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Five Rules for Writing Thrillers

Thrillers have never been more popular. On the New York Times fiction bestseller lists, over half are often filled with examples of the genre. Thrillers even have their own organization, International Thriller Writers (which I co-founded with Gayle Lynds). But thrillers didn’t always have this presence. Back in 1972, when my debut novel, First Blood, introduced the character of Rambo, bestseller lists favored a mix of literary, sentimental, and historical fiction as well as the sort of celebrity gossip novels that we identify with Harold Robbins and Jacqueline Susann.

Not that thrillers were entirely absent. Michael Crichton’s The Terminal Man appeared on the New York Times list that year, but it was considered an exception. Only in the twenty-first century did thrillers become so unusually dominant. The reasons for that are complicated and a subject for another essay. (See Steve Berry’s concluding essay in Thrillers: 100 Must Reads for an insightful discussion of this topic.)

If you’re a writer who’s thinking of going in this direction, here are five pieces of advice that might help.

NUMBER ONE: KNOW YOUR MOTIVES
Have a good reason for writing a thriller. Some personal background will illustrate my point. After my father died in World War II, severe financial problems forced my mother to put me in an orphanage. She later remarried and reclaimed me. My stepfather hated children. The arguments in my home were so verbally violent that I put pillows under my covers to make it seem that I slept there when I was actually cowering under my bed.

I remained sane by imagining stories in which I was a hero overcoming adversity. I escaped into books that were like the Alfred Hitchcock films I snuck into theaters to watch. When I became an adult, is it any wonder that the stories I felt compelled to write are thrillers? Every word of them carries the conviction of the stories that distracted me in my troubled youth.

By contrast, if you’re merely writing thrillers because they’re currently popular, you ought to think twice. Few activities wear a writer down more than laboring on a book that isn’t personally meaningful. After a while, writing that book becomes the equivalent of carrying a heavy extension ladder.

What’s more, events might prevent the book from being published. On September 11, 2001, when terrorists rammed those passenger jets into the Pentagon and the World Trade Center buildings, the message went out from publishers, “Don’t send us thrillers. People will no longer want plots that have bombs and guns and death. The days of violence in books are over. Society is experiencing a permanent change toward the need for peace and gentleness.” That lasted six months. During those months, editors routinely rejected thriller manuscripts, believing that thrillers were out of touch with what readers wanted.

Imagine how hollow you would have felt if you’d written one of those thrillers just to pay the bills. The only valid reason to write a thriller or any other kind of book is that you’re absolutely driven to create it. The idea nags at you until you can’t resist immersing yourself in that universe. If the book doesn’t sell, at least you gained the personal satisfaction of bringing it into the world. But if you didn’t care about it in the first place, you sadly wasted your time.

Before I start any novel, I write a lengthy answer to the following question: “Why is this project worth a year of my life?” If I’m going to spend hundreds of days alone in a room, I’d better have a good reason for writing a particular book.

NUMBER TWO: KNOW THE GENRE’S HISTORY
Each year, I teach at many writers’ conferences. I’ve lost count of how many authors came to me with ideas that they thought were original but that had already been around the block several times. For some of these writers, the history of the thriller genre begins with Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. For others, it begins with Tom Clancy’s military-hardware novels or Thomas Harris’s serial-killer novels or John le Carré’s realistic espionage novels.

In contrast, a knowledgeable author might have said that the genre dates back a century and a half to 1860 when Wilkie Collins published The Woman in White and reviewers believed that Collins had created something new: the novel of sensation. But the fact is, thrillers date back hundreds and thousands of years, all the way to the origin of story telling. We can’t recognize when a plot is hackneyed if we don’t educate ourselves about the best that has been done in the genre.

