OLD POST ALERT! This is an older post and although you might find some useful tips, any technical or publishing information is likely to be out of date. Please click on Start Here on the menu bar above to find links to my most useful articles, videos and podcast. Thanks and happy writing! – Joanna Penn
I love thrillers, especially those with an action/adventure style pace and plot. They are my escape from real life and I tend to open them and not stop until I'm done! I also like this style of movie, with lots of explosions, high body count but not horror. Yes, I also like reflective literature but thrillers are brilliant for the saturday afternoon hammock session.
Matthew Reilly is one of my favourite authors in this genre and I buy everything he writes. His latest book is The Five Greatest Warriors and I have just finished reading it. Now my mind is overflowing with ideas that I want to bring to my NaNoWriMo novel, which will be a thriller so I wanted to share them with you.
Here are 7 lessons I have learnt on writing fast-paced thrillers from reading Matthew Reilly's books:
- Have a deadline to keep the pace moving. All of Reilly's books have this deadline approach which is indicated by the date and time stamps throughout the book, as well as how fast the plot progresses. The countdown keeps you focussed on the end point, and turning the pages with anticipation. This is also a device used by Dan Brown in his novels and other successful thriller writers.
- Keep giving your main character a hard time, and keep the cliff-hangers coming. Reilly's protagonists, specifically Scarecrow and Jack West, have a very hard life. They seriously don't eat or sleep or rest at all. It is non-stop action, from one desperate situation to the next. There are awful choices they have to make, and physical dangers to endure as well as betrayal and pain. But this is a thriller, not a romance or an introspective literary piece. The main characters are there to inflict the plot onto, not to enjoy the ride!
- High body count. I love explosion movies and books with high body count, but only the ones where it is not too graphic. You know, A-Team violence where people get killed but you don't see the nasty bits. It's not horror, it's thriller. There is a line! Reilly does not let up with the body count and it keeps the pace going as well as keeping you emotionally involved (he has no qualms about killing off the good guys as well). There has to be investment in the book and death, destruction and violence are pretty important in this genre.
- Dastardly bad guy. Evil has to be personified in a thriller. The bad guy has to be killing people and will look like he is winning up to a point. Reilly has an original torture device in the book, and actually, I quite liked Dan Brown's Lost Symbol bad guy, Malak'h. His physical description was memorable with full body tattoos on a 6'3″ frame and also had an original method of torture.
- Multiple physical locations. I wonder if this is just a way to have tax-deductible trips but it certainly works to keep a reader engrossed in the book. Reilly's books jump all over the globe and encompass a huge physical scale. I love thrillers that use geography as part of the plot as I am also a travel junkie so this hooks me every time.
- Create interesting traps and puzzles to solve. Dan Brown has this as his primary hook but other thriller writers also use this device. One of Matthew Reilly's hallmarks is to include drawings of the physical locations, often underground caverns with complicated routes, mazes and traps. The protagonist has to solve clues to find various locations and combined with the lack of time, it also speeds up the pace.
- Hook the reader with pieces of truth they already know, and then expand them into the fiction. I have a theology degree and my bookshelves are weighed down with religious tomes, spiritual books and all kinds of conspiracy theories. So I love to read about locations or books or artefacts that have some truth to them, but then are often exaggerated into the fiction story. The Holy Grail is the obvious one for Dan Brown, and Matthew Reilly gets into Easter Island as well as the Egyptian Pyramids is his novels.
Definitely check these guys out if you like a rollicking thriller novel!
I will be doing another post soon on what I intend to write in NaNoWriMo, but certainly expect a thriller in this genre encompassing these lessons learned.
What do you think are the keys to a great thriller?
I put this question on Twitter and got a few responses (it was Saturday night!) :
“Solid hook in 1st line, fast pace /short chapters, cliffhangers, big plot point/action every 5 pages (last one Ken Follett)” @writersamblake
“a phantom arc reflexive of the main1 that taps in2 our unconscious, REALLY making things imperative:w/o the reader noticing” @amandashowers
“you can't guess the ending! gee I hate it when you can” @ReviveCoaching