Last week’s Writers’ League of Texas Agents and Editors Conference was an eye opener for me. I mostly attend science fiction conferences, and they perform a quite different function from a general writers conference. Cons are for fans and authors to meet and mingle, share their love for the genre, and meet on the same level. Writers conferences are learning experiences, and you don’t have to be a newbie to get plenty out of them.

I blogged last week about what you do have control over in this crazy business, based on author and editor Chuck Sambuchino’s excellent keynote address. You can read that post here.

I also had the good fortune to go to agent Sarah Davies’ (Greenhouse Literary) panel on writing thrillers, whether for YA or for adults.

How to Write a Thriller

You need:

  • A sympathetic character
  • A hook
  • A fast-paced, high-stakes plot
  • No pantsing! Plot out everything in advance and work backward from the ending
  • Puzzles, red herrings, and setbacks
  • A strong sense of place
  • Emotional heft
  • An instigating event that happens before page 25
  • Cliffhanger chapter endings

Easy, right? Well, not really (but we knew that). As Davies said, thrillers need a character who readers can love (she says her husband has a bit of a man crush on Jack Reacher), but who is also flawed. Perfection is boring; we are drawn to characters whose lives are messy, and whose messes get them into trouble. Hence the plot, since plot is driven by character.

Give the hero a past and it impacts the present, especially with a shocker out of the past. Davies also quoted Stephen King: “I create sympathy for my characters and then turn the monsters loose.”

All novels have an aspect of the thriller in them. We readers are drawn to finding out what happens next, and even so-called “literary” novels are constructed to keep us turning the pages. (I think the days of the abstruse literary novel are over, but I could be wrong about that). Thrillers meet our need for knowing the end of the story, and there’s nothing cheap or easy about that.







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