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Recipe for Writing a Great Thriller Novel by Joshua Graham



We have a wonderful guest post for you today by Joshua Graham, author of the suspense thriller novel, Beyond Justice (Dawn Treader Press).

Recipe for Writing a Great Thriller Novel

by Joshua Graham

The basic ingredients of fiction apply especially to thrillers and are as follows:

  • Take 1 Character (Protagonist)
  • Place carefully in a setting (you may thrust, splatter, or toss)
  • Add a problem  (Protagonist’s major conflict)
  • Shake, beat, batter well for several iterations (known as the try-fail cycle), more if novel, less if short story.
  • Present  ending either sunny-side-up (victory),  or sunny-side-down (tragedy), or poached (up-down ironic ending)

It’s very much like preparing eggs, if you think about it.  Writing a great thriller requires the basic elements listed in the recipe above.  But here are some more ingredients you’ll need to make a thriller pop.

1.  Go easy on the exposition – Of course every character has a back story.  Every locale has a story.  But in a thriller, you need to move the action.  Think of the pacing of just about any Indiana Jones movie.  There’s not a lot of ruminating, not a lot of contemplation.  Indiana Jones, while a learned person (a professor) is a man of action, not talk.  A man of decision, not deliberation.    If you have crucial backstory, work it into the dialogue or keep the ruminations to a bare minimum—a couple of short paragraphs and back into the present action.

2. Breathe—though thrillers are basically non-stop action, you need to give your character and readers a chance to catch their breath.  A chance to lick their wounds, to laugh or cry.  Do this after several intense chapters, but then let the action spring up, “just when they think it’s safe to go back into the water” to borrow a phrase from JAWS 2.

3. Short-quick chapters—Ever watch a great TV thriller?  Try counting the lines of dialogue before the scenes change, the number of seconds establishing the location.  It’s surprisingly short and fast.  Don’t spend pages and pages beautifully describing the trees, the sky, the weather, the clothes your character is wearing (that’s for literary fiction.)  Just put in enough to set the scene, then let go of the brakes and floor it!

4.  End every chapter with a cliff-hanger –This is key.  What makes a page turner so impossible to put down is that the chapters are short and just about every one of them ends leaving you in suspense.  And because your reader already knows the next chapter will be very short and quick, what does she do?  She turns the page of course.  Keep doing this for the rest of the book and you’ll have a fast-paced novel.  I don’t think fans of literary fiction like this so much, but you’re not writing for them.  (With all due respect, they have great Pulitzer Prize winning authors to read, so don’t feel too sorry for them.)

4. Identify the personal stakes and the global stakes—Indiana Jones must stop the Nazis from obtaining the Holy Grail and unleashing the power of immortality for Adolf Hitler, but he must also save Dear Old Dad (Dr. Henry Jones) and resolve their strained relationship.  Every thriller must be about saving the world, so to speak, but it also must be personal.  Your larger than life protagonist must be just that.  And at the same time, she must have a daughter to save, or an aging parent to care for, even a cat to rescue.

5.  Twists and turns—It’s like preparing a surprise party and the guest of honor is your reader.  You must plot, plot, plot.  You must misdirect him, take him to a door and when he opens it, he finds himself somewhere he never would have imagined.  To do this you must do a lot of reverse engineering.  Figure out early what kind of payoff you want, then work your way back to setting it up.  Don’t cheat and withhold information (clues).  Rather, plant them ever so subtly such that by the time the surprise comes, your reader slaps himself over the head ins delighted surprise and says, “Oh!  Of course!”

6.  Character’s should arc—it’s not always possible with a book series hero to undergo a  life-altering experience in each book, but it still should happen.  Something very important should change in your protagonist’s life.  If you want your reader to feel that they’ve read something significant, then something significant must happen in your protagonist’s life.  If at the end of your book, your protagonist is the same person and nothing has changed, then really, nothing important has happened.  Your reader may be entertained for the duration (which is a good result, don’t get me wrong), but in the end, they will probably forget your book.  At best, what they’ll remember is having fun reading it.

In order for a book to be transformative, something must transform your characters.  Was Joe Detective a man who hated people and only looked out for himself, since that’s what everyone in the world does?  Well, by the end of your book he should become either significantly MORE so, or have adopted a different outlook on life.

How do you do this with a recurring hero in a series?  Well, people have many different things to go through and never stay the same person as life goes on.  We are all works in progress at all times of life.  So your recurring hero can have other changes throughout your subsequent novels.  His basic personality and traits can remain the same, but his values can evolve over the series.  Your readers will feel they’ve grown up with him, done life with him.  He’ll be their close friend, and when the series is done they’ll feel like they’re saying good-bye to a lifelong friend.  And they’ll be begging you to write the next series, or clamoring for a return of the hero.

I realize not every writer will agree with me on all this, and that’s fine.  This is just my recipe for writing a great thriller and it shouldn’t taste like anyone else’s.

Joshua Graham grew up in Brooklyn, NY, where he lived for the better part of 30 years. He holds a Bachelor and Master’s Degree and went on to earn his doctorate from Johns Hopkins University.   During his time in Maryland, he taught as a professor at Shepherd College (WV), Western Maryland College, and Columbia Union College (MD).

Today he lives with his beautiful wife and children in San Diego.  Several of Graham’s short fiction works have been published by Pocket Books and Dawn Treader Press under different pen names.

Beyond Justice is now available in Trade Paperback through as well as Barnes and Noble.  It’s available at the Kindle store for $2.99 for a limited time, and can be purchased for other ebook readers at Smashwords, and is now available for the iPad and iPhone at the Apple iBooks store.

A member of the Oregon Writers Network, Graham is a graduate of the Master Classes and professional writing workshops held by Dean W. Smith and Kristine Kathryn Rusch.  Dean and Kris and the entire OWN, have been a major influence in his journey to become a published writer.  You can visit his website at, connect with him on facebook at or twitter at

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