Aspiring writers, here it is: lessons on writing a thriller, delivered to us by Matthew Quirk, the bestselling author of The 500 and Cold Barrel Zero. How many of you know where your heroes and villains begin and end before writing? Do any of you dive right in to let the conflicts and twists emerge as you write? Let us know how Quirk’s advice resonates with you in the comments.
Here are a few writing lessons that have helped me over the years. They might not work for everyone, and I’m still learning every day, but it’s what I can offer to those who come to me for help. This is practical, in the trenches, writer-to-writer talk. Please don’t take any bluntness as a lack of reverence for craft and language and literature. I’ve found, however, that romanticism about the writing process can really throw you off when you’re starting out. Writing is work, and here’s how my work gets done.
Figure out your story before you start writing. Genre is the critical consideration here. Genres have certain broad conventions. They’re conventions for a reason—your story probably won’t work without them.
For thrillers, here are the basic elements you need to figure out: There’s a good guy, and a bad guy. Bad guy is doing something horrible. Good guy gets involved and needs to stop bad guy at great personal expense. You should figure out who they are and what they both want, and what sort of conflict they find themselves in, inevitably, because of what they want. Determine an incident at the beginning that puts them, inevitably, on a collision course, and have a good idea of how they will face off at the end.
Alternate successes and setbacks for your hero, raising the stakes of each encounter, and then, as you approach the climax, take the hero all the way down, as hurt, hopeless, and desperate as possible, and then have him somehow overcome. Invert that for tragedies.
It sounds simple but it takes an extraordinary amount time and brain-breaking thought to get down to the heart of your novel. Often a fascinating concept (“what if…”), scene, or character gives the initial notion for a thriller, but a concept isn’t a story until all of the above has been thought through. I constantly remind myself of these points to stay disciplined and build a strong, clean spine for a book. It took years to learn to keep it simple, or try, when it comes to the fundamental through-line.
This is how a good thriller works. It’s also not too far off from Aristotle’s advice in Poetics. Give it a try. Having a solid arc from the beginning to end of your book doesn’t dumb it down or make it formulaic. It makes it an incredibly strong, compelling structure upon which you can build complex characters, or subplots, twists, or beautiful writing. But get that bad guy vs. good guy collision course down first.
This may be awful advice for people whose books are too schematic, but I have the opposite habit of overcomplicating things, so this has been a lifesaver.
The best part of working this all out is bringing in friends and family. If you can’t explain the central arc of your story in a few lines, and describe all these points in ten minutes or so, it’s too complicated and you haven’t worked it enough. There are some ideas that are genius in your head, and preposterous out loud. It’s far better to hear about it now than after you’ve spent two years writing the book. Trust me on that one.
That’s the beauty of it. People love stories. Bring them in. Have coffee. Walk through the mall having an animated discussion about your favorite ways to get rid of a body. It’s so much more fun than staring at a blank page or writing and rewriting without making any real progress.
There’s a lot more advice where that came from. Read Matthew Quirk’s full list of writing tips on The Story Grid.