To provide examples, I co-edited (with Hank Wagner) an International Thriller Writers project, Thrillers: 100 Must Reads, in which 100 contemporary thriller writers each provide a 1,000-word appreciation of a thriller with historical significance. We need to be experts in the history of the type of story we write, but our obligation doesn’t end there. In the introduction to Thrillers: 100 Must Reads, I comment on the numerous different categories within the genre:  the legal thriller, the medical thriller, the political thriller, the spy thriller, the high-action thriller, etc. If you’re writing a particular kind of thriller, become an expert in that category until you could give a lecture about it. Imagine the embarrassment of proposing a plot idea to an editor, only to be told that it’s been done to death.

NUMBER THREE: DO YOUR RESEARCH
You don’t need to be a physician or an attorney to write a medical thriller or a legal thriller, but it sure helps if you’ve been inside an emergency ward or a courtroom. Read non-fiction books about your topic. Interview experts. If characters shoot guns in your novel, it’s essential to fire one and realize how loud a shot can be. Plus, the smell of burned gunpowder lingers on your hands. Don’t rely on movies and television dramas for your research. Details in them are notoriously unreliable. For example, the fuel tanks of vehicles do not explode if they are shot. Nor do tires blow apart if shot with a pistol. But you frequently see this happen in films.

I love doing research. It makes me a fuller person. For The Shimmer, whose main character is a private pilot, I took flying lessons and earned my pilot’s license. For Double Image, a novel about a war photographer, I attended a three-month photography class, interviewed professional photographers, and spent many Saturdays in photography galleries. For The Fifth Profession, The Protector, and The Naked Edge, I received intensive training from protective agents. For The Spy Who Came for Christmas, which takes place during a Christmas Eve snowfall on Santa Fe’s Canyon Road, one of the ten most distinctive streets in the United States, I walked that street on a snowy Christmas Eve to verify the details of that famous location. For outdoor survival sequences in Testament, I spent five weeks with the National Outdoor Leadership School in the Wind River Mountains of Wyoming.

The point isn’t to overload your book with tedious facts. Rather, your objective is to avoid mistakes that distract readers from your story. If you’ve done your research, readers will sense the truth of your story’s background. In addition, the topic should interest you so much that the research is a joy, not a burden.

NUMBER FOUR: BE YOURSELF
Be a first-rate version of yourself rather than a second-rate version of another author. Innovate rather than imitate. The key to being a successful thriller novelist involves establishing an identity.

My friend, Joseph Finder, offers a good example. A spy novelist, in 2004 he looked for a new way to write about espionage. He paid attention when a business executive happened to mention that espionage wasn’t only a major factor in politics and the military but that it was also rampant in corporations. Joe investigated the subject, wrote Paranoia, and introduced the corporate espionage novel. Similarly, Lee Child’s Jack Reacher books introduced something new by revitalizing the archetype of the wandering western gunfighter and putting it in a modern context.

Our task is to move the genre a step forward so that other thriller writers must absorb what we’ve done if they themselves want to move the genre forward.

NUMBER FIVE: AVOID THE GENRE TRAP
When you finally start writing, forget that your book is a thriller. All fiction fits into one kind of genre or another, even so-called literary novels. Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections is a dysfunctional-family novel, for example. I read many types of books, and all I care about is the quality of the writing, the appeal of the story, and the power of the characters. Some authors believe that because they’re writing thrillers, they don’t need to apply standards. That can only lead to inferior work. We should want to write the truest, most exciting, most moving and meaningful novel that we possibly can. The great thrillers do that, which makes them literature.

(This essay originally appeared in Romantic Times magazine, December, 2008. It was reprinted in Many Genres/One Craft: Lessons in Writing Popular Fiction ed. by Michael A. Arnzen and Heidi Ruby Miller, Headline books, Inc., 2011. Both Michael and Heidi are affiliated with Seton Hill University, one of the few American institutions of higher learning to offer an MFA in genre writing. I was a guest lecturer at Seton Hill’s excellent program several times and highly recommend both it and Many Genres/One Craft. You’ll find other suggestions about writing in my book, The Successful Novelist.)