Thrillers are some of the most fun genres of books to write (and read!), but writing a page-turner that keeps thriller junkies on the edge of their seats is no small feat. Below, we’ll break down what a thriller book is, the tropes, structure, and characters that define this genre, and how to get started on your own draft.
What Is a Thriller?
A thriller is a genre of fiction in which the plot is driven by suspense. A thriller book often involves murders, mysteries, and danger. Whatever way you choose to write your thriller book, you must ensure it’s fast-paced and full of tension, contains a twist or two, and has a comprehensive story arc and conclusion that will satisfy thriller readers.
How to Write a Thriller Novel
Writing a good thriller book requires thoughtful planning. After all, the success of a thriller is dependent on a good structure, the kind that keeps up the pace and the tension and has you racing through to the finish.
Thrillers also often contain character archetypes and tropes that readers will be familiar with—including the elements below you’ll want to include in your thriller to make it a satisfying read.
The Tropes of a Thriller
A “trope” is something that’s found throughout several works of fiction, based on the established rules of the genre. In a romance novel, for instance, readers expect to find a “happily ever after” at the end of the book.
In thrillers, there are many different tropes you can play with. Here are just a few:
The Ticking Clock
Often, the protagonist only has a certain amount of time to solve a problem. Maybe they’re being blackmailed and only have so long before the blackmailer strikes, or maybe they need to sort out the details of a crime before a trial. Whatever it is, adding a ticking clock to your story can add tension and help with the pacing.
The Locked Room/Isolation Trope
This is when the characters find themselves stuck somewhere with no way out. For example, in the Agatha Christie classic And Then There Were None, the protagonists find themselves stranded on an island off England, with no way to get off or to get word to the mainland. They must figure out the mystery of who is killing them off while stuck together.
The Hidden Past
Often, a character—perhaps even the protagonist—has some deep, dark secret they’ve kept hidden away that will directly tie into the mystery that needs to be solved. Guessing what this secret might be can keep readers on the edges of their seats.
The Unreliable Narrator
As readers, we often trust our narrators to tell us what’s going on—but what happens when your narrator can’t be trusted? Maybe they’re not telling you everything. Maybe they have amnesia. Maybe you’re reading a journal entry from them that’s not telling you the whole truth, à la Gone Girl. Whatever the case, books with unreliable narrators can be some of the most fun to read.
The Final Twist
A good thriller book will always have a good twist—something the reader never saw coming. A lot of thrillers also include, at the very end, a twist on the twist—just when you think everything is settled and figured out, a new piece of information is revealed for one final shock.
Of course, this list isn’t exhaustive—the fun thing about thrillers is there are so many different ways to mess with your readers’ minds.
But for now, let’s move on to structure.
The Structure of a Thriller
The basic thriller book structure, if you’re following the classic three-act structure, generally goes as follows:
The Status Quo
The beginning of the story, showcasing the protagonist living their ordinary life.
Disruption of the Status Quo
Also known as the inciting incident, this is the moment the story really kicks off. In a thriller novel, this plot point is often the discovery of a dead body, though it doesn’t have to be.
The Hint of Danger
During or after the inciting incident, there should be a hint of danger—not necessarily a full-on attack, but something to show us that the protagonist is not entirely safe in this new world. A hint that the killer may strike again, or a threatening note—just something to show us that danger is lurking around the corner.
The Brush With Authority
If your story includes a protagonist who is setting out to solve a crime, there’s usually an encounter with an authority figure around this point. The police may come to question them, or they may get a call from the FBI. This plot point isn’t strictly necessary but is often included.
The Impetus to Investigate
This is when your protagonist fully commits to solving the crime or addressing the event that occurs during the inciting incident, and where Act Two of your story starts. If your protagonist has a sidekick, ally, or love interest (or someone who’s a combination of all three), this is where they will fully come into play.
The First Point of Investigation
The protagonist and their ally begin to investigate. Often, they’ll start with the most obvious line of investigation, which will typically end up being a red herring.
Subsequent Points of Investigation
Often one line of investigation will lead to another, and then another. Most of these lines of investigation will be red herrings. But sprinkled in here will be hints of the true solution—who really killed the victim.
