High stakes plot. People have to care about the plot and often there is some awful scenario that could be played out e.g. virus threatening mankind, world-destroying weapon, deaths of millions. Thrillers don’t usually rest on pedestrian plot ideas!
  • Set a rollicking pace. Thrillers have to be fast paced. It is characteristic of the genre and part of what I love about them. It is fantastic to forget the world and race through one of these books. James always sets a fast pace and the timeline is often compressed and chapters time/date stamped to show the speed it moves. (Personal note: My goal is to write a thriller that is described as rollicking!)
  • Use different physical locations. Keep the characters moving. Thriller plots often entail changing locations. As an author, I think it gives a great excuse to visit new places! It also allows for new situations to develop and keeps the pace moving. There is not usually a description of actually getting there in general, unless it informs the plot.
  • Use an idea that has a grain of truth. James always lists what is real and what has been exaggerated at the back of the book. He often refers to other non-fiction books on the topic. For example, in ‘Altar of Eden’ he talks about the Zoo in Baghdad, Iraq which was a real place and the animals did escape in the initial bombings. He also uses the Audubon Centre for Research on Endangered Species which is a real place. This roots the story in reality and makes it more believable and therefore, more interesting as a thriller.
  • More plot, less character. Thrillers seem to be more plot based than character based. Thriller author Matthew Reilly in particular seems to kill off his characters regularly, Rollins less so. This is also key in thriller/drama on TV – think Spooks. There is enough information to care about the character but the reader cares primarily about the protagonist stopping the global disaster than who dies along the way.
  • Be accessible and communicate with your fans. James is a successful author by any standard. He has lots of published books and is a full time author for HarperCollins. But he is still using the same tools as the rest of us to build his online author platform. He has a website hub where he posts pictures and regularly blogs. He is on Twitter @JamesRollins and also has an active Facebook fan page. If he is doing it, we should all be too! (Start with these ideas)

As I was writing this, I found #thrillerchat on Twitter – here are some of the comments about other keys to thrillers (Thanks to @selorian for organising). It’s on at 8pm EST Sat.

@egtalbot there is only 1 key to thrillers – make the reader NEED to turn the page. No rules other than that. #thrillerchat

@thebookjournal i like HUGE character development in my thrillers. or else why care if they die or get hurt #thrillerchat

@KateLondon1 I think just about every novel now has to have some thriller/mystery elements in it to keep reader interest high. #thrillerchat

@Hollywoodward The heart should beat fast but the words flow agonizingly slow. #thrillerchat

@jkoyanagi Fast pace seems to be true of most thrillers; that said, I think high tension is more important. #thrillerchat

@selorian There always has to be high stakes. No matter the body count. #thrillerchat

@KateLondon1 I always feel the best thrillers show character development THRU plot twists so if you can do both well you have a GREAT story #thrillerchat

@jkoyanagi I love female-driven thrillers. #thrillerchat

@thebookjournal I like diving in2 the minds of the chars. I need the intense connection #thrillerchat

@selorian I think the most important element, imo, is stakes. They have to be high, no matter what. #thrillerchat

The whole conversation transcript can be viewed here.

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  1. says

    I’m with Sean, how cool was that to see the tweets at the end of the post.
    Thanks for this. Just in this week alone I have read a number of blog posts that have been inspired by twitter conversations or included tweets on there.

    Thanks for this.

  2. says

    Glad you all enjoyed the tweets – I shall do that again since it was popular – the various #chats are excellent for learning from others and finding writing buddies.

    Thanks Sean – definitely a grain of truth, or something accepted in “myth” or as fact by some e.g. religious stories that are in the mainstream consciousness. I will be using some myths in my novel.

  3. says

    Hi Joanna,

    Thanks for posting this. While I don’t write thrillers, I love getting pointers from different genres. I guess I can add these ideas to my list of:
    “What to do when a chapter is dying a slow and painful death.”


  4. says

    Thanks for these helpful comments, Joanna! I discovered your work and website through comments on Entreproducer and have enjoyed catching up on all these great resources.

    I’m currently working on my first novel, a scientific thriller similar in style to James Rollins and Michael Crichton. I’m a veterinarian like Rollins, so it’s especially fun to learn from him.

    I’ll look forward to being in touch more. Cheers!


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