So, let’s talk about how to structure a thriller.  Two things before I begin:

This is not prescriptive.  That is, I’m not telling you how to structure YOUR book.  I’m simply giving you what the elements are for a thriller, so that, should you find that your book would benefit from this structure, you can revise some into the book to improve it.

Thriller structure can be used for more than thrillers.  I’ve seen it used in women-in-peril romances, Jim Butcher uses elements of it in his urban fantasy (not the whole of it, though), F. Paul Wilson mostly uses it on his books (mostly because the ending often isn’t), and you can use at least part of the structure in books that you want to give a tighter and faster feel to.

Now that that’s out of the way, let’s begin.

A Thriller structure is called that because it — duh — is mostly used in thrillers.  That is, it is used in books where the forces of good race the forces of evil before something horrible can happen.

A note on that horrible thing: it has to fit the book.  If you’re using thriller structure for a children’s board book (Heavens knows why.  I’m not responsible for the crazy things YOU do) the terrible thing might be that the little boy/girl loses a cookie.  If you’re using thriller structure for a spy thriller, the terrible thing might be the planet-killing bomb going off.

To Begin:

You begin a thriller by making it clear how evil the antagonist is and what kind of mayhem he can bring.

Of course you don’t show him setting off the planet killing bomb, but you might show him setting off a country-killing bomb and enjoying the results.

Depending on what type of book you’re writing, this section might or might not show the character’s identifying characteristics.  If your book slants traditional mystery, the identity is occluded, of course.

To continue:

Thriller structure requires a sense of urgency. This means some way you give equal time to the bad guy’s plans and the main character’s efforts to defeat them.  Whether this is through letters the villain sends or through scenes that show the villain setting the trap, is up to you.

To tighten the screw:

Every book has timing devices.  I.e. “she must be married before–”  “He must find the formula before”.

In the thriller the timing device is often made explicit.  It is not unusual to have the countdown clock literally on screen or in the title of each chapter, as it counts down to irrevocable doom unless our plucky hero…

The climax: will often be just before, or even just after the final countdown (but before the bomb explodes/disaster happens.)

To further tighten the screw:

The villain must do more heinous things, and they must escalate, so that the reader FEELS the urgency of stopping him.

There must be a fight.  You can’t get away with a soft ending in a thriller.  there has to be a fight and your character has to pay for his victory somehow, even if just in tiredness and abrasions.

For further reading I recommend:

Writing the Thriller: How to Craft Page-Turning Suspense with Instruction from Best-Selling Authors


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23 responses to “THRILL ME

  1. The Other Sean

    Thank you for the thrilling post.

  2. BobtheRegisterredFool


    There are several reasons I appreciate this.

    The stupid project idea that came to me this week seems to be a comedy of errors thriller.

  3. Steve Lewis

    Amazing post, Sarah, as always. This is the most practical, useful breakdown of the thriller genre I’ve ever seen. Most other versions I’ve seen are entirely specific, or so general as to be useless. You hit the nail right on the head.

    I do have a question, though: How are F. Paul Wilson’s endings different? I’m trying to figure this out on my own, but my brain is mush right now. (I actually had to pause for a second before I remembered how to spell specific above.)

    • because he tends to leave the ending SOMEWHAT ambiguous, for the next book. Being a series, which thrillers usually aren’t. 😉

    • TRX

      Wilson has written some standalone books, but his “Repairman Jack” series is a gigantic story arc. Since I’ve been reading them out of order, some volumes end with nothing in particular being resolved, have unexplained characters appearing and disappearing, and continual references to things that happened in books I haven’t read yet.

      Despite that, they’re not bad reads, and make at least as much sense independently as some of the mainstream fiction I’ve read.

  4. Laura M

    Early Dresden Files also have Harry utterly exhausted because of the time pressure. With too little time, he doesn’t get any sleep. Makes me want to shake him, but it’s also an effective device for ratcheting up tension.

    I’m wondering, Sarah, if you think that thrillers have slightly different pacing? To borrow Swain’s terminology, the scene to sequel ratio seems to shift to more scenes by the end of the book so you don’t get to pause for breath.

    • BobtheRegisterredFool

      When I was crowdsourcing advice on thrillers here, someone said a thriller was a story that never lets the reader catch their breath.

      In Reilly’s Seven Deadly Wonders books I noticed that the characters might take a break, relax, or have a lot of downtime doing boring work waiting for the next incident. I, the reader, didn’t share that. They’d fly away from the shooting into the time skip, and next thing I know they are right back in the middle of the peril that was hanging over them before.

      I don’t know Swain. I do know that the good thriller writers I was pointed at have me concerned about the peril at every point.

      • Laura M

        I read Swain’s Techniques of a Selling Writer a couple of years ago when Sarah recommended him. He lays out a construct (describes the working of craft) really well. I didn’t understand everything he said the first time I read him (or even the second), mostly because I didn’t pick up on the nomenclature. He said every scene has to end in disaster (meaning the breathless bit), but I thought everything in a book was a scene. Apparently, there are sequel scenes, which I shouldn’t call scenes, but I need some sort of overarching umbrella term that covers scenes and sequels. The sequels are where the main character reacts, plans, learns, etc.

        So, for example, at the beginning of each Dresden book something happens to kickstart the plot. It’s exciting, etc. In Swain’s lingo, that’s a scene. Then Harry goes and talks to Bob to try to understand what’s going on. That’s a sequel. Seems like the farther along you go in the book, the fewer sequels there should be, particularly in a thriller.

        Btw, Swain taught at Oklahoma long ago. Jim Butcher studied there more recently, and it was reading Butcher’s blog where I finally understood the “sequel” bit. I’m almost caught up with the Dresden files, and I can really see him implementing the Swain techniques now that I know what I’m looking at.

        Having said that about fewer sequels, however, I’m thinking of some rather poignant sequel scenes toward the end of some very exciting books.

    • it does in all books. Or it should.

  5. I’ve enjoy countless thrillers written to the Lester Dent formula.

  6. Draven

    OK,, i didn’t realize the mil sf novella i am writing on is , technically, a ‘thriller’

  7. Eh, all my thrilling days are of Yesteryear….