The Midpoint Crisis
The characters will continue to investigate until the midpoint—which, in a thriller, is typically a big twist. Maybe another dead body shows up. Maybe the protagonist is shot at while investigating. Maybe they’re arrested. Whatever it is, it should be big enough to have your readers speeding through the rest of the novel to see what happens next.
The Flurry of Investigation
Similar to the “points of investigation” earlier, this is where the protagonist and their ally rush to find a solution before time runs out. As they do, they should get closer and closer to the real solution—without giving anything away to the reader until the end.
The Third Plot Twist
This is when you break into Act Three of your story. There’s usually a bigger hint of danger here, maybe another brush with authority. Your protagonist is likely now heading off down the wrong path, and it’s time to see where that takes them.
The Dark Night of the Soul
Often, your protagonist will push their allies away and head out on their own. They’ll have a low point—maybe they’ve lost sight of their purpose, maybe they’re doubting their skills. Whatever it is, they’re especially vulnerable at this point—which makes them a prime target for the villain.
The A-ha Moment
This is when the protagonist, lured away by the villain in their weakest moment, realizes the truth: It was you all along! This is also where they’re in the greatest danger in the book. The villain has them, likely alone, perhaps at gunpoint, or in some other equally dangerous situation. The protagonist must gather all their tools to get out of this alive.
This is where your “villain monologue” may come in. The villain explains to the protagonist why they did what they did, and how. Be careful not to make this scene too cliché or too long—there has to be a believable reason for them to divulge all this to your protagonist. But this is where all is revealed to the protagonist—and the reader.
Also sometimes known as the “high tower surprise,” this is when something unexpected happens to thwart the villain. Maybe the ally shows up to save the day. Maybe the protagonist busts out a martial arts move to kick the gun out of their hand. Whatever it is, it should be something the reader never saw coming but that makes total sense in the context of the story.
The Resolution (Overcoming the Bad Guy)
This is exactly what it sounds like—when the protagonist beats the bad guy, either by escaping, killing him, turning him over to the police, or something else.
This is the end of your story, where your character gets a moment to breathe and reflect on everything that just happened. This is also where you’ll want to tie up any loose ends—and possibly include that final twist, if you have one.
The Characters in a Thriller
Those are the basic plot beats. Now, let’s talk about your essential characters.
Most thrillers revolve around a murder or unexplained death. That means you need a dead body in there, preferably sooner rather than later. Decide who this person will be, and why they matter to your protagonist.
You don’t need a literal detective, but you do usually need someone actively trying to solve the mystery or crime. It’s usually your protagonist. They could be a layman interested in the crime, the relative or friend of the victim, or an actual detective, whose job it is to solve the crime. Whoever they are, their stakes in the story need to be big.
This is the person helping your detective solve the crime. It could be their partner, their friend, or a relative. This character may also be a love interest, which is an interesting way to complicate the plot.
The Red Herring(s)
You’ll usually have a few of these throughout the story. There’s the Obvious Red Herring, who will be the person your protagonist first suspects. Then there are usually at least two more potential suspects, sometimes even more. Throughout the course of your character’s investigation, they should suspect and then at some point discard these people as suspects—leaving a few uncertain until they find the real villain.
Every good thriller needs a villain! This is the person hiding in plain sight who committed the crime. They need to be present in the story from close to the beginning, but disguised in such a way the protagonist (and the reader) don’t know it’s them until the end.
There are usually more characters than this, of course, but these are your basics.
Thriller book readers are some of the most satisfying to please. Because they tend to read so voraciously, they’ll be able to spot any obvious villains or solutions to mysteries a mile away—which is why your plot needs to be twisty enough to fool even the most seasoned readers. This is why planning out your story when you’re writing a thriller is such an important step.
Start Your Story
A thriller book can be one of the most challenging story structures to master for newbie writers—but also one of the most fun to play with.
If you’re not sure where to start, do what every great writer does—read! There are the classic thrillers, like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Murder on the Orient Express, and The Silence of the Lambs, more modern thrillers, like In the Woods, Big Little Lies, and You, YA thrillers like One of Us is Lying, Dangerous Girls, and The Ivies—and so much more. Read widely, let your creative juices flow, and see what comes out—we bet it’ll be something good.
Start Your Novel
Creative Writing: Write a Believable Thriller